The Samoan Alphabet is called le pi Samoa, or le pi faitau (faitau means ‘read’). Back in the day, classrooms for Samoan children always featured a beautifully illustrated, usually tall poster of the alphabet, almost always with the same word associated with each letter: A = ‘ato, E = elefane, I = ‘ipu, etc. Because these posters were so prominently hung on the wall, they were known as pi tautau, where tautau means ‘hanging’. These days, we sometimes just refer to our alphabet in general as le pi tautau.
The Samoan Alphabet has 17 letters, 3 of which are borrowed from English (and other related languages). We borrow those letters along with the words they belong to when we don’t have actual Samoan words for things. For example, we borrowed the word rapiti (and ‘Samoanized’ it) for ‘rabbit’, and then borrowed the letter R as well.
Thank you, English.
The letters in the Samoan Alphabet are:
A E I O U F G L M N P S T V H K R
…where H K and R are borrowed.
The Other Samoan Letter
The glottal stop, represented by an inverted comma or an apostrophe mark (this thing –> ‘ ) is technically another letter in the Samoan language. It represents a ‘stopping’ sort of sound that precedes a vowel, for example in the word ‘ato or fa’alogo.
You can hear that sound in English, too, like when we say, ‘Uh oh!’ or when British people omit the t sound in the middle of ‘butter’ and say ‘bu’ah’.
The glottal stop is not often listed as part of the Samoan alphabet anymore but I think it should be. Its sound is so prominent in our language and in a lot of other Pacific languages, too. In fact, it still features in the Hawaiian alphabet as ‘okina’.
If we include the glottal stop, the Samoan Alphabet would read like this:
A E I O U F G L M N P S T V ‘ H K R
O le Pī Samoa
Here’s the Samoan Alphabet as it was / is taught to just about every child in Samoa:
(Just to clarify, ‘ofu means any kind of clothing and Herota refers to King Herod)
Pronouncing Samoan Letters
We’ve included audio plus the phonetic symbols in the chart above for readers of the IPA, but here are some extra tips for pronouncing Samoan letters:
Samoan vowels can either be short or long. Two words that are spelled exactly the same can mean completely different things depending on whether the vowel sound is ‘dragged’ (long) or not. For example: tama with two short [ɑ] sounds means ‘boy’. If you drag the second a, then the word means ‘father’.
Usually, when we write a long vowel sound, we add a macron over the vowel, so it looks like this: tamā…but not everybody’s got time to write things properly, so you kinda have to rely on the context of the sentence. 🙂
As for our consonants, they always represent just one sound. So our S is always going to be ‘s’ (never ‘sh’ or ‘z’) and our M is always going to sound like ‘m’, but some of our consonant sounds are not exactly like the consonants in English.
The Samoan P has a bit of a ‘harder’ sound than the English P, which means it’s a little more voiced, so it sounds somewhere between an English P and B. For example, the Samoan word pese, which means song or sing, is pronounced almost like ‘bese’.
Likewise, the Samoan K is a bit ‘harder’ than the English K. It’s a bit more voiced, so we pronounce it almost like the English G sound. So, the Samoan word for cabbage, kapisi, sounds very similar to ‘gabisi’ (using the English pronunciations of these italicised letters).
The Samoan T, however, stays nice and light, almost with a soft, subtle ‘s’ sound right after the T.
Our consonant that really doesn’t sound like it looks like it should is G. The Samoan G is pronounced like the ‘ng’ in the middle of ‘hanger’ or ‘singer’.
Pronouncing Samoan Words
We’ll talk more about this in other lessons, but just so you know… Samoan words never put two consonants together, so you’ll never see a word like ’empty’ with ‘mpt’ all squished together in the middle.
We prefer [consonant] [vowel] [consonant] [vowel] words, or [consonant] [vowel] [vowel] [vowel] etc. words… and ALL our words end with vowels!
For English speakers, the Samoan words with a bunch of vowels strung together are probably the most challenging to pronounce. For example: fa’aea means ‘to exalt’. That’s one consonant with four vowels in a row.
Fa’aeaiina is a variation of that word. How do you think it’s pronounced?