How much do you know about the Samoan alphabet?
My New Zealand-born friend once challenged her many siblings to recite the Samoan alphabet, and even though they’re Samoan, even though they grew up with Samoan speaking parents, even though they understand our language pretty well and can speak it casually, most of them struggled to string our alphabet together. A few didn’t even know how to start.
It makes sense, though. Unless we’re making an effort to learn our language, it’s not often that we have to deal with the Samoan alphabet.
Knowing some things about our alphabet, though, can help us begin to understand how our language was recorded back in the day (thank you to the missionaries who thought to document the way us Samoans talked) .
It can help us to appreciate the thinking that went into how our language is pieced together.
Here are five things you probably didn’t know about the Samoan alphabet.
1. The Samoan Alphabet
If you’re new to the Samoan language, it’s very likely that you won’t even know the Samoan alphabet.
Let’s make sure you can recite all our letters in the correct order:
A E I O U F G L M N P S T V H K R
(Follow along with the audio to check your pronunciation.)
2. The Samoan name for our alphabet
The second thing you might not know about the Samoan alphabet is what we call it in Samoan.
In Samoan, our alphabet is called Le Pi. …and…that’s it.
But we often add a word to further describe our alphabet. For example, we like to say Le Pi Samoa, because it’s the Samoan alphabet.
Le Pi Muamua is the name of this an alphabet book for children. It means ‘the first alphabet’.
Or sometimes, we call it Le Pi Faitau. Faitau means read, so it’s the reading alphabet.
But back in the old Samoan days, every village school classroom had a long fabric banner hanging on the wall with our alphabet on it. This makeshift poster would always feature our alphabet letters, and then the same words matched to those letters… “A” was always for ‘ato, “E” was always for ‘elefane, “I” was always for ‘ipu, “O” was always for ‘ofu and so on.
These classroom banners were called Le Pi Tautau…where tautau means ‘to hang’ or ‘hanging’. Get it?
These days, you might notice that the Samoan alphabet is still most often referred to as Le Pi Tautau.
3. We borrowed letters
Another thing you might not know about the Samoan alphabet is that we borrowed 3 letters from other languages.
We used to only have 14 letters in our alphabet: A E I O U F G L M N P S T V …and then we needed to say strange new words like King Herod (herota), and cricket (kirikiti), and rabbit (rapiti)… so we were like… give me He, Ka and Ro then!
Ia gale, now we have 17 letters.
But wait. There’s more!
4. Our 18th Letter
The fourth thing you might not know about the Samoan alphabet is that we have a secret letter.
Okay it’s not really that this letter is a secret. It’s more that we don’t really recognize it as a letter anymore, but we definitely used to!
It is mentioned in our old grammar books, and if you look at the Hawaiian alphabet, you might be able to guess what letter we’re talking about.
Our secret letter is the glottal stop – that sound that is marked by an apostrophe next to vowels in many of our words. For example, ‘ipu has a glottal stop at the beginning, and fa’amolemole has a glottal stop between the first two a’s.
The Hawaiian alphabet calls this letter ‘okina’ … we just call it ‘ugh’ lol.
If it was still widely recognized in Le Pi Samoa, our alphabet would read like this:
A E I O U F G L M N P S T V ‘ H K R
(Check the audio for pronunciation.)
5. It’s not great for language learning
Finally, what you might not know about the Samoan alphabet is that… learning it is fun, but it’s probably NOT going to help beginners to speak our language.
If you think about it, when we’re trying to teach our babies to talk, we don’t start by giving them the alphabet. In fact, they don’t learn their ABCs until well after they’re already speaking pretty well.
When we’re learning a new language sometimes we think we should start with the alphabet – and that’s not a bad idea.
But it’s better to spend that time learning useful phrases that will help you begin speaking with native Samoan speakers as soon as possible.