Cook Island Women
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Cook Island Women

The Cook Islands have 11 dialects, two indigenous languages, and an international language. Two of the dialects are English and nine Maori. British English was introduced in the 1860s whereas New Zealand English was introduced in 1901.

Today Maori “coined” words have captured British sounds like Monite from Monday, tarere from tally, teata from theatre and toa from store.

Maori and Pukapuka are the two indigenous languages and Maori has eight dialects.

The Pukapuka language is spoken only on Pukapuka and Nassau. Both islands are close to Tonga, Samoa, and Niue geographically and also linguistically.

Maori is spoken by the rest of the islands. It is also spoken on neighbouring French Polynesia, Easter Island and New Zealand. Both French Polynesia and Easter Island are east and south east of the country. New Zealand is south.

English and Maori are the national languages. The older generation are bilingual while the younger generation on the main island of Rarotonga unfortunately speak little Maori today.

The reverse is also true of the younger generations in the outer islands. Maori is taught in the school curriculum. The exception is Palmerston where an English dialect has developed and is the mother tongue.

Maori is taught in the primary schools and at Auckland University New Zealand as part of a degree programme. It was also taught at Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand until the mid 1990s.

Austronesia – the mother language

Cook Islands languages are derived from Austronesia, the mother language of all pacific languages. It was spoken 6,000 years ago from Malaysia to the southern coastal parts of China, Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Maori Dialects

The nine Maori dialects are spoken by three islands in the north and six in the south. Penrhyn Maori is the only one with the “s” sound, as in words like soa or friend and sumaringa or beautiful.

It is the only Maori dialect that shares the “l” sound with the Pukapuka language. Both sounds were probably borrowed from Tuvalu and Pukapuka workers that Penrhyn people mixed with on Fanning Island early last century.


There are five alphabets – two of them taught in the schools and the rest informally. Three are based on the Maori language, and one each from Pukapuka and English.  They vary in their numbers and letters from 13 to 19.

The oldest alphabet is the 13 letter alphabet introduced by the missionaries in the 1820s. It captures the sounds of the southern group. In addition are two signs called the hamsah or glottal stop and the macron represented by a line. Both signs are applied before or on top of a vowel to affect the intended meaning of a word.

This is one interesting factor of the Maori language for a word can have more than one meaning. Take for instance the word, ‘ua’, which has four meanings. The positioning of the hamsah and macron on both vowels determines the meaning intended whether, seed, thigh, rain or female animal.

The Manihiki Rakahanga alphabet has 17 letters and is the closest dialect to the Maori language of the New Zealand Maori people. Penrhyn has 18 letters while Pukapuka and Nassau share 19.

Grammatical structure

English has one plural whereas the Cook Islands languages have two.  Thus the word, we, in English would be incomplete in meaning for the Maori because it does not tell the listener whether two or more people are involved.

This is important in Maori and Pukapuka which have words that are more precise in meaning.  In addition Maori and Pukapuka begin with a verb and end with a noun while English does the complete opposite.

The Cook Islands is the only place on earth where the country’s greeting means “may you live long.” Kia Orana.

You will hear many times during your stay. It is wonderful reminder that in a somewhat chaotic world, there is a place whose people you meet for the first time wish you only the very best.

Some Maori Words

Kia Orana (kee-ah-oh-rah-nah) : Hello

Pe’ea koe (peh-eh-ah koh-ay): How are you?

Meitaki (mey-tah-kee) : Well, good or thank-you

Ae (aye) : Yes

Kare (kah-reh) : No