What is the Rarotonga & Cook Islands Language?© David Kirkland - Cook Island Tourism
What is the Rarotonga & Cook Islands Language?

What is the Rarotonga & Cook Islands Language?

© David Kirkland – Cook Island Tourism

The Guide to the Cook Islands Language: Cook Islands Maori

The Cook Islands is home to two official languages: English and Cook Islands Maori. While English is the language that will help you get by in the Cook Islands, Cook Islands Maori is the native language and the language used between locals. You’re bound to encounter plenty of Cook Islands Maori words and phrases during your getaway, from people saying “kia orana” to scouting out the next “umukai” night to joining a “vaka” cruise. Learn a little about the Cook Islands language in this quick guide to the language of Rarotonga and the Cook Islands.

And while you’re here, you might want to open up the 15 Rarotongan Maori Words You Need to Know When Visiting the Cook Islands.

5 Fun Facts About the Cook Islands Maori Language

  • The Cook Islands alphabet only has 13 letters
  • “Ng” is one letter in the Cook Islands alphabet
  • Pukapukan is an extremely different dialect in the Cook Islands originating from the island of Pukapuka in the Northern Group
  • There are long vowels used in Cook Islands Maori which can vastly change the meaning of the word
  • Cook Islands Maori is closely related to New Zealand Maori, as the New Zealand Maori’s ancestors originated from Rarotonga. However, any New Zealander will be able to tell the differences between the languages, as well as the similarities.
What is the Rarotonga & Cook Islands Language?© Dylan Harrison - Cook Islands Tourism

Where Does Cook Islands Maori (Rarotongan) Come From?

For those of you who like a bit of context, Cook Islands Maori is part of a Polynesian branch of the huge Austronesian family of languages. Its closest relative languages are New Zealand Maori and Tahitian Ma’ohi.

Cook Islands Maori was traditionally a spoken language with no written form until missionaries wrote the language in the 1830s.

You can get more of an overview of the history of the Cook Islands and the great Polynesian migration in A Brief History of Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.

Are Cook Islands Maori and New Zealand Maori the Same?

Most travellers visiting the Cook Islands from New Zealand wonder if New Zealand Maori and Cook Islands Maori are the same languages. The answer is they are different languages but with obvious similarities and some shared words, such as the words for food (kai), language (reo), mountain (maunga) and countless other examples.

The Pukapukan Language

An extremely different dialect in the Cook Islands compared to Cook Islands Maori is Pukapukan, which you’re highly unlikely to hear while visiting the islands unless you venture to the lesser-visited islands of the Northern Group, specifically the island of Pukapuka.

Although it’s still up for debate where Pukapukan originates, the language is thought to have influences from Kiribati, Tokelau, Tuvalu, the Solomon Islands and even the Takuu Atoll in Papua New Guinea. Pukapukan has minor intelligibility with Cook Islands Maori.

What is the Rarotonga & Cook Islands Language?© Kieran Scott - Cook Islands Tourism

Pronunciations in Cook Islands Maori (Rarotongan)

The first thing to know about pronunciations in Cook Islands Maori is that there are only 13 letters in the Cook Islands alphabet: a, e, i, k, m, n, ng, o, p, r, t, u and v.

How to Pronounce Consonants in Cook Islands Maori

Consonants are pronounced the same as they are in English with the exception of the letter “v” which is sometimes interchangeable with a “w” sound.

How to Pronounce “Ng” in Cook Islands Maori

“Ng” has a soft pronunciation, similar to the sound in the middle of the word “singing”. The letters are commonly used at the beginning of words in Cook Islands Maori, such as “Nga” and “Ngatangi’ia”. Once you’ve masted how to say “ng” at the beginning of words, pronouncing in the middle of words should come easy.

How to Pronounce Vowels in Cook Islands Maori

The Cook Islands Maori/Rarotongan vowels are pronounced like the following:

  • A as in “far”
  • E as in “let”
  • I as in “marine”
  • O as in “orange” but with no “r” sound
  • U as in “flute”

The thing to note about Cook Islands Maori vowels are the long and short vowel variants. Long vowels will be marked with a macron, which looks like: ā, ē, ī, ō and ū.

How to Pronounce the Glottal Stop

The glottal stop is the apostrophe before or between vowels, such as in “ta’i” the word for one or “‘are” the word for house. In Cook Islands Maori, the glottal stop represents a closing of the throat in between the vowel sounds, instead of sounding the vowels in one flowing sound. So “ta’i” is pronounced “ta-ee” not like the English way of saying “tie”.

What is the Rarotonga & Cook Islands Language?© CookIslandsPocketGuide.com

Cook Islands Maori Words and Phrases to Know

Although English is widely spoken, effort in speaking the local language is always appreciated. Here are some Cook Islands Maori words and phrases to try out…

Basic Phrases in Cook Islands Maori

Hello – Kia Orana!
Yes – Ae
No – Kare
Please – ‘Ine
Thank you – Meitaki
Thank you very much – Meitaki ma’ata
Goodbye (to the person staying) – E no’o ra
Goodbye (to the person leaving) – ‘Aere ra
See you later – Ka kite

Places in Cook Islands Maori

Beach – Tapa ta’atai
House – ‘Are
Church – Ekalesia/’Are pure
Shop – Toa
Ocean – Moana
Reef – Akau
Mountain – Maunga
Island – Motu
Town – Taoni
Village – Tapere

Food and Drink in Cook Islands Maori

Eke – Octopus
Ika mata – A raw fish in coconut cream dish
Kumara – Sweet potato
Kuru – Breadfruit
Poke – Pawpaw or banana dessert mixed with coconut sauce
Puaka – Suckling pig
Rukau – Taro leaves mixed with coconut sauce and onion
Taro – Tropical root vegetable
Unga – Coconut crab
Ahi – Tuna
Mahimahi – Dolphinfish

Learn more important words to know in the 15 Rarotongan Words You Need to Know When Visiting the Cook Islands, as well as more things to eat in the Traditional Rarotongan Food: 10 Foods to Try in the Cook Islands.

What is the Rarotonga & Cook Islands Language?© Lara Hotz - Cook Islands Tourism

Frequently Asked Questions About the Cook Islands Language

Finally, here are the most frequent questions travellers have about the language of the Cook Islands.

How Many Languages are in the Cook Islands?

There are three languages in the Cook Islands: English, Cook Islands Maori and Pukapukan.

What Languages are Spoken in Rarotonga?

The language spoken in Rarotonga are English and Cook Islands Maori (also called Rarotongan). There is a small number of people on Rarotonga than can also speak Pukapukan.

Do They Speak English in Rarotonga?

Yes, English is widely spoken across Rarotonga, although the native language is Cook Islands Maori, also known as Rarotongan.

More About the Cook Islands

That’s it for our quick guide to the languages of the Cook Islands and Rarotonga. For more Cook Islands wisdom, take a look at these similar articles:

And if you’re planning a trip to the Cook Islands, don’t miss our 30 Tips for Travelling in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.


Robin C.

This article was reviewed and published by Robin, the co-founder of Cook Islands Pocket Guide. He has lived, worked and travelled across 16 different countries before settling in the South Pacific, so he knows a thing or two about planning the perfect trip in this corner of the world. Robin works and consults regularly with Cook Islands Tourism Corporation, a local government body representing the tourism industry. Robin is also the co-founder of several other South Pacific travel guides and is a regular host of webinars with the South Pacific Tourism Organisation.

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