Rapa Nui language
Rapa Nui ˈɾapa ˈnu.i, also known as Pascuan ˈpæskjuːən or Pascuense, is an Eastern Polynesian language
Eastern Polynesian languages
The dozen Eastern Polynesian languages are found on Pacific Islands from Hawaii in the north, to New Zealand in the southwest, to Easter Island in the southeast...

 spoken on the island of Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island.

The island is home to a population of just under 4000 and is a special territory of Chile
Chile ,officially the Republic of Chile , is a country in South America occupying a long, narrow coastal strip between the Andes mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. It borders Peru to the north, Bolivia to the northeast, Argentina to the east, and the Drake Passage in the far...

. According to census data, there are about 3700 people on the island and on the Chilean mainland who identify as ethnically Rapa Nui. Census data does not exist on the primary known and spoken languages among these people and there are recent claims that the number of fluent speakers is as low as 800. Rapa Nui is a minority language and many of its adult speakers also speak Spanish; most Rapa Nui children now grow up speaking Spanish and those who do learn Rapa Nui begin learning later in life.


Labial consonant
Labial consonants are consonants in which one or both lips are the active articulator. This precludes linguolabials, in which the tip of the tongue reaches for the posterior side of the upper lip and which are considered coronals...

Alveolar consonant
Alveolar consonants are articulated with the tongue against or close to the superior alveolar ridge, which is called that because it contains the alveoli of the superior teeth...

Velar consonant
Velars are consonants articulated with the back part of the tongue against the soft palate, the back part of the roof of the mouth, known also as the velum)....

Glottal consonant
Glottal consonants, also called laryngeal consonants, are consonants articulated with the glottis. Many phoneticians consider them, or at least the so-called fricative, to be transitional states of the glottis without a point of articulation as other consonants have; in fact, some do not consider...

Nasal consonant
A nasal consonant is a type of consonant produced with a lowered velum in the mouth, allowing air to escape freely through the nose. Examples of nasal consonants in English are and , in words such as nose and mouth.- Definition :...

m n ŋ
Plosive p t k ʔ
Fricative v h
Tap ɾ


Front vowel
A front vowel is a type of vowel sound used in some spoken languages. The defining characteristic of a front vowel is that the tongue is positioned as far in front as possible in the mouth without creating a constriction that would be classified as a consonant. Front vowels are sometimes also...

Central vowel
A central vowel is a type of vowel sound used in some spoken languages. The defining characteristic of a central vowel is that the tongue is positioned halfway between a front vowel and a back vowel...

Back vowel
A back vowel is a type of vowel sound used in spoken languages. The defining characteristic of a back vowel is that the tongue is positioned as far back as possible in the mouth without creating a constriction that would be classified as a consonant. Back vowels are sometimes also called dark...

High i u
Mid vowel
A mid vowel is a vowel sound used in some spoken languages. The defining characteristic of a mid vowel is that the tongue is positioned mid-way between an open vowel and a close vowel...

e o
Low a

All vowels can be either long or short and are always long when they are stressed in the final position of a word. Most vowel sequences are present, with the exception of *uo. Repetition sequences do not occur except in eee ('yes').


Written Rapa Nui uses the Latin alphabet
Latin alphabet
The Latin alphabet, also called the Roman alphabet, is the most recognized alphabet used in the world today. It evolved from a western variety of the Greek alphabet called the Cumaean alphabet, which was adopted and modified by the Etruscans who ruled early Rome...

. The nasal velar consonant /ŋ/ is generally written with the Latin letter ⟨g⟩, but occasionally as ⟨ng⟩. The glottal plosive /ʔ/ is typically written with an , or frequently with an apostrophe. A special letter, ⟨ġ⟩, is sometimes used to distinguish the Spanish
Spanish language
Spanish , also known as Castilian , is a Romance language in the Ibero-Romance group that evolved from several languages and dialects in central-northern Iberia around the 9th century and gradually spread with the expansion of the Kingdom of Castile into central and southern Iberia during the...

 /ɡ/, occurring in introduced terms, from the Rapa Nui /ŋ/.

Syllable structure

Syllables in Rapa Nui are CV (consonant-vowel) or V (vowel). There are no consonant clusters or word-final consonants.


The reduplication of whole nouns or syllable parts performs a variety of different functions within Rapa Nui. To describe colours for which there is not a predefined word, the noun for an object of a like colour is duplicated to form an adjective. For example:
  • ‘ehu (mist) → ‘ehu ‘ehu = dark grey
  • tea (dawn) → tea tea = white

Besides forming adjectives from nouns, the reduplication of whole words can indicate a multiple or intensified action. For example:
  • hatu (weave) → hatuhatu (fold)
  • kume (undo) → kumekume (take to pieces)
  • ruku (dive) → rukuruku (go diving)

There are some apparent duplicates forms for which the original form has been lost. For example:
  • rohirohi (tired)

The reduplication of the initial syllable in verbs can indicate plurality of subject or object. In this example the bolded section represents the reduplication of a syllable which indicates the plurality of the subject of a transitive verb:
ori (dance):
E ori ro a (he/she/they is/are dancing)
E oori ro a (they are all dancing)

The reduplication of the final two syllables of a verb indicates plurality or intensity. In this example the bolded section represents the reduplication of two final syllables, indicating intensity or emphasis:
Haaki (tell):
Ka haaki (Tell the story)
Ka haakiaki(Tell the whole story)


Rapa Nui incorporates a number of loanwords in which constructions such as consonant clusters or word-final consonants occur, though they do not occur naturally in the language. Historically, the practice was to transliterate unfamiliar consonants, insert vowels between clustered consonant sounds and append word-final vowels where necessary.
eg: Britain (English loanword) → Peretane (Rapa Nui rendering)

More recently, loanwords – which come primarily from Spanish – retain their consonant clusters. For example, "litro" (litre).

Word order

Rapa Nui is a VSO (verb–subject–object) language. Except where verbs of sensing are used, the object of a verb is marked by the relational particle i.
e.g.: He hakahu koe i te rama (the relational particle and object are bolded)
"You light the torch"

Where a verb of sensing is used, the subject is marked by the agentive particle e.
e.g.: He tikea e au te poki (the agentive particle and subject are bolded)
"I can see the child"


Yes/no questions are distinguished from statements chiefly by a particular pattern of intonation. Where there is no expectation of a particular answer, the form remains the same as a statement. A question expecting an agreement is preceded by 'hoki'.


Original rapanui has no conjunctive particles. Copulative, adversative and disjunctive notions are typically communicated by context or clause order. Modern Rapa Nui has almost completely adopted Spanish conjunctions rather than rely on this.


Possession is divided between the alienable and the inalienable
Inalienable possession
In linguistics, inalienable possession refers to the linguistic properties of certain nouns or nominal morphemes based on the fact that they are always possessed. The semantic underpinning is that entities like body parts and relatives do not exist apart from a possessor. For example, a hand...

. The distinction is marked by a possessive particle inserted before the relevant pronoun.
Possessive particles:
  • a (alienable)
  • o (inalienable)

There are no markers to distinguish between temporary or permanent possession; the nature of objects possessed; or between past, present or future possession.


Ko and ka are exclamatory indicators.
Ko suggests a personal reaction:
Ko te aroha (Poor thing!)
Ka suggests judgement on external events:
Ka haakiaki (Tell the whole story!)

Compound words

Terms which did not exist in original Rapa Nui were created via compounding:
patia ika = (‘spear fish’) = harpoon
patia kai = (‘spear food’) = fork
kiri vae = (‘skin foot’) = shoe
manu patia =(‘bird spear’) = wasp
pepe hoi = (‘stool horse’) = saddle
pepe noho =(‘stool stay’) = chair


There is a system for the numerals 1–10 in both Rapa Nui and Tahitian, both of which are used, though all numbers higher than ten are expressed in Tahitian. When counting, all numerals whether Tahitian or Rapanui are preceded by 'ka'. This is not used, however, when using a number in a sentence.
Rapa Nui Numerals 1-10: tahi rua toru ha rima ono hitu va’u/varu iva aŋahuru


The Rapa Nui language is isolated within Eastern Polynesian, which also includes the Marquesic
Marquesic languages
Marquesic languages are a small but historically important subgroup of Central Eastern Polynesian languages:# Marquesan languages of the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia...

 and Tahitic languages
Tahitic languages
The Tahitic languages are a group of Eastern Polynesian languages in the Central Eastern branch. ....

. Within Eastern Polynesian, it is closest to Marquesan morphologically, although its phonology has more in common with New Zealand Māori
Maori language
Māori or te reo Māori , commonly te reo , is the language of the indigenous population of New Zealand, the Māori. It has the status of an official language in New Zealand...

, as both languages are relatively conservative in retaining consonants lost in other Eastern Polynesian languages.

Like all Polynesian languages, Rapa Nui has relatively few consonants. Uniquely for an Eastern Polynesian language, Rapa Nui has preserved the original glottal stop
Glottal stop
The glottal stop, or more fully, the voiceless glottal plosive, is a type of consonantal sound used in many spoken languages. In English, the feature is represented, for example, by the hyphen in uh-oh! and by the apostrophe or [[ʻokina]] in Hawaii among those using a preservative pronunciation of...

 of Proto-Polynesian. It is, or until recently was, a verb-initial language. Specific Rapa Nui features also include the change of use of anaphoric ai to being a post verbal marker as well as the non-usage of any transitive
Transitivity (grammatical category)
In linguistics, transitivity is a property of verbs that relates to whether a verb can take direct objects and how many such objects a verb can take...

 suffixes, thus making it an ergative language and unlike any other Eastern Polynesian language which are accusative.

The most important recent book written about the language of Rapa Nui is Verónica du Feu's Rapanui (Descriptive Grammar) (ISBN 0-415-00011-4).

Very little is known about the Rapa Nui language prior to European contact. The majority of Rapa Nui vocabulary is inherited directly from Proto–Eastern Polynesian. Due to extensive borrowing from Tahitian there now often exist two forms for what was the same word in the early language. For example, Rapa Nui has Tahitian ‘ite alongside original tike‘a for 'to see', both derived from Proto-Eastern Polynesian *kite‘a. There are also hybridized forms of words such as haka‘ite 'to teach', from native haka (causative suffix) and Tahitian ‘ite.

Language notes from 1770

Spanish notes from a 1770 visit to the island record 94 words and terms. Many are clearly Polynesian, but several are not easily recognizable. For example, the numbers from one to ten seemingly have no relation to any known language. They are, with contemporary Rapa Nui words in parenthesis:
  1. cojàna (katahi)
  2. corena (karua)
  3. cogojù (katoru)
  4. quirote (kaha)
  5. majanà (karima)
  6. teùto (kaono)
  7. tejèa (kahitu)
  8. moroqui (kavau)
  9. vijoviri (kaiva)
  10. queromata-paùpaca quacaxixiva (kaangaahuru)

It may be that the list is a misunderstanding, and the words not related to numbers at all. The Spanish may have shown Arabic numerals to the islanders who did not understand their meaning, and likened them to some other abstraction. For example, the "moroqui" for number eight (8) would have actually been "moroki", a small fish that is used as a bait, since "8" can look like a simple drawing of a fish.

Language notes from 1774

Captain James Cook visited the island four years later, and had a Tahiti
Tahiti is the largest island in the Windward group of French Polynesia, located in the archipelago of the Society Islands in the southern Pacific Ocean. It is the economic, cultural and political centre of French Polynesia. The island was formed from volcanic activity and is high and mountainous...

an interpreter with him, who, while recognizing some Polynesian words (up to 17 were written down), was not able to converse with the islanders in general. The British also attempted to record the numerals and were able to record the correct Polynesian words.

Post-Peruvian enslavement

In the 1860s the Peruvian slave raids began. It was at this time that Peruvians were experiencing labor shortages and they came to regard the Pacific as a vast source of free labor. Slavers raided islands as far away as Micronesia. But Easter Island was much closer and became a prime target.

In December of 1862 eight Peruvian ships landed their crewmen and between bribery and outright violence they captured some 1000 Easter Islanders, including the king, his son, and the ritual priests (one of the reasons for so many gaps in our knowledge of the ancient ways).It has been estimated that a total of 2000 Easter Islanders were captured over a period of years. Those who survived to arrive in Peru were poorly treated, overworked, and exposed to diseases. Ninety percent of the Rapa Nui died within one or two years of capture.

Eventually the Bishop of Tahiti caused a public outcry and an embarrassed Peru rounded up the few survivors to return them. A shipload headed to Easter Island, but smallpox broke out en route and only 15 arrived to the island. They were put ashore. The resulting smallpox epidemic nearly wiped out the remaining population.

Rapa Nui came under extensive outside influences in the aftermath of the Peruvian slave deportations in the 1860s from neighbouring Polynesian languages such as Tahitian. While the majority of the population that was taken to work as slaves in the Peruvian mines died of diseases and bad treatment in the 1860s, hundreds of other Easter Islanders who left for Mangareva
Mangareva is the central and most important island of the Gambier Islands in French Polynesia. It is surrounded by smaller islands: Taravai in the southwest, Aukena and Akamaru in the southeast, and islands in the north...

 in the 1870s and 1880s to work as servants or labourers, adopted the local form of Tahitian-Pidgin. Fischer argues that this pidgin became the basis for the modern Rapa Nui language when the surviving part of the Rapa Nui immigrants on Mangareva returned to their almost deserted home island.

Language notes from 1886

William J. Thomson, paymaster on the USS Mohican
USS Mohican (1883)
The second USS Mohican was a steam sloop of war in the United States Navy. She was named for the Mohican tribe.-Construction:Mohican was laid down by Mare Island Navy Yard, California, 4 September 1872, funded with the repair money allocated for the first ; launched 27 December 1883; sponsored by...

, spent twelve days on Easter Island from 19 to 30 December 1886. Among the data Thomson collected was the Rapa Nui calendar
Rapa Nui calendar
The Rapa Nui calendar was the indigenous lunisolar calendar of Easter Island. It is now obsolete.-Attestation:William J. Thomson, paymaster on the USS Mohican, spent twelve days on Easter Island from December 19 to 30, 1886...


Language notes from the twentieth century

Father Sebastian Englert
Sebastian Englert
Father Sebastian Englert OFM Cap., was a Capuchin Franciscan friar, Roman Catholic priest, missionary, linguist and ethnologist from Germany....

, a German missionary living on Easter Island during 1935–1969, published a partial Rapa Nui–Spanish dictionary in his La Tierra de Hotu Matu’a in 1948, trying to save what was left of the old language. Despite the many typographical mistakes, the dictionary is valuable, because it provides a wealth of examples which all appear drawn from a real corpus, part oral traditions and legends, part actual conversations.

Englert recorded vowel length
Vowel length
In linguistics, vowel length is the perceived duration of a vowel sound. Often the chroneme, or the "longness", acts like a consonant, and may etymologically be one, such as in Australian English. While not distinctive in most dialects of English, vowel length is an important phonemic factor in...

, stress, and glottal stop, but was not always consistent, or perhaps the misprints make it seem so. He indicated vowel length with a circumflex
The circumflex is a diacritic used in the written forms of many languages, and is also commonly used in various romanization and transcription schemes. It received its English name from Latin circumflexus —a translation of the Greek περισπωμένη...

, and stress with an acute accent
Acute accent
The acute accent is a diacritic used in many modern written languages with alphabets based on the Latin, Cyrillic, and Greek scripts.-Apex:An early precursor of the acute accent was the apex, used in Latin inscriptions to mark long vowels.-Greek:...

, but only when it does not occur where expected. The glottal stop
Glottal stop
The glottal stop, or more fully, the voiceless glottal plosive, is a type of consonantal sound used in many spoken languages. In English, the feature is represented, for example, by the hyphen in uh-oh! and by the apostrophe or [[ʻokina]] in Hawaii among those using a preservative pronunciation of...

 /ʔ/ is written as an apostrophe, as it is today, but is often omitted. The velar nasal
Velar nasal
The velar nasal is the sound of ng in English sing. It is a type of consonantal sound, used in some spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is , and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is N....

 /ŋ/ (now "ng") is sometimes transcribed with a "g", but sometimes with a Greek eta, "η", as a graphic approximation of "ŋ".


It is assumed that rongorongo
Rongorongo is a system of glyphs discovered in the 19th century on Easter Island that appears to be writing or proto-writing. It cannot be read despite numerous attempts at decipherment. Although some calendrical and what might prove to be genealogical information has been identified, not even...

, the undeciphered script of Easter Island, represents the old Rapa Nui language.


The island is under the jurisdiction of Chile and is now home to a number of Chilean continentals most of whom speak only Spanish. The influence of the Spanish language is noticeable in modern Rapa Nui speech. As fewer children learn to speak Rapa Nui at an early age, their superior knowledge of Spanish affects the 'passive knowledge' they have of Rapa Nui. A version of Rapa Nui interspersed with Spanish nouns, verbs and adjectives has become a popular form of casual speech. The most well integrated borrowings are the Spanish conjunctions o (or), pero (but) and y (and). Spanish words such as problema (problem), which was once rendered as poroborema, are now often integrated with minimal or no change.

Spanish words are still often used within Rapa Nui grammatical rules, though some word order changes are occurring and it is argued that Rapa Nui may be undergoing a shift from VSO to the Spanish SVO. This example sentence was recorded first in 1948 and again in 2001 and its expression has changed from VSO to SVO.
'They both suffer and weep"
1948: he ‘aroha, he tatangi ararua
2001: ararua he, ‘aroha he tatangi

External links

The source of this article is wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The text of this article is licensed under the GFDL.