Like their DNA, linguists have traced the islanders' languages to present-day Taiwan. They belong to the Austronesian family of languages spoken from Madagascar, off the coast of Africa, to Easter Island, off the coast of South America. No other group of ancient languages spread to so much of the earth's surface.

Today, the Polynesian islanders speak similar languages from one major island group to another. For example, the word for "house" is fale in Tongan and Samoan, fare in Tahitian, [']are in Cook Islands Maori, hale in Hawaiian, and vale in Fijian. Without having heard the other's language, Cook Islanders say they can understand about 60% of Tahitian, and Tongans and Samoans can get the gist of each others' conversations.

Thanks to the American, British, New Zealand, and Australian colonial regimes, English is an official language in the Cook Islands, both Samoas, and Fiji. It is spoken widely in Tonga. French is spoken alongside Tahitian in French Polynesia, although English is understood among most hotel and restaurant staffs.

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.

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