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The Rapa Nui language (also Rapanui) is an Eastern Polynesian language spoken by the Rapanui, the inhabitants of Easter Island.


The Rapanui language has ten consonants:

Labial Alveolar Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Plosive p t k ʔ
v ɾ h

Five vowels:

/a e i o u/

Rapanui is sometimes transcribed with long vowels; however, it is not clear that these are distinct from double vowels. Similarly with diphthongs: All vowel sequences are found. There are no final consonants in Rapanui. Syllables are restricted to the form vowel and consonant-vowel.

Rapa Nui language from pre-contact to the 20th century[]


The Rapa Nui language forms its own subgroup within that classification: this means that Rapa Nui is a language isolated within Eastern Polynesian, with all other Eastern Polynesian languages forming Central Eastern Polynesian i.e. (the Marquesic languages, Rapan and the Tahitic languages). Within Eastern Polynesian, it is closest to Marquesan morphologically, although its phonology has more in common with that of New Zealand Māori as both languages are relatively conservative in retaining consonants lost in other Eastern Polynesian languages. Like all Polynesian languages, Rapa Nui has relatively few consonants. Uniquely for an Eastern Polynesian language, Rapa Nui has preserved the original glottal stop of Proto-Polynesian. It is a VSO language. Specific Rapa Nui features also include the change of use of anaphoric 'ai' to being a post verbal marker as well as the non-usage of any transitive suffixes, thus making it an ergative language and unlike any other Eastern Polynesian language which are accusative. The most important recent book written about the language of Rapa Nui is Verónica du Feu's Rapanui (Descriptive Grammar) (ISBN 0-415-00011-4). Very little is known about the Rapa Nui language in pre-contact European times. This is because there is no written documentation that demonstrates the phonology (sound system), morphology (word building system), syntax (how sentences are generated) or semantics (what words mean to native speakers). Through comparative linguistics however linguists are able to make confident assertions as to how the language may have sounded by comparing grammatical features found in Rapa Nui today to that of other Polynesian languages. They are also able to compare Rapa Nui vocabulary with that of other Polynesian languages to reconstruct Proto–Rapa Nui vocabulary. For example, the Rapa Nui word for 'to speak' kōrero is found in New Zealand Māori (kōrero), Cook Islands Māori and Hawaiian ('ōlelo) thus we are able to assert that in Proto-Rapa Nui and most likely in Proto–Eastern Polynesian, that the word for 'to talk' was *kōrero. However, since there is no written documentation verifying this an asterisk is placed before any reconstructed item to show that it is unattested. The majority of Rapa Nui vocabulary is inherited directly from Proto–Eastern Polynesian. There some changes in semantics and some uniquely Rapa Nui words but the majority of the vocabulary has cognates elsewhere in Polynesia. This is not the result of borrowing but of genuine inheritance. Of course due to extensive borrowing from Tahitian there now exist two forms for what is the same word in the Proto language. For example, Rapa Nui has 'ite (Tahitian—'to know') and tike'a for 'to see' which in Proto-Eastern Polynesian *kiteqa. The *t and *k in the Rapa Nui form has undergone metathesis while in Tahitian the *k has changed to glottal stop. The final syllable in Tahitian has been lost. There are also hybridized forms of words e.g. haka'ite 'to teach' from haka (causative suffix—inherited from Proto–Polynesian *faka) and 'ite (to know—borrowed from Tahitian). One of the more speculative theories by the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl suggests that there were two different languages spoken on the island, slowly merging.[1]

Language notes from 1770[]

According to the Spanish notes from their 1770 visit to the island, of the 94 recorded words and terms many were Polynesian, but several seemed to be of unrecognizable language.[1] The Spanish also recorded the numbers from one to ten which seemingly have no relation to any known language (contemporary Rapa Nui words in parenthesis):

  1. cojàna (katahi)
  2. corena (karua)
  3. cogojù (katoru)
  4. quirote (kaha)
  5. majanà (karima)
  6. teùto (kaono)
  7. tejèa (kahitu)
  8. moroqui (kavau)
  9. vijoviri (kaiva)
  10. queromata-paùpaca quacaxixiva (kaangaahuru)

According to some research, the list is a misunderstanding, and the words are not related to numbers at all. It is speculated that the Spanish showed the western numerals to the islanders who did not understand their true meaning, but likened them to some other abstractions. For example, the "moroqui" for number eight (8) would have actually been "moroki", a small fish that is used as a bait, since "8" can look like a simple drawing of a fish.[2] This initial contact with writing could have resulted in invention of the Rongorongo script.[3]

Language notes from 1774[]

Captain James Cook visited the island four years later, and had a Tahitian interpreter with him, who, while recognizing some Polynesian words (up to 17 were written down), was not able to converse with the islanders in general. The British also attempted to record the numerals and were able to record the correct Polynesian words.[1]

Post-Peruvian enslavement[]

Rapa Nui came under extensive outside influences in the aftermath of the Peruvian slave deportations in the 1860s from neighbouring Polynesian languages such as Tahitian. While the majority of the population that was taken to work as slaves in the Peruvian mines died of diseases and bad treatment in the 1860s, hundreds of other Easter Islanders who left for Mangareva in the 1870s and 1880s to work as servants or labourers, adopted the local form of Tahitian-Pidgin. Fischer argues that this pidgin became the basis for the modern Rapa Nui language when the surviving part of the Rapa Nui immigrants on Mangareva returned to their almost deserted home island.[2]

Language notes from 1886[]

William J. Thomson, paymaster on the USS Mohican, spent twelve days on Easter Island from 1886 19 December to 30 December. Among the data Thomson collected was the Rapa Nui calendar.

Language notes from the 20th century[]

Father Sebastian Englert,[4] a German missionary living on Easter Island during 1935-1969, published a partial Rapa Nui-Spanish dictionary in his La Tierra de Hotu Matu’a in 1948, trying to save what was left of the old language. Despite the many typographical mistakes, the dictionary is valuable, because it provides a wealth of examples which all appear drawn from a real corpus, part oral traditions and legends, part actual conversations.[5]

Englert recorded vowel length, stress, and glottal stop, but was not always consistent, or perhaps the misprints make it seem so. He indicated vowel length with a circumflex, and stress with an acute accent, but only when it does not occur where expected. The glottal stop /ʔ/ is written as an apostrophe, as it is today, but is often omitted. The velar nasal /ŋ/ (now "ng") is sometimes transcribed with a "g", but sometimes with a Greek eta, "η", as a graphic approximation of "ŋ".


It is assumed that rongorongo, the undeciphered script of Easter Island, is written in the old Rapa Nui language.[6]


  1. 1,0 1,1 1,2 Heyerdahl, Thor. Easter Island - The Mystery Solved. Random House New York 1989.
  2. See Revista Española del Pacífico. Asociación Española de Estudios del Pacífico (A.E.E.P.). N.º3. Año III. Enero-Diciembre 1993. See also online version.
  3. See Fischer.
  4. Online biography of Sebastian Englert as hosted by Minnesota State University.
  5. Englert's online dictionary with Spanish translated to English.
  6. Rongorongo connections to Rapa Nui.

External links[]

Plantilla:Languages of Chile

de:Rapanui (Sprache) es:Idioma rapanui fr:Rapanui ko:라파누이어 id:Bahasa Rapa Nui kw:Rapa Nui (yeth) lv:Rapanujiešu valoda ja:ラパ・ヌイ語 no:Rapanui pl:Język rapanui pt:Língua rapanui ru:Рапануйский язык fi:Rapanuin kieli