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Tongan Language Week has been wrapped up this week with its theme ‘E tu’uloa ‘a e Lea faka-Tongá ‘o ka lea’aki ‘i ‘api, siasí (lotú), mo e nofo-‘a-kāingá, which means the Tongan Language will be sustainable if used at home, church and in the wider community.
The Ministry for Pacific Peoples said the word tu‘uloa in the theme had a positive and progressive connotation and meant to continuously grow, nurture, and sustain a valued idea, practice, event, or memory in an enduring way. It said this year’s theme focused on the importance of using lea faka-Tonga. It also said that it impressed on us the need not only to understand lea Faka-Tonga, but to also use it as much as possible at home, church and in the wider community. The various interesting cultural activities created to promote the Language this week centred on the widely shared views known as the four pillars of the Tongan culture. They are fakaʻapaʻapa (respect), loto tō (humility), tauhi vā (nurturing relationships) and mamahi’i me’a (loyalty/passion).
While these four pillars and their accompanying cultural activities had been vital in promoting the Tongan Language Week for years, it appeared that there had been a lack of emphasis and focus on the fundamental cultural practices such as the practices of two significant traditional ways of people’s dwellings known as nofo-‘a-kāinga and nofo feuluulufi or feuluulufi-‘a e-nofo. These ways of how Tongan people settle in a particular area such as a village were a determining factor that significantly influenced almost all Tongan cultural practices. They were the driving force of most Tongan cultural identity such as ‘ilo’i kita (“knowing who you are”). These ways of nofo (“dwelling”) necessitate a type of formal Tongan language known as heliaki. Heliaki means figurative languages or imagery or symbolism in English. It is the most important form of language used to demarcate the various levels of social hierarchy by using of the three types of languages for the commoners, nobility and the royalty.
All commoners, nobility as well as the king speak the colloquial and formal languages whenever they talk in their various levels. However, when the commoners talk to or about the nobility the lea fakahouhou’eiki (“honorific”) are used and lea fakatu’i (“regal”) languages are used for the king or queen. It is regarded as fiematamu’a or ta’efaka’apa’apa (“being discourtesy or disrespectful”) if one uses the languages of the commoners while talking to the chiefs or the king. Here is an example of the three different languages: Let’s take the word kai (“eat”) which is a colloquial word used when talking to or about commoners. The formal word for kai is ma’u me’atokoni or tokoni (“ help oneself to food). The chiefly language for kai is ‘ilo and its regal form is taumafa. All these words are heliaki or figurative in their ultimate sense.
The heliaki language plays two important roles in the traditions of nofo-‘a-kāinga and nofo feuluulufi. One is to maintain the steadfast peace, respect and consideration for the feeling of others among the families and kāinga (“relatives”). The other is to make oral communication sounds mālie (“pleasing”) and thought-provoking when people talk, especially when it comes to cultural and social formality. Nofo-‘a-kāinga and nofo feuluulufi are underpinned by the practices of tapu, veitapui, faka’apa’apa and tauhi’eiki. These practices are synthesised into tauhi vā or keeping the relationship undisturbed at all times by brothers and sisters or cousins. In Tongan all cousins are called brothers and sisters.
Nofo ‘a kāinga refers to the Tongan kinship ties or dwelling together of people as a group with particular relationships. People in nofo ‘a kāinga can either be related by blood (“kāinga toto”) or because they are tenants of an estate or village where the estate holder is a chief. For example, if the estate holder is Prince Tungī the tenants are called kāinga ‘o Tungī. A church congregation is called kāinga lotu (“they are relatives because they belong to same religion or church”). The English word taboo is a loanword from tapu, which occurs in Tongan and other Polynesian languages. Tapu in terms of brothers and sisters refers to cultural restrictions to which they must adhere. A sister can be heard saying ‘Oku ou tapu au mo Sione or I am tapu with Sione. This means she was saying Sione is her brother or cousin and it is an alert to people around her to make sure they do not swear or do something disrespectful as it would breach their tapu rules. The more formal and stronger word is veitapui. Veitapui means mutual tapu (“taboo”). But it is normally a form of gatekeeping process used only to maintain the respect and tapu among the brothers and sisters among siblings, excluding the cousins. The gist of the veitapui or tapu is that the brothers and sisters and cousins must not be exposed to foul language, make body contact or have access to sexually suggestive context.
One of the most significant tauhi vā (“keeping the good relationship”) in the nofo ‘a kāinga is tauhi ‘eiki (“chief”) and tauhi tu’a (“inferior to the ‘eiki”) or keeping and presenting gifts to the chief and the royals as well as superior commoners in the nofo ‘a kāinga. In return, the ‘eiki gave gifts to the tu’a. It is necessary to point out that the meaning of ‘eiki in this sense is not just about the chiefs and royals only, but rather the superior commoners in the nofo ‘a kāinga. For example, in a nuclear family, the father is regarded as the family’s ‘eiki or chief. The girls are the ‘eiki among the children over the boys. At the same time the older siblings are ‘eiki over the younger ones. In the extended family or kāinga, the father’s sisters – especially the eldest – are the ‘eiki of that particular extended family, also known as ‘eiki maama or mehikitanga (“father’s sisters”). The sisters’ children in the extended family are ‘eiki over their brothers’ children. So tauhi ‘eiki is a Tongan relationship which is shared at all levels of the nofo ‘a kāinga from the commoners up to the chiefly and royal levels.
Faka’apa’apa can be deconstructed into the prefix faka and the word ‘apa‘apa. The prefix faka when added to another word indicates causation. ‘Apa‘apa refers to the two matāpule (“chief or king’s attendants”) sitting next to the sovereign, one sitting on each side at a ceremonial kava drinking and acting as joint masters of ceremony. So faka‘apa‘apa suggests when it is used colloquially and as common practice in the Tongan culture, is an imitation of the ‘apa’apa roles at the the kings’s kava ceremony which is a form of respect that has a political aspect. For instance, the special faka’apa’apa to the father is paid because he is the ‘eiki in the family no matter what. This is opposite to the western respect which is a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.
Feuluulufi-e-nofo or nofo feuluulufi refers to when the brothers and sisters and cousins of opposite sex as well as close blood relationship are around or living together, triggering an alert of taboo and veitapui and fefaka’apa’apa’aki. Two root words can be detached from feuluulufi. First is the word lufi which means to screen-off. This is common when sisters are sitting in a fakalotofale or gathering inside the fale (“house”). They must sit bending their legs together to stay to the left or right. At the same time they are told to lufilufi’i meaning they have to put further cover on top of their legs because of the presence of their brothers. The other word is ulufi. It appears that ulufi comes from the word ulufia. Ulufia means to infect a wound or limb. From the Tongan perspective, ulufi is a variant of ulufia, and merges with the word feuluulu, which is just a multiplicative indicator implying a larger amount. The meaning of feulufulufi correspondingly fits with the definition of a situation where the way people living could be at risk of being offended, just like when they are risk of being infected by a disease. Contextually speaking, a kāinga or group of relatives – normally a mixture of women and men who are veitapui, tapu and faka’apa’apa living together – are at risk of being hurt by an offence, disrespect, or anything deemed insensitive right in front of them. If someone swears or does something nasty in front of such a group, the offender would normally get an instant warning to the effect of Ta’ofi ‘ena he ‘oku feuluulufi ‘a e nofo or stop it as the gathering or the cousins of opposite sex, brothers and sisters living here are veitapui, tapu or faka’apa’apa. Sometime such offenders are punished.
It is understood that tapu and veitapui as well as tauhi ‘eiki practices are not still strongly practised in New Zealand as they are in Tonga. One of the reasons is because Tongans growing up in Aotearoa enjoy the personal freedom and rights of children which are taught in this society. However, it has been proved on several occasions that Tongans in New Zealand and diaspora still really appreciate and love their traditions if they are taught and educated about them. Their passion about their Tongan cultures is highlighted by many of the students who take part in the Pasifika Festivals every year as well as the cultural receptions of the ‘Ikale Tahi and Mate Ma’a Tonga teams in New Zealand where youngsters are seen wearing ta’ovala and carrying Tongan flags. If organisers of Tongan Language Week expand on these fundamental elements of the Tongan traditions and cultural practices, and put more teaching and practical activities on during future Tongan Language weeks, the language can not only be preserved, but the uniqueness of the veitapui and tauhi’eiki could make it widely practised. We need to do something new next year!