Language in the Marquesan Landscape: The Role of French and Marquesan

In “Towards a New Oceania,” Samoan poet Albert Wendt calls the white colonial education imposed on the Pacific Islands a “lobotomy operation… a relentless life-long dosage of [tranquilizers].”[1] Rather than educating islanders to “survive in [their] own cultures,”[2] he says, colonizers have instituted systems that make them more passive. In a region home to over five million people and over 1,200 indigenous languages,[3] Wendt longs for an education system that prepares islanders to develop their nation and culture, without leaving them dependent on their colonizers.

Today, on the Marquesan island of Nuku Hiva, the French institutionalized education system continues to leave islanders disempowered, threatening the sustainability of Marquesan culture. It teaches French rather than Polynesian history. It has made the French language mandatory and the Marquesan language optional. In Taiohae, the administrative capital of the Marquesan archipelago, the mayor Deborah Kimitete is worried for the future of Marquesan culture. She sees a vital part of it—the Marquesan language—dying with the new generation.[4]

By comprehensively looking at Taiohae’s modern day textual landscape,[5] it is clear that in the Marquesas, the French and Marquesan language play important but different roles. French has replaced Marquesan as the region’s language of exchange. Nevertheless, the islanders’ native language plays an important role in creating a sense of cultural identity for Marquesan places, belongings, and people.

When Captain David Porter of the United States frigate Essex visited Nuku Hiva in 1813, the native islanders he met spoke only the Marquesan language. Although he was not the first visitor to the Marquesas—the Spaniard Alvaro de Mendaña landed in 1595 and the Englishman James Cook in 1774[6]—none of the Marquesans at the time knew or spoke any European languages. If Porter had not met the Marquesan-speaking Englishman Wilson in Nuku Hiva, he would have struggled to communicate with the native islanders. In his own words, Wilson was “the means by which we [Porter and the islanders] are enabled to understand each other.”[7]

That is not to say the Marquesans of Nuku Hiva then had no exposure to words Europeans used. There is evidence from Porter’s journal that some of the pre-colonial Marquesan vocabulary was adapted from words introduced by earlier visitors. According to Porter, the Marquesan word boarka, which they used during his visit to refer to hogs, goats, and sheep, originally came from the Spanish word porca, a “gift” from early Spanish navigators.[8] The word pickineenee, which Porter noticed in many islanders’ names, had “by some means been introduced among them by the sailors of the ships which touched there.”[9] Porter infers that the native islanders called Captain James Cook Hitahita, because it sounded like Otaheita, the name of the place toward which Cook was headed.[10]

However, Porter’s records do not suggest there were many of these adapted words. In most of their encounters with Europeans, Marquesans described and understood new, foreign ideas using existing Marquesan words. During Porter’s time in Nuku Hiva, the native islanders thought his men superior to themselves, so they called them Othouah, a title they otherwise reserved for their gods and priests.[11] They called Porter’s wheat seeds maíe, their word for breadfruit.[12] They used kava, the name of an intoxicating root, to describe rum, wine, pepper, mustard, and other foreign foods of a “heating or pungent nature.”[13] Because exchange on Nuku Hiva then happened almost entirely between native islanders, the islanders interacted with Europeans like Porter with no documented attempt at learning European languages—their own language was sufficient for daily exchange. During their interactions with Porter, Wilson’s ability to interpret Marquesan allowed it to be the language in which exchange was facilitated.

But since Porter visited Nuku Hiva, the nature of exchange between islanders and outsiders has changed, and with it, the Marquesans’ ability to facilitate exchange using the Marquesan language. During Porter’s visit, much of his exchange with the Marquesans happened in the reciprocal giving of tie ties, or gifts;[14] formal trade had not yet been established. With Catholic evangelization in 1838 and the French takeover of the Marquesas in 1842,[15] the nineteenth century forced the Marquesan archipelago out of isolation. Across islands, interactions with outsiders, especially the French, became commonplace. By the twentieth century, the Marquesan islands were selling copra, attracting tourists, and engaging in global commerce. Today, around ten thousand tourists visit the island group annually.[16]

Now the national language of French fills a necessary gap, allowing Marquesans in Nuku Hiva to exchange with each other and especially with outsiders effortlessly. In Taiohae, nearly all the text in the landscape is written in French: public notices, roads, construction sites, danger zones, telephone booths, recycling bins, and restrooms. Public spaces—city hall, the police department, and the community gathering place—as well as businesses are labeled in French too. As one of the most widely spoken languages across the world, French makes the Taiohae landscape ripe for international exchange.

Taken 5:30 p.m. on February 17, 2013, about 100 feet from Taiohae’s Tourism Office. This caution sign is one of the few examples I saw in Taiohae that day of Marquesan text in the landscape. Beside in the names of restaurants, stores, regions, boats, and people, all of which I found examples of along the main road, Marquesan usually appears in the landscape alongside a French translation. Here, an “attention: slippery surface” caution sign repeats the same message in both Marquesan and French. Similarly, inside telephone booths, the instructions are written half in Marquesan, half in French. And outside the tourist office, “Office of Tourism” appears in French, Marquesan, and English. This makes clear that the Marquesan language function to facilitate exchange with outsiders. Because few outside the Marquesas understand the Marquesan language, messages written in Marquesan that are also intended for outsiders rely on accompanying translations.

Although less important, English is another language in the landscape that functions to facilitate exchange with outsiders. The English text that appears in Taiohae appears primarily around hotels and the harbor, both areas that attract outsiders and invite exchange. “Hotel Keikahanui,” the only hotel in the city, and “He’e Tai Inn,” the only inn in the city, both have English names. Their choice of language serves two important functions: first, to make the text readable to English-speaking tourists, travelers, and visitors, and second, to suggest to outsiders an English-friendly facility. By choosing an English name, the lodge owners allow Nuku Hiva to engage with an even wider international audience.

The harbor is the other place in Taiohae where English text makes a significant appearance in the landscape. As the major stopping point for ships, the harbor is home to businesses that expect regular trade and exchange with outsiders. Because English is the language of the seas, it is natural that it is the language used for these harbor-side transactions. Some examples of the English text that appears in the harbor include “Yacht Services,” “Nuku Rent-A-Car,” and “Harbor Service Sail Repair.” There is also a general store at the harbor that hangs the only hours of operations sign in Taiohae written in English. By using English in its signs, the harbor-side landscape makes itself accessible to outsiders and primed for foreign exchange.

On the other hand, the Marquesan language does not appear to facilitate exchange between islanders and outsiders. In Taiohae’s landscape, Marquesan text almost never appears alone—French almost always accompanies it. “Slippery surface” warning signs and telephone booth instructions are written in both Marquesan and French. Outside the tourist office, “Tourist Office” is carved into the sign in three languages: Marquesan, French, and English. Although the mayor’s office sign, “Hae Mataeinaa U Nuku-Hiva Mairie,” is written in Marquesan, all other texts associated with the building are written in French. Even a handwritten sign in Taiohae that reads “Tabu,” is clearly not only intended for outsiders; it is accompanied with a French translation, “Propriete Privee”—private property. By itself, the Marquesan language does not function to facilitate exchange. Because few outside the Marquesan islands speak or read Marquesan, the appearance of the language in the landscape nearly always requires accompanying translations.

This is true except when the Marquesan language is used to name someplace, something, or someone. In Taiohae, Marquesan names appear everywhere, suggesting that one important role of the language is in creating a sense of cultural identity. For instance, many businesses in Taiohae boast Marquesan words in some part of their name: “Moana Nui Restaurant,”[17] “Hotel Keikahanui,” “He’e Tai Inn,” and “Pension Paaharea Nui.”[18] Road signs and maps show that the valleys of Nuku Hiva, from Taipivai to Hakaui, are also named in Marquesan. In some cases, outsiders have renamed places—Porter renamed the island Madison’s Island, he renamed Taipivai Bay, Comptroller’s Bay, and he renamed Taiohae Bay, Massachusetts Bay. Today, each of these areas is called by its original Marquesan name.[19] By choosing to embrace Marquesan names, and rejecting European ones, these places express and maintain a cultural identity that is intentionally Marquesan.

The Marquesan language is also used to name belongings. Nearly all the boats in Taiohae have Marquesan names too. In the afternoon of February 17, 2013, there were twelve boats either parked along the road or docked in the harbor. Eight had Marquesan names, three had French names, and one had an English name. Unlike the naming of businesses, the naming of boats holds no confounding profit motive and no deliberate effort to attract tourists. This makes boats that have Marquesan names an unusually forceful indicator of a sense of cultural identity. For instance, one fishing boat in Taiohae’s harbor named in Marquesan “Atitoka II” translates in English to “Tribe from Toka,” expressing a cultural identity rooted in a Marquesan tribal group.

Taken 3:30 p.m. on February 17, 2013, near Taiohae’s He’e Tai Inn. Of the twelve boats along Taiohae’s main road or around the harbor, this is one of the eight that has a Marquesan name. The name of the boat “Atitoka II” means “Tribe from Toka.” Like other examples of Marquesan boat names, this shows that one use of the Marquesan language is in creating a sense of cultural identity. In this case, the name of the boat maintains a cultural identity rooted in a tribal group. Other Marquesan boat names include “Hinahaapapa” (Mythical Woman), “Te Kua O Te Tai” (The Best of the Ocean), and “Tearaitua” (Ways of the Ocean).

However, nowhere is the Marquesan language’s function in creating a sense of cultural identity more obvious than in people’s names, scribbled into the landscape. Along signposts, on the back of informational boards, and around construction sites, people’s names are subtly marked all over Taiohae. Although there are some cases of Western names (Jim, Nancy, Kathleen), the majority of names in the landscape are Marquesan (Karoihi, Tepane, Warenka). This is significant considering many of those whose names are scribbled into the landscape also have Western names,[20] but chose, as they were scribbling their names onto public structures, to identify themselves using their Marquesan names. It also indicates that when the older generation of parents was naming its children, they thought of their children as having some kind of Marquesan identity. Whether the recipient of a name is a restaurant, boat, or person, the Marquesan names that appear in Taiohae’s landscape appears to reflect a sense of cultural identity.

The connection between language and culture is precisely what makes uses of the Marquesan language special. Unlike Marquesan, French has not yet become a cultural language. It has not significantly made its way into Marquesan culture. Although it appears in the landscape frequently, is required in school, and is even the national language, French is used in the landscape strictly for functional purposes. This is why so often, French labels communicate something about the function of what is labeled: restroom, danger, construction, recycling, ATM, post office, city hall, and the list continues. It makes the landscape friendly for people unfamiliar with it, bringing new people together around universal markers. Although the function of the language is extremely important, its detachment from culture means that French is essentially replaceable. English, a growing language in the Marquesas,[21] could replace French as the language of exchange without devastating the region’s cultural history.

While the French language maintains exchange in the Marquesas, the Marquesan language maintains culture. The Marquesan language appears to label the unique—specific places, boats, and people. In Taiohae, it appears to be critically important in creating a sense of cultural identity. Unsurprisingly, this cultural aspect compels people to continue using it, even when it does not promote exchange with outsiders particularly well. In Taiohae’s Catholic church, the service is performed in Marquesan and the people sing Marquesan songs. In the sparsely populated valley of Hakaui and in Taiohae’s Canoe Club Association, two places where exchange with outsiders is rare, Marquesan appears to be the dominant spoken language. It may not be required in school, but it is still used at home. It may not dominate the textual landscape, but it still permeates daily life.

In Taiohae, both the French and Marquesan language appear in the landscape, and both play important roles in everyday life. Since Captain David Porter visited Nuku Hiva in 1813, much has changed about exchange in the Marquesas; most importantly, outsiders have become important regular players in exchange. Accordingly, the region’s language of exchange has changed too. By communicating the different functions of what appears in the landscape and by making the landscape friendlier to outsiders, French has replaced Marquesan as the primary language in which exchange happens. On the other hand, the Marquesan language remains important, identifying what is unique about the landscape and helping the Marquesas maintain a sense of cultural identity. As the importance of exchange continues to grow and the challenge of maintaining strong links to culture persists, the functions of each language are as important as ever. But while French can be replaced, Marquesan cannot. In the face of continued colonial education, maintaining and even growing the vibrancy of Marquesan culture depends on protecting the Marquesan language.

Leonid Liu, Wesleyan University


[1] Wendt, Albert. “Towards a New Oceania,” Arnold Anthology of Post-Colonial Literatures in English, John Thieme, ed, (London: Arnold, 1996): 647. Print.

[2] Ibid., 648.

[3] Ibid., 649.

[4] Kimitete, Deborah, Mayor of Taiohae City Hall, Personal Interview. 16 Feb. 2013.

[5] In the afternoon of February 17, 2013, I looked at all the permanent text along the main road in Taiohae: signs, stickers, boat names, store names and postings, and more. I also looked at, but did not count, text scribbled into permanent parts of the landscape. I did not look at flyers, banners, or any text in the landscape clearly not intended to remain for long. This left 83 pieces of text clearly intended to be an enduring part of the landscape. 36 were associated with businesses, including business hours, store names, and notices. 32 were official public parts of the landscape: city hall, police department, road signs, public restrooms, recycling services, construction signs, warning signs, and point of interest information. Beside that, there were 12 boat names, 3 stickers (no smoking, free Wi-Fi, and TripAdvisor), and 1 private property sign. As the administrative capital of the Marquesas, Taiohae likely overrepresents French and underrepresents Marquesan, but I did not verify this in other Marquean islands. 

[6] Mendaña did not stay long, although he did name the islands he saw Las Marquesas de Mendoza.

[7] Porter, David, Journal of a Cruise: Made to the Pacific Ocean, (Philadephia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1815): 21. Print.

[8] Ibid., 53.

[9] Ibid., 111.

[10] Ibid., 130.

[11]1 Ibid., 52.

[12] Ibid., 112.

[13] Ibid., 56.

[14] Ibid., 29.

[15] Tourist Office of Tahiti and her islands, Visitor’s Guide to Marquesan Islands, 2011-2012.

[16] Kimitete, Deborah, Mayor of Taiohae City Hall, Personal Interview. 16 Feb. 2013.

[17] The Marquesan phrase “Moana Nui” means “Big Ocean.”

[18] The phrase “Paaharea Nui” means “Big Paaharea.”

[19] In his journal, Porter describes some of the different valleys of Nuku Hiva: Tieuhoy, Typee, Shoeume, Hannahow, and Tahtuahtuah. Today, they retain their original names, but spelled differently; respectively, they are Taiohae, Taipivai, Hooumi, Anaho, and Haatuatua.

[20] One public voting registration listing posted on the bulletin board outside City Hall revealed an abundance of registered Western first names associated with Marquesan last names.

[21] Primary schools on Nuku Hiva require English, as well as French, language classes.

How to cite this page:
Leonid Liu. “Language in the Marquesan Landscape: The Role of French and Marquesan,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA. 2013. Web. [Date accessed]