Tahitian, the indigenous language originally of Tahiti and the other Society Islands, is widely spoken by the local Polynesians. Many residents of the Tuamotu Archipelago also speak Puamotuan, a dialect similar to Tahitian, and those in the Marquesas have their own language, known as Marquesasan.
English is taught as a third language in most schools (and all of those operated by the Chinese community), and it's a prerequisite for getting a hotel job involving guest relations. You can converse in English with your hotel's professional and activities staff, but not necessarily with the housemaids.
Many young Tahitians are eager to learn English, if for no other reason than to understand the lyrics of American songs, which dominate the radio airwaves in French Polynesia. Accordingly, you will find English spoken in shops, restaurants, and other businesses, especially those frequented by tourists. Many French residents here also speak English.
Once you get off the beaten path, however, an ability to speak what I call français touristique -- tourist French, as in asking directions to the loo -- will be very helpful if not outright essential. I really need my schoolbook French on Maupiti and in the Tuamotu and Marquesas islands, where English is not widely spoken.
Not to fear: Tahitians are enormously friendly folk, and most will immediately warm to you when they discover you don't speak French, or that you speak it haltingly or with a pronounced accent.
"Oh-oh" -- How to Spell Like a Tahitian -- When spelling Tahitian words, many cultural activists advocate the use of apostrophes to indicate glottal stops -- those slight pauses between some vowels similar to the tiny break between "Oh-oh!" in English. Moorea, for example, is pronounced Moh-oh-ray-ah, with a glottal stop between Moh and oh, and thus is often spelled Mo'orea. Likewise, you may see Papeete spelled Pape'ete. Abundant apostrophes already appear in written Tongan and Samoan, but in this book I have used the traditional spellings, with apostrophes appearing for some common nouns and also where they are used in an establishment's name, such as Le Taha'a Private Island & Spa. If you want to spell like a Tahitian, look for a handbook such as D. T. Tyron's Say It in Tahitian.
Jotting It Down -- No Polynesian language was written until Peter Heywood jotted down a Tahitian vocabulary while awaiting trial for his part in the mutiny on the Bounty (he was convicted, but pardoned). The early missionaries who later translated the Bible into Tahitian decided which letters of the Roman alphabet to use to approximate the sounds of the Polynesian languages. These tended to vary from place to place. For example, they used the consonants t and v in Tahitian. In Hawaiian, which is similar, they used k and w. The actual Polynesian sounds are somewhere in between.
A little knowledge of Tahitian will also help you correctly pronounce the tongue-tying place names here.
All Polynesian languages, including Tahitian, consist primarily of vowel sounds, which are pronounced in the Roman fashion -- that is, ah, ay, ee, oh, and ou, not ay, ee, eye, oh, and you, as in English. Almost all vowels are sounded separately. For example, Tahiti's airport is at Faaa, which is pronounced Fah-ah-ah, not Fah. Papeete is Pah-pay-ay-tay, not Pa-pee-tee. Paea is Pah-ay-ah.
The consonants used in Tahitian are f, h, m, n, p, r, t, and v. There are some special rules regarding their sounds, but you'll be understood if you say them as you would in English. One exception is r, which is pronounced with a slight click of the tongue at the top of the mouth behind the top front teeth, like an abbreviated version of the rolled r in Spanish.
Useful Tahitian Words
To help you impress the locals with what a really friendly tourist you are, here are a few Tahitian words you can use on them:
hello ia orana ee-ah oh-rah-na (sounds like "your honor")
welcome maeva mah-ay-vah
goodbye parahi pah-rah-hee
good maitai my-tie
very good maitai roa my-tie-row-ah
thank you maruru mah-roo-roo
thank you very much maruru roa mah-roo-roo row-ah
good health! manuia mah-new-yah
woman vahine vah-hee-nay
man tane tah-nay
sarong pareu pah-ray-oo
small islet motu moh-too
take it easy hare maru ha-ray mah-roo
fed up fiu few
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.