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Samoan (Gagana Samoa) is a member of the Polynesian group of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family. While Samoan is related to other Polynesian languages such as HawaiianFijianTahitian and Maori, they are not mutually intelligible having been separated from each other by vast stretches of the Pacific ocean for thousands of years.  Ethnologue reports that there are 413,000 speakers of Samoan worldwide, of whom close to 200,000 live in Samoa.

Hawaii mapIt is believed that the ancestors of Samoan people arrived from southeastern Asia some 3, 000 years ago. The first encounter of Samoans with Europeans took place in 1722, when the Samoan islands were discovered by Dutch explorers. In 1899, Germany and the U.S. divided the Samoan archipelago, and in 1900, the U.S. formally occupied a smaller group of eastern islands which became known as American Samoa. Since 1962, the western islands have been an independent nation. In 1997, they adopted the name The Independent State of Samoa.


Samoan, along with English, is the official language of both Western Samoa and American Samoa. It is used for everyday communication, in education, and in the media. There are several Samoan/English-language newspapers in Western Samoa, and several institutions of higher learning in both Western and American Samoa.


There are no significant dialect differences in Samoan. However, there is a significant difference between the language used to address chiefs and persons of higher status and everyday colloquial language.


Sound system

Samoan has a small inventory of phonemes, i.e., sounds that make a difference in word meaning. Like all Austronesian languages, it is characterized by a large number of vowels, a small number of consonants, and a simple syllabic structure consisting of either a vowel or consonant + vowel. There are no consonant clusters.

Samoan has 5 vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that can differentiate word meaning. Vowels can be either long or short. Vowel length makes a difference in word meaning. Vowel length is indicated by a macron over the vowel. There are also 7 diphthongs: /au, ao, a,i ae, ei, ou, ue/.

i, ī
u, ū
e, ē
o, ō
a, ā


Samoan has 13 consonant phonemes. Consonants in parentheses occur exclusively in loanwords.

Stop voiceless
(k )
Fricative voiceless
  • /ʔ/ = sound between vowels in uh-oh; it is represented in writing by .



  • As is the case in all Austronesian languages, Samoan is an isolating language in which words are not inflected. They consist of roots and particles that are added to roots to indicate grammatical functions.
  • Samoan is considered by many linguists to be an ergative-absolutive language, i.e., the subject of intransitive verbs and the direct objects of transitive verbs are in the absolutive (unmarked) case, while the subjects of transitive verbs are in the ergative case. Examples are given below.


‘The man has gone to Samoa.’
‘The man hugged the woman.’


Nouns and pronouns

  • Singular number is marked by the article le, e.g., ‘o le ‘ulu ”the breadfruit’. The absence of the article indicates plurality, e.g., ‘o ‘ulu ‘the breadfruits’. Plurality can also be indicated by various count words, e.g., ‘o le motu o tagata ‘a crowd of people’.
  • Nouns are not marked for gender or case. Syntactic relationships are marked by prepositions. For instance, possession is marked by the prepositions o and a, e.g., ‘o le faletua o le ali‘i ‘the wife of the chief’.
  • Like other Austronesian languages, personal pronouns have a 1st person inclusive form that includes the addressee, and an exclusive form that does not. Personal pronouns distinguish singular, dual, and plural numbers.
  • Samoan distinguishes four degrees of proximity/distance to the speaker and listener, e.g., lenei ‘this’ (close to speaker), lena ‘that’ (close to listener), lele ‘that’ (not too far from speaker), lela ‘that’ (far from speaker and listener).



  • Verbs are not marked for person.
  • Samoan marks tense, aspect, mood, causativity, and stativity with separate preverbal particles, e.g., na ‘past’ + opo ‘hug’ = naopo ‘hugged’.


Word order
The normal word order in Samoan sentences is Verb – Subject – Object. A common feature of Samoan is topicalization, i.e., the placement of components that are the topic or focus, at the beginning of sentences.


Samoan vocabulary is Polynesian in origin. The language relies on reduplication to express plurality, frequency, or augmentation, e.g., pona ‘knot’, ponapona ‘knotty’. The language has also borrowed words from English, e.g., kolisi ‘college’, nusipepa ‘newspaper’.

Although colloquial language is used in most everyday communication, a special “politeness” register (gagana fa’aaloalo) is used when talking to people of higher status such as  tulāfale ‘orator chiefs’ and aliʻi ‘high chiefs’, government officials, teachers, ministers, and elders. This register is characterized by use of honorific terms that signify fa’asamoa ‘respect’, according to traditional Samoan beliefs. An example is  the use of the verb tausami ‘to eat’ when speaking to a chief, and taute ‘to eat’ when speaking to the high chief. There is also words expressing self-abasement used when speaking about oneself.

Below are a few common words and phrases in Samoan.

Hello Afio Mai!
Good bye Tōfa!
Thank you fa’afetai
Please fa’amolemole
Excuse me tulou lava
Yes ioe
No leai
Man tane
Woman fafine


Below are Samoan numerals 1-10.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


Samoan is written with an adapted version of the Latin alphabet. It consists of 15 letters of which H, K, and are used only for writing loanwords.

A a
Ā ā
E e
Ē ē
I i
Ī ī
O o
Ō ō
U u
Ū ū
G g
L l
M m
N n
P p
S s
T t
V v‘
(H h)
(K k)
(R r)
  •   glottal stop /ʔ/, the sound between vowels in uh-oh.
  • macron is used to indicate vowel length, e.g., ā


Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Samoan.

Mataupu 1
O tagata soifua uma ua saoloto lo latou fananau mai, ma e tutusa o latou tulaga aloaia faapea a latou aia tatau. Ua faaeeina atu i a latou le mafaufau lelei ma le loto fuatiaifo ma e tatau ona faatino le agaga faauso i le va o le tasi i le isi.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.


Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Samoan?
There is no data on the difficulty level of Samoan for speakers of English.

6 Responses to Samoan

  1. Dallas Te'o

    Do you know some English words that were borrowed from Samoan?

    A couple of words that have been adopted into the English language are “tattoo” and “taboo” from the words “tatau” and “tapu”. Tatau and tapu are words that occur in several Polynesian languages including Gagana Sāmoa.

  2. Mariah

    What does Kaokooko aku a I mean?

  3. Dallas Teʻo

    The general phrase for welcome in Gagana Sāmoa (Sāmoan language) is “Afio Mai!”, not “Tālofa”.

  4. Brenda

    (Paperback) Customer review from the Amazon Vine™ Program () I had the rare good futnore to have a job that allowed me to get to know the terrritory of American Samoa, the only flag-flying part of the United States south of the equator. I visited the territory twice and was impressed by the beauty of the islands and by the strong American patriotism of the people. American Samoa has a unique relationship with the United States which allows its inhabitants to practice the Fa’a Samoa, or the traditional Samoan way of life. Samoa presents a challenging mixture of local and American values.The fond memories I have of American Samoa led me to this new book, Pago Pago Tango by John Enright. [Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa is pronounced “Pango Pango”]. Enright is a mainland American who lived in Samoa and taught at the American Samoa Community College (which I visited) for many years before returning to the United States.It was a pleasure to visit American Samoa again in this book with Enright as a guide. I recognized the places he describes the government buildings, the American Samoa National Park with its rickety cable car which somehow I found the nerve to ride, the hotel, the cannery, the airport, the LBJ Hospital, the local jail and its culture, the small local shops and restaurants, and more. It was recollection for me while it will be a new world for most American readers.Enright has written a complex involved mystery centring upon a Samoan detective, Apelu Soifua. Pelu, as he is called, spent much of his childhood in San Francisco followed by seven years as a detective on its police force before returning to his native island. Pelu’s life and detective work shows the tension between mainland and Samoan culture, a tension mirrored in American Samoa itself. His story develops slowly and involves a complicated series of events and crimes beginning with a small break-in at a home in a compound reserved for mainlanders which gradually escalates and becomes tied in through Pelu’s efforts to murders and a large clandestine drug operation.The crimes, and the manner in which Pelu investigates them, show a great deal about island life even though I found the story itself somewhat tangled and forced. The book is most valuable in describing the clash and accomodation of local and mainland American culture. It discusses the importance of the cannery to Samoa’s economy, and the influx of different people on the island, including Koreans, New Zealanders, and residents of other Pacific islands, in addition to Americans. Enright contrasts well the close, communal character of traditional Samoan life and the interaction of the native population with the immigrants,who only rarely become fully integrated long-term residents of Samoa.The story has a wonderful sense of place and a feel for the people of American Samoa. It is possible of course to learn about American Samoa from the dry pages of a study, but few readers would be inclined to do so. Even fewer people would have the opportunity to work with and visit American Samoa as I have done, and as Enright did to a much greater degree. In Pago Pago Tango offers readers an opportunity to get to know American Samoa through a good suspenseful work of noir fiction. The book offers an introduction to most Americans of an aspect of their country that will be new to them. The book made me with I could visit American Samoa again and see it with new eyes.Robin Friedman


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