Tongan Language Week ran from the first until the seventh of this month and was marked by several interesting events, including the opening of a retrospective exhibition by Filipe Tohi, retrofuturist sculptor and tireless kava bowl raconteur, at the Mangere Arts Centre, and the singing of a Tongan version of Niu Sila's national anthem,
I missed all of the week's events, and that is perhaps appropriate, because I am the world's worst student of Tongan.
Instead of using the year I recently spent in the Friendly Islands to nail the grammar and syntax of the language, I relied upon the superb English skills of Nuku'alofans, including my students at the 'Atenisi Institute. When I made visits to villages distant from Tonga's bilingual capital city, I abused the pity of colleagues and friends like Taniela Vao, 'Opeti Taliai, and Lose Helu, by letting them translate for me. (Sorry, folks: if I make it back to the kingdom in 2015 then I pledge to do a lot better.)
Although I can't put together a Tongan sentence, I love to learn, pronounce, and listen to individual words, in the same way that a child loves to peel pretty shells off a beach and hold them to an ear.
These are my seven favourite Tongan words.
Kisikisi, meaning helicopter
I learned this word after my son became preoccupied with a small plastic chopper he had bought from one of the two pa'anga shops Chinese immigrants have opened in Nuku'alofa. Until I discovered that 'kisikisi' also meant 'dragonfly' I wondered whether the word was onomatopoetic.
Peka, meaning flying fox
A short word that is somehow able to contain the long, slow dive of a pair of outstretched black wings from an ironwood tree through a dusk sky.
Va va vaka
, meaning spaceship
A couple of six year-olds taught me this word - I'm going to count it as a single word - as we took time out from a late night game of touch rugby, stood on the swampy edge of the 'Atenisi campus, looked up, and tried to differentiate the breathless twinkling of stars, the slow red pulse of Mars, and the stolid glow of satellites. I hope this really is the Tongan word of spaceship, and those kids weren't fooling me. It wouldn't have been the first time.
Mongamonga, meaning cockroach
The enormous, almost fearless roaches of the Friendly Islands make their Kiwi relations look like feeble, underfed things that deserve nurturing rather than crushing. I was fascinated by the contrast between the soft, gorgeous sound 'mongmonga' makes and the awful creature it denotes.
Fakapikopiko, meaning idleness
Another contradiction between sound and sense. Despite the word's meaning it feels, to me at least, violently busy. When I pronounce it, I feel plosives popping in my mouth, and send those short vowels flying like watermelon pips.
Heliaki, meaning double or hidden meaning
Heliaki is a word used to describe, or perhaps merely gesture towards, the ambiguities that inhabit many Tongan songs, poems, and orations. A metaphor or slogan that might seem straightforward can become, under the terms of heliaki, mysterious or unstable. In her great essay 'Wry Comment from the Outback: songs of protest from the Niua Islands'
, Wendy Pond showed how the apparently reverential songs and poems that greeted Tonga's king when he visited the distant northern part of his domain concealed, thanks to the magic of heliaki, satire and invective.
Aloo! meaning go away!
This invaluable word was a refrain during my many conversations with Nuku'alofa's dogs.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]