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Number of Speakers: About 260,000

Key Dialects: See below

Geographical Center: Western Samoa

Samoan is spoken by approximately 200,000 people on the island of Western Samoa, situated in the Eastern Pacific. Another large community of speakers of Samoan is to be found in American Samoa, not far from Western Samoa. There are smaller communities of speakers of Samoan in Fiji, New Zealand, Tonga and the US (Ethnologue).

Samoan belongs to the Austronesian language family. The Austronesian language family includes a very large number of languages, being one of the largest linguistic families of the world.

The genetic relationship of these languages was noticed as early as the 19th century, but their classification into groups proved to be a difficult task. Since the beginning of the study of the Austronesian languages, several schemes of their classification have been proposed.

According to one scheme, Samoan is to be classified in the following way: Samoan < Western < Polynesian < Malayo-Polynesian < Austronesian (cf. Campbell 2000). Other Polynesian language groups would be the Eastern Polynesian languages (Hawaiian, Maori, Rapanui [the language of the Easter Island], etc.) and the so-caled “outliers” (the languages of Melanesia).

According to the classification presented in the Ethnologue database, the classification of Samoan is as follows: Samoan < Samoic-Outlier < Nuclear < Polynesian < East Fijian-Polynesian < Central Pacific < Remote Oceanic < Central-Eastern Oceanic < Oceanic < Eastern Malayo-Polynesian < Central-Eastern < Malayo-Polynesian < Austronesian (

Belikov proposes a following classification: Samoan < Samoic-Outlier < Core-Polynesian < Polynesian < Oceanic < Austronesian (Belikov 1998).

According to the most widespread classification of Austronesian languages, offered by Blust, Austronesian languages should be divided into two major sub-families, Formosan (Taiwanese) on the one hand, and Malayo-Polynesian on the other hand. Either of these two groups is further subdivided into groups. The Formosan sub-family consists of three large groups: Akayalic, Paiwanic and Tsouic. The Malayo-Polynesian sub-family is further divided into Western and Central-Eastern groups. The Central-Eastern group splits into the Central and the Eastern languages, the latter being further divided into South Halmahera-West New Guinea on the one hand, and Oceanic on the other hand. According to Blust’s scheme, Samoan would belong to the Oceanic branch of the Austronesian families. Related languages include Futuna (Futunic), Pukapuka, Tokelauan (the article based on Arakin 1973; Belikov 1998a, 1998b; Belikov/Sirk/Xelimskij 1998; Campbell 2000; Clark 2003; Phillips 1994; Ethnologue,

The dialectal differences among the speakers of Samoan are insignificant, but there are significant differences among the Samoan sociolects, e.g. the language of the chief vs. that of the tribesmen of a lower rank.

Samoan uses Latin script, introduced in 1834 by Christian missionaries. The sound system of Samoan is very simple, and only a handful of Latin letters are being used. The Samoan alphabet consists of the following letters, cf. a, e, i, o, u, f, g [ŋ], l, m, n, p, s, t, v. The letters k, h and r occur only in loanwords, and are not included in the alphabet.

Literary Samoan has 13 consonants and 10 vowels. Some scholars also claim that Samoan has diphthongs, but the common opinion is that they are clusters of the type “vowel + glide”, or “glide + vowel”.

The consonant system of colloquial Samoan is slightly different from the literary language. In colloquial Samoan, [t] and [k] merge into [k], whereas [n] and [?] merge into [?]. The consonant s, being the only sibilant of the Samoan language, is pronounced as a post-alveolar [s], i.e. it occupies the intermediate position between the dentialveolar [s] and the alveolo-palatal. Most vowels have the opposition “long vs. short”, but the vowel [?] is always short. The stress usually falls on the penultimate syllable, but if a word ends in a “diphthong”, the final syllable gets the stress.

The morphological system of Polynesian languages is rather different from that of the European languages, and the attempt to squeeze the grammar of Samoan into the morphological frame of European languages can lead to misinterpretation of facts. Samoan parts of speech cannot be classified into strict morphological or semantic categories in the way this may be done with European languages, as in Samoan words easily fluctuate between the different morphological-semantic groups, making the whole system look “unstable” from the point of view of languages like German, Lithuanian, French, Russian, etc. This also refers to Samoan “articles”, “prepositions”, “prefixes”, etc. (see below). In this article, conventional grammatical terms, such as “noun”, “article”, etc., will be used, but is has to be borne in mind that these terms are not used in the same strict sense that they have in the discussion of European languages.

Samoan nouns (or “nominals”, adopting the terminology of Arakin 1973) can be classified in two ways: semantic, i.e. depending on their meaning, or morphological, i.e. depending on their structure. From the morphological point of view, Samoan nouns can have these different structures: simple (mono-morphic), e.g. gutu ‘mouth’; “affixed”, e.g. tautai ‘sailor’ (< tau- + tai ‘sea’), aiga ‘family’ (< ai ‘to live together’ + -ga); compound, e.g. faleoloa ‘shop’ (< fale ‘house’ + oloa ‘merchandise’), lalolagi ‘world’ (< lalo ‘beneath’ + lagi ‘sky’), va’aifetu ‘astronomer’ (< va’ai ‘to watch’ + fetu ‘star’); reduplicated, e.g. paopao ‘boat’. A large class of nouns belong to the mixed class. The nouns of this class emply affixes and composition, e.g. fa’amatala’upu ‘interpreter, translator’ (< fa’a matala ‘to explain’ + ’upu ‘word’). Plurality is not expressed in Samoan, but several nouns have special “plural” forms, different from “singular”, e.g., tamaloa ‘man’ – tamaloloa ‘men’, taule’ale’a ‘youth’ – taulele’a ‘youths’.

Samoan has the category of definiteness. Definite nouns take no marker in plural, whereas non-definite nouns take the marker ni, cf. ’o fale ‘the houses’ vs. ’o ni fale ‘houses’ (the function of the particle ’o in Samoan is still debated, but it is sometimes claimed to be a quasi-emphatic particle). In singular, the definite nouns take the “article” le, e.g. ’o le fale ‘the house’, whereas the non-definite nouns take se, e.g. ’o se fale ‘a house’.

Samoan verbs (called “predicatives” in Arakin 1973) can be classified into groups similarly to nouns. Samoan verbs also form a large number of semantic groups, and can also be separated into several morphological classes: mono-morphic, e.g. tusi ‘to write’; “prefixed”, e.g. fa’a toaga ‘to ask’; compound, e.g. vae-vae ‘to do’; compound “prefixed”, e.g. fa’a moe-moe ‘to hope’; compound with a reduplicating syllable, e.g. fu-fulu ‘to wash’, su-sunu ‘to burn’. Verbs have the categories of tense and aspect, which are closely related. Past tense is also perfective, whereas non-past is imperfective. Samoan has a system of honorifics, cf. tautala ‘to speak’ (neutral) – felalai ‘id.’ (somewhat formal) – fofoga ‘id.’ (used of a chief of a lower rank) – malele ‘id.’ (used of a chief of a high rank).

The syntactic relationship between words is expressed via word order or use of various particles. The usual word order in Samoan is VSO.

Samoan has a large number of loanwords. A small part of them come from other Oceanic languages, French and German. The largest part of loanwords entered Samoan from English. Because of the phonotactic and phonological differences between Samoan and English, the words borrowed often acquire a seemingly very different shape from the source word, cf. laisene < E. license, niusipepa < newspaper, uati < watch, sisi < cheese, nila < needle, pasi < bus, pulumu < broom, etc. (The article based on Arakin 1973, Belikov 1998a, Campbell 2000).

Samoan is the official language in Western Samoa, but English is widely used, too. In American Samoa, Samoan shares the status of the official language together with English. There are several newspapers in Samoa, published in Samoan and English. There is one university (Western Samoa), and several colleges in Samoa.

The history of the Samoan people and their language is not clear. It is believed that the ancestors of Samoans and other Oceanic peoples arrived from southeastern Asia at least 3000 years ago.

The earliest finds refering to human activity in Samoa date back to ca. 1000 BC. It is not known with certainty whether the first inhabitants of Samoa were proto-Samoans, but it is generally assumed that it was so, because there are no facts that would contradict this assumption.

The first encounter of Samoans with Europeans took place in 1722, when the islands were discovered by the Dutch explorer Jakob Roggeveen. From the end of the 19th century for several decades Samoa was ruled by Germany and the US. For a short period also the UK had some political influence in Samoa, but in 1899 the UK withdrew from Samoa, yielding its rights to Germany. Between 1947 and 1962 Samoa was under administration of New Zealand, and in 1962 it became an independent state.

Arakin, V. D. 1973. “Samoanskij jazyk”. Izdatel’stvo “Nauka”, Moskva.

Belikov, V. I. 1998a. “Samoa”. In: Jarceva, V. N. (Editor-in-Chief). “Jazykoznanije. Bol’šoj enciklopedičeskij slovar’”. Naučnoje izdatel’stvo “Bol’šaja russkaja enciklopedija”. 1-oje izdanije 1990. Moskva. P. 431.

Belikov, V. I. 1998b. “Polinezijskije jazyki”. In: Jarceva, V. N. (Editor-in-Chief). “Jazykoznanije. Bol’šoj enciklopedičeskij slovar’”. Naučnoje izdatel’stvo “Bol’šaja russkaja enciklopedija”. 1-oje izdanije 1990. Moskva. P. 381 – 2.

Belikov, V. I.; Sirk, Y. X.; Xelimskij, E. A. 1998. “Avstronezijskije jazyki”. In: Jarceva, V. N. (Editor-in-Chief). “Jazykoznanije. Bol’šoj enciklopedičeskij slovar’”. Naučnoje izdatel’stvo “Bol’šaja russkaja enciklopedija”. 1-oje izdanije 1990. Moskva. P. 13 – 14.

Campbell, G. L. 2000. “Compendium of the World's Languages”. Vol. 2. Ladakhi to Zuni. Second edition. First published 1991. Routledge, London and New York.

Clark, Ross. 2003. “Austronesian Languages”. In: Frawley, William J. (Editor-in-Chief). 2003. “International Encyclopaedia of Linguistics”. Vol. 1. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Pp. 181 – 4

Phillips, N. G. 1994. “Austronesian Languages”. In: Asher, R. E. (Editor-in-Chief). 1994. “The Encyclopedia of Languages and Linguistics”. Vol. 1. Pergamon Press, Oxford – New York – Seoul – Tokyo. Pp. 274 – 6.

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