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.
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.
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”.
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.
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:
- A Traveller’s Guide to the Cook Islands Culture
- Who are the People of the Cook Islands?
- Cook Islander Etiquette: Rarotonga & Cook Islands Customs & Traditions
And if you’re planning a trip to the Cook Islands, don’t miss our 30 Tips for Travelling in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.