The exotic and mystical language of Rapa Nui

The Rapa Nui language is spoken on the Easter Island (also known as the Rapa Nui Island). The territory received its name from Tahitian sailors who thought it resembled a Polynesian island called Rapa Iti (Little Rapa) and thus called it Rapa Nui which means “Great Napa”.  Although the latter is not that large (163.6 km²), it is significantly larger than Little Rapa which barely consists of 40 km².

Today, the island is part of Chile and hosts a small population of 4.000 people. Although most of its inhabitants actually speak Spanish, a number of them speak Rapa Nui too. This is because until the late 1990s people were not allowed to speak their native language; and, in fact, Spanish was the only language taught in schools.

The language is part of the group of Polynesian languages which are spoken across the region. Although it is morphologically similar to Marquesan (spoken in the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia) it is phonologically similar to New Zealand’s Maori.

An interesting characteristic of Rapa Nui is that the language has barely ten consonants and five vowels. Sounds quite an easy language to learn! Additionally, when counting, numerals are preceded by “ka”. So it goes a bit like this: (ka) tahi, (ka) rua, (ka) toru (for one, two, three).

The Rapa Nui island is technically a volcano and is famous for having 887 stone statues called moai which are spread across the island. These were mostly sculpted from volcano stone and erected by the island’s early inhabitants in 1100 -1680 AD. The intentions behind the carving of these sculptures are not known. It is said that each statue could represent the deceased head of a family ancestry line and that they may have been used for religious purposes.

If you find yourself travelling to the Easter Island to enjoy the landscape and its moais, here are a few phrases that might be useful:

Hello: Pe hē ‘Iorana.

How are you: Pehe koe?

My name is _____ . :  To’oku ‘injoa ko ______ .

Thank you: Mauru-ur