The Samoan language is one of the oldest forms of Polynesian still in existence today, and it is arguably the best-known of the Polynesian languages. It is the most widely spoken Polynesian tongue, with an estimated 200,000 speakers, most of them located in Samoa (formerly known as Western Samoa) and American Samoa.
Classification of the Samoan Language
The Samoan language is classified as a member of the Polynesian language family, part of the Eastern or Oceanic subgroup of the Austronesian (formerly known as the Malayo-Polynesian) family of languages. The Polynesian language family is relatively small, having only about 1 million speakers in total, most of them dispersed throughout islands in the Pacific Ocean.
Shared Characteristics of Polynesian Languages
As a whole, Polynesian languages are relatively homogenous, which has led scholars to suggest that they spread out from the original center of Polynesian language development – the Tonga-Samoa area – within the last 2,500 years.
Polynesian languages are generally noted for their lack of consonants and consequent increased use of vowels, which are distinguished by long and short forms. Another important feature shared by Polynesian languages is their use of particles, small words that function independently as grammatical markers. Placed before or after the words they modify, these particles can be used to indicate characteristics in much the same way that the English language uses prepositions, articles and conjunctions.
Early History of the Samoan People
The Samoans are a Polynesian people whose native language is Samoan. Indigenous Samoan tradition holds that the Samoan Islands were the original homeland of the entire Polynesian race. According to this tradition, the other Polynesian islands of the Pacific Ocean were later populated in a single wave of migration during the period of colonialism.
Most modern scholars have challenged this migration theory, arguing instead that there were two major waves of migration that populated the Polynesian islands. The first wave of migration is believed to have originated from southeastern Asia, while the second period of migration was most likely comprised of original ethnic Samoans who were displaced by colonial powers.
Arrival of Colonial Powers to Samoa
The first known European to visit the Samoan Islands was a Dutch navigator, Jacob Roggeveen, who arrived in 1722. Later, French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville came to the islands, naming them the Navigators Islands in 1768. During the 19th century, German, British and US colonial powers established trading posts throughout the Samoan Islands.
The 1889 Act of Berlin
In 1888, the selection of a new Samoan king resulted in conflict among the indigenous Samoans. The crisis resulted in the colonial powers then inhabiting Samoa (Germany, Britain and the US) passing the 1889 Act of Berlin. This declared the Samoan Islands independent and guaranteed the Samoan peoples full rights in electing a king.
Colonial Conflict over Samoan Territory: Division of the Samoan Islands
After the Act of Berlin, German, US and British colonial forces continued to coexist in Samoa, resulting in a number of territorial disputes. In 1889, the United States and Britain formed an alliance against the Germans, and joint US-British forces attacked Apia, the site where the Germans were stationed.
The same year, a treaty designed to resolve these territorial disputes was drawn up, establishing that Germany would receive all of the islands west of longitude 171 west, while the United States would hold sovereignty over all islands east of this line. Britain meanwhile was awarded the Solomon Islands and Tonga.
Development of Western Samoa and American Samoa
The territory awarded to the Germans by the 1889 treaty, originally known as Western Samoa, would later become the independent nation of Samoa we know today. From the end of World War II until its independence in 1962, Samoa was designated as a United Nations trust territory administered by the country of New Zealand. In 1997, independent Western Samoa officially changed its name to Samoa.
Unlike Western Samoa, the eastern Samoan islands taken by the United States after the treaty of 1889 remained under US control. In fact, the US expanded its Samoan territory throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eventually adding the islands of Tutuila, Aunuu, and the Swains Islands to the area that would become the present-day territory of American Samoa.
American Samoa Today
American Samoa, a territory of the United States, consists of seven islands located in the southern Pacific Ocean. The American Samoan capital, Pago Pago, has an estimated 52,000 residents, a large chunk of American Samoa’s total population of approximately 65,000 people.
As a US territory, the islands of American Samoa are technically governed by the United States Department of the Interior. The 1968 American Samoan constitution establishes the territory’s governor, elected by popular vote, as the holder of executive authority in the land. Legislative authority is in the hands of the Samoan legislature, known as the Fono, which is modeled after the United States government and includes both a Senate and House of Representatives. American Samoans are considered US nationals, and their constitution guarantees most of the rights also found in the US Bill of Rights.
Independent Samoa Today
Samoa, formerly Western Samoa, is an independent nation of some 219,998 inhabitants. The country’s capital, Apia, is home to approximately 40,000 residents and remains the country’s primary commercial center. More than 90 percent of the population is of indigenous Samoan descent, while the remainder is comprised of Europeans, Chinese and Pacific Island peoples.
The Modern Samoan Language
In both Samoa and American Samoa, the Samoan language is an official language alongside English, and most modern Samoans are fully bilingual in both languages. The Samoan language is written using a Latin-based alphabet.
An estimated 370,000 Samoan language speakers can be found around the world, the majority of them located in the Samoan Islands. Another major Samoan language location is New Zealand, where Samoan is the fourth most-spoken language.
Samoan Quick Facts
Language Family: Austronesian, Malayo-Polynesian, Central-Eastern, Eastern Malayo-Polynesian, Oceanic, Central-Eastern Oceanic, Remote Oceanic, Central Pacific, East Fijian-Polynesian, Polynesian, Nuclear, Samoic-Outlier, Samoan
Spoken by Approximately 370,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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