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The Rapa Nui language is an Eastern Polynesian language spoken by the native people of the island of Rapa Nuimarker, also known as Easter Island.

The island is home to a population of just under 4000 and is a special territory of Chilemarker. According to census data, there are about 4500 people on the island and on the Chilean mainland who identify as ethnically Rapa Nui. Census data does not exist on the primary known and spoken languages among these people and there are recent claims that the number of fluent speakers is as low as 800. Rapa Nui is a minority language and many of its adult speakers also speak Spanish; most Rapa Nui children now grow up speaking Spanish and those who do learn Rapa Nui begin learning later in life.


Rapa Nui has ten consonants and five vowels.


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All vowels can be either long or short and are always long when they are stressed in the final position of a word. Most vowel sequences are present, with the exception of *uo. Repetition sequences do not occur except in eee('yes').


Written Rapa Nui uses the Latin alphabet. The nasal velar consonant is generally written with the Latin letter ‹g›, but occasionally as ‹ng›. The glottal plosive is typically written with an , or frequently with an apostrophe. A special letter, ‹ġ›, is sometimes used to distinguish the Spanish, occurring in introduced terms, from the Rapa Nui .


Syllable Structure

Syllables in Rapa Nui are CV (consonant-vowel) or V (vowel). There are no consonant clustersor word-final consonants.


The reduplication of whole nouns or syllable parts performs a variety of different functions within Rapa Nui. To describe colours for which there is not a predefined word, the noun for an object of a like colour is duplicated to form an adjective. For example:

* ‘ehu (mist) → ‘ehu ‘ehu = dark grey
* ura (flame) → ura ura = red
* tea (dawn) → tea tea = white

Besides forming adjectives from nouns, the reduplication of whole words can indicate a multiple or intensified action. For example:

* hatu (weave) → hatuhatu (fold)
* kume (undo) → kumekume (take to pieces)
* ruku (dive) → rukuruku (go diving)

There are some apparent duplicates forms for which the original form has been lost. For example:
* rohirohi (tired)

The reduplication of the initial syllable in verbs can indicate plurality of subject or object. In this example the bolded section represents the reduplication of a syllable which indicates the plurality of the subject of a transitive verb:
‘ori (dance):
:E ‘ori ro ‘a (he/she/they is/are dancing)
:E ‘o‘ori ro ‘a (they are all dancing)

The reduplication of the final two syllables of a verb indicates plurality or intensity. In this example the bolded section represents the reduplication of two final syllables, indicating intensity or emphasis:

ha‘aki (tell):
:Ka ha‘aki (Tell the story)
:Ka ha‘aki‘aki (Tell the whole story)


Rapa Nui incorporates a number of loanwordsin which constructions such as consonant clusters or word-final consonants occur, though they do not occur naturally in the language. Historically, the practice was to transliterate unfamiliar consonants, insert vowels between clustered consonant sounds and append word-final vowels where necessary.

eg: Britain (English loanword)Paratane (Rapa Nui rendering)

More recently, loanwords - which come primarily from Spanish - retain their consonant clusters. For example, "litro" (litre).


Word Order

Rapa Nui is a VSO("verb-subject-object") language. Except where verbs of sensingare used, the object of a verb is marked by the relational particle i.

eg: He hakahu koe i te rama (the relational particle and object are bolded)
:"You light the torch"

Where a verb of sensing is used, the subject is marked by the agentive particle e.
eg: He tikea e au te poki (the agentive particle and subject are bolded)
:"I can see the child"


Yes/no questions are distinguished from statements chiefly by a particular pattern of intonation. Where there is no expectation of a particular answer, the form remains the same as a statement. A question expecting an agreement is preceded by 'hoki'.


Original rapanui has no conjunctive particles. Copulative, adversative and disjunctive notions are typically communicated by context or clause order. Modern Rapa Nui has almost completely adopted Spanish conjunctions rather than rely on this.


Possession is divided between the alienable and the inalienable. The distinction is marked by a possessive particle inserted before the relevant pronoun.

Possessive particles:
* a (alienable)
* o (inalienable)

There are no markers to distinguish between temporary or permanent possession; the nature of objects possessed; or between past, present or future possession.


Koand kaare exclamatory indicators.
Ko suggests a personal reaction:
:Ko te ‘aroha (Poor thing!)
Ka suggests judgement on external events:
:Ka ha‘aki‘aki (Tell the whole story!)

Compound Words

Terms which did not exist in original Rapa Nui were created via compounding:
patia ika = (‘spear fish’) = harpoon
patia kai = (‘spear food’) = fork
kiri va’e = (‘skin foot’) = shoe
manu patia =(‘bird spear’) = wasp
pepe hoi = (‘stool horse’) = saddle
pepe noho =(‘stool stay’) = chair


There is a system for the numerals 1-10 in both Rapa Nui and Tahitian, both of which are used, though all numbers higher than ten are expressed in Tahitian. When counting, all numerals whether Tahitian or Rapanui are preceded by 'ka'. This is not used, however, when using a number in a sentence.

Rapa Nui Numerals 1-10:
(ka) tahi
(ka) rua
(ka) toru
(ka) ha
(ka) rima
(ka) ono
(ka) hitu
(ka) va’u/varu
(ka) iva
(ka) aŋahuru


The Rapa Nui language is isolated within Eastern Polynesian, which also includes the Marquesicand Tahitic languages. Within Eastern Polynesian, it is closest to Marquesan morphologically, although its phonology has more in common with New Zealand Māori, as both languages are relatively conservative in retaining consonants lost in other Eastern Polynesian languages.

Like all Polynesian languages, Rapa Nui has relatively few consonants. Uniquely for an Eastern Polynesian language, Rapa Nui has preserved the original glottal stopof Proto-Polynesian. It is, or until recently was, a verb-initiallanguage. Specific Rapa Nui features also include the change of use of anaphoric aito being a post verbal marker as well as the non-usage of any transitivesuffixes, thus making it an ergativelanguage and unlike any other Eastern Polynesian language which are accusative.

The most important recent book written about the language of Rapa Nui is Verónica du Feu's Rapanui (Descriptive Grammar)(ISBN 0-415-00011-4).

Very little is known about the Rapa Nui language prior to European contact. The majority of Rapa Nui vocabulary is inherited directly from Proto–Eastern Polynesian. Due to extensive borrowing from Tahitian there now often exist two forms for what was the same word in the early language. For example, Rapa Nui has Tahitian ‘itealongside original tike‘afor 'to see', both derived from Proto-Eastern Polynesian *kite‘a. There are also hybridized forms of words such as haka‘ite'to teach', from native haka(causative suffix) and Tahitian ‘ite.

Language notes from 1770

Spanish notes from a 1770 visit to the island record 94 words and terms. Many are clearly Polynesian, but several are not easily unrecognizable. For example, the numbers from one to ten seemingly have no relation to any known language. They are, with contemporary Rapa Nui words in parenthesis:

  1. cojàna (katahi)
  2. corena (karua)
  3. cogojù (katoru)
  4. quirote (kaha)
  5. majanà (karima)
  6. teùto (kaono)
  7. tejèa (kahitu)
  8. moroqui (kavau)
  9. vijoviri (kaiva)
  10. queromata-paùpaca quacaxixiva (kaangaahuru)

It may be that the list is a misunderstanding, and the words not related to numbers at all. The Spanish may have shown Arabic numerals to the islanders who did not understand their meaning, and likened them to some other abstraction. For example, the "moroqui" for number eight (8) would have actually been "moroki", a small fish that is used as a bait, since "8" can look like a simple drawing of a fish.

Language notes from 1774

Captain James Cook visited the island four years later, and had a Tahitianmarker interpreter with him, who, while recognizing some Polynesian words (up to 17 were written down), was not able to converse with the islanders in general.The British also attempted to record the numerals and were able to record the correct Polynesian words.

Post-Peruvian enslavement

Rapa Nui came under extensive outside influences in the aftermath of the Peruvian slave deportations in the 1860s from neighbouring Polynesian languages such as Tahitian. While the majority of the population that was taken to work as slaves in the Peruvian mines died of diseases and bad treatment in the 1860s, hundreds of other Easter Islanders who left for Mangarevain the 1870s and 1880s to work as servants or labourers, adopted the local form of Tahitian-Pidgin. Fischer argues that this pidgin became the basis for the modern Rapa Nui language when the surviving part of the Rapa Nui immigrants on Mangareva returned to their almost deserted home island.

Language notes from 1886

William J. Thomson, paymaster on the USS Mohican,spent twelve days on Easter Island from 188619 Decemberto 30 December. Among the data Thomson collected was the Rapa Nui calendar.

Language notes from the 20th century

Father Sebastian Englert, a German missionary living on Easter Island during 1935-1969, published a partial Rapa Nui-Spanish dictionary in his La Tierra de Hotu Matu’ain 1948, trying to save what was left of the old language. Despite the many typographical mistakes, the dictionary is valuable, because it provides a wealth of examples which all appear drawn from a real corpus, part oral traditions and legends, part actual conversations.

Englert recorded vowel length, stress, and glottal stop, but was not always consistent, or perhaps the misprints make it seem so. He indicated vowel length with a circumflex, and stress with an acute accent, but only when it does not occur where expected. The glottal stopis written as an apostrophe, as it is today, but is often omitted. The velar nasal(now "ng") is sometimes transcribed with a "g", but sometimes with a Greek eta, "η", as a graphic approximation of " ".


Part of a line of rongorongo script.
It is assumed that rongorongo, the undeciphered script of Easter Island, represents the old Rapa Nui language.


The island is under the jurisdiction of Chile and is now home to a number of Chilean continentals most of whom speak only Spanish. The influence of the Spanish language is noticeable in modern Rapa Nui speech. As fewer children learn to speak Rapa Nui at an early age, their superior knowledge of Spanish affects the 'passive knowledge' they have of Rapa Nui. A version of Rapa Nui interspersed with Spanish nouns, verbs and adjectives has become a popular form of casual speech. The most well integrated borrowings are the Spanish conjunctions o(or), pero(but) and y(and). Spanish words such as problema(problem), which was once rendered as poroborema, are now often integrated with minimal or no change.

Spanish words are still often used within Rapa Nui grammatical rules, though some word order changes are occurring and it is argued that Rapa Nui may be undergoing a shift from VSO to the Spanish SVO. This example sentence was recorded first in 1948 and again in 2001 and its expression has changed from VSO to SVO.

:'They both suffer and weep"
1948: he ‘aroha, he tatangi ararua
2001: ararua he, ‘aroha he tatangi



  • Chilean Census 2002
  • Du Feu, V., 1996. Rapa Nui. London: Routledge.
  • Fischer, S.R., 2008. Reversing Hispanisation on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). In T. Stolz, D. Bakker, R.S. Palomo (eds) Hispanisation: The Impact of Spanish on the Lexicon and Grammar of the Indigenous Languages of Austronesia and the Americas. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 149-165.
  • Fischer, S.R., 1997. Rongorongo: the Easter Island script'. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Makihara, M., 2005a. Rapa Nui ways of speaking Spanish: Language shift and socialization on Easter Island. Language in Society 34, pp. 727-762.
  • Makihara, M., 2005b. Being Rapa Nui, speaking Spanish: Children's voices on Easter Island. Anthropological Theory 5, pp. 117-134.
  • Pagel, S., 2008. The old, the new, the in-between: Comparative aspects of Hispanisation on the Marianas and Easter Island (Rapa Nui). In T. Stolz, D. Bakker, R.S. Palomo (eds) Hispanisation: The Impact of Spanish on the Lexicon and Grammar of the Indigenous Languages of Austronesia and the Americas. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 167-201.

External links

Labial Alveolar Velar Glottal

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