The Marquesan languages: ‘Eo ‘Enana and ‘Eo ‘Enata

The indigenous languages spoken in the Marquesan archipelago of French Polynesia belong to the Eastern Oceanic branch of the Austronesian language family. Within the Eastern Oceanic branch, the Marquesan vernaculars belong to the Proto-Central-Eastern subgroup of Proto-Eastern Polynesian which is itself a subgroup of Proto-Central Pacific (Pawley 1966; Green 1966; Marck 1996). Geographically, linguistically and, to some degree, also culturally two distinct groups are generally distinguished in the Marquesan archipelago: the northwest and the southeast Marquesas. Even within these two geographical zones, we can observe a complex dialectal situation with each island vernacular having distinct lexical, phonological and partly morphological characteristics. In the literature the Marquesan vernaculars are divided into two distinct language groups, namely North Marquesan (= ‘eo ‘enana) spoken in the north-western inhabited islands of Nuku Hiva, ‘Ua Pou and Ua Huka and South Marquesan (=’eo ‘enata) spoken on the south-eastern islands of Hiva ‘Oa, Tahuata and Fatu Iva (Green 1966; Wurm & Hattori 1981; Hughes & Fischer 1998). This division into North Marquesan and South Marquesan is historically motivated. According to historical reconstruction theories North and South Marquesan share a number of phonological innovations coming about in the 10th century A.D. which distinguishes them as being an autonomous subgroup from Proto-Tahitic (i.e. Tahitian, Tuamotuan, Rarotongan and New Zealand Maori). The Eastern Polynesian languages most closely related to North and South Marquesan are Hawai’ian and Mangarevan forming altogether the Proto-Marquesic subgroup.

A number of phonological innovations distinguish North Marquesan (=N-MRQ) from South Marquesan (=S-MRQ) in several cognates of PCE (=Proto-Central-Eastern). The most characteristic distinction between N-MRQ and S-MRQ is the f/h-distinction (N-MRQ ha’e vs. S-MRQ fa’e “house”) which is also reflected in loan words from French and English (N-MRQ hitoro vs. S-MRQ fitoro (<Fr. citron “lemon”), N-MRQ haraoa vs. S-MRQ faraoa (< Engl. flour)). Like modern Tahitian and Tuamotuan, S-MRQ has retained PCE *f whereas N-MRQ has replaced PCE *f by /h/ (Hughes & Fischer 1998). South Marquesan is therefore often felt to be “more closely related” to Tahitian than North Marquesan.

Whereas the island vernaculars of South Marquesan are thought to relatively homogenous – despite some lexical and phonological distinctions -, the dialectal situation in the northwestern part of the archipelago is much more complex and it is therefore less clear to talk about “North Marquesan” as one language. First of all the ‘Ua Pou vernacular stands out in that it has retained PCE *k whereas all other Marquesan vernaculars – including the South Marquesan vernaculars – have replaced historic *k with a glottal stop (‘Ua Pou kite vs. Nuku Hiva and Hiva ‘Oa ‘ite “see, know”). However despite these phonological and also lexical differences between the Nuku Hiva and the ‘Ua Pou vernacular, they also share a number of grammatical features which clearly distinguishes them from the South Marquesan vernaculars. The language spoken on Ua Huka is the most problematic to classify as a North Marquesan vernacular. Ua Huka at one point in its history depopulated was repopulated from islands of the northern as well as the southern group. The outcome is a language which can neither be clearly identified as North nor as South Marquesan.

In general one can observe on-going dialect levelling (Elbert 1982; Hughes & Fischer 1998). Mutual loans from one Marquesan vernacular to another have created many allolexemes having sometimes two or more forms (e.g. ko’aka – ‘o’aka – ko’ana “find”; maha’e – ma’a’e – tuha’e “forget”; see in particular Elbert 1982). Many of these doublets and triplets are often used by one and the same speaker, thus the usage of these lexemes is neither based on regional demarcation nor can one observe any complementary distributional rules.
The details of the differences between the Marquesan vernaculars is at present not precisely known and has to be further researched in our project.


Elbert, S.H. (1982), “Lexical diffusion in Polynesia and the Marquesan-Hawaiian Relationship”, in: The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 91:499-517

Green, R. (1966), “Linguistic subgrouping within Polynesia: the implications for prehistoric settlement”, in: Journal of the Polynesian society 75:6-38

Hughes, H.G.A. & S.R. Fischer (eds.) (1998), “Introduction”, in: Crook, P./ Greatheed, S. & Tima’u Te’ite’i, An essay toward a dictionnary and grammar of the lesser-Australian language, according to the dialect used at the Marquesas

Marck, J. (1996), “Eastern Polynesian subgrouping today”, in: Davidson, J., Irwin, G., Leach, F., Pawley, A. & D. Brown (eds.), Oceanic cultural history: Essays in honor of Roger Green, Wellington

Pawley, A.K. (1966), “Internal relationships of Polynesian languages and dialects”, in: Journal of the Polynesian society 75:39-64

Wurm, S.A. & Hattori, S. (1981) (eds.), Language atlas of the Pacific area, Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, Series C 66