Alan's Class (1996/7)


French Polynesia

by Begotxu Olaizola Elordi

The People
Historical Outline



Have you ever heard of Tahiti?

When did I first hear the name Tahiti? Was it in a pirate film? A brochure for a tropical island pleasure cruise? Geography lessons back at school? I can’t remember. As for the name "French Polynesia", that came to my attention at the time of the recent French nuclear testing on Mururoa atoll in Tuamotu.

I didn’t know France had any dependencies left in the Pacific....

Greetings, fellow "Frenchmen"!

In my ignorance, I thought Pacific islands were independent, member states of the Commonwealth, or else belonged to the United States.

Half of my own country is also a French dependency (the other half being a Spanish one) so I was curious to know how my "fellow" (!) citizens were doing under the care of our common metropolitan protectors.

So I have updated my knowledge of the political distribution of the Oceanic area, looking up facts in atlases, browsing through the Internet and reading the few books and encyclopaedias on the subject that I could get hold of in the Basque Country. (I recommend "The Flight of the Amokura" by Richard Benton.)

Language and schools

I found out that schooling in French Polynesia had been conducted entirely in French, using the same syllabus for most subjects as schools in France, as late as 1962.

We know of stories like this in Europe too: in Britanny, Wales, Ireland, Catalonia, the Basque Country....

Throughout history dominant languages have spread at the expense of weaker ones, but in this era, in which the world is shrinking through industrialization, education and the mass media, the process has accelerated, with even major languages such as French and Spanish, or English in the States, becoming concerned about their fate.

We speakers of minority, threatened or endangered languages will need more than average luck to survive in the approaching millennium.


Tahiti and the other islands that are officially known as French Polynesia spread over one and a half million square miles of ocean in the eastern South Pacific. This is about the equivalent of the size of Europe! Yet the total land area of the 118 islands and atolls is a mere 1,500 square miles (3,885 sq. km.) -- about the size of the Basque province of Araba! Distances are immense and difficult to comprehend in European terms:

There are five major island groups or archipelagos:

  1. the Society Islands (area 1,647, the main islands of which are Tahiti (1,042 and Moorea (132;

  2. the Marquesas Islands (1,274;

  3. the Austral Islands, also known as Tubuai (174;

  4. the Tuamotu Archipelago (810;

  5. the Gambier Islands, also known as Mangareva (36

The Clipperton Islands (46, uninhabited at present, are a dependency located 1,000 km. from the Mexican coast in the eastern Pacific.

The islands of French Polynesia...

are mainly mountainous and generally of volcanic origin. Tahiti was formed from the volcanoes Orohena (2,237m.) and Tetufera (1,799m.). However, the Tuamotu and Gambier islands consist of coral atolls.

The high islands of the Society and Austral groups, which have volcanic peaks, are heavily eroded and frequently marked by deep valleys. These are forested with areas of dry grassland. In contrast, coconut and pandanus trees abound on the flat atolls, and also on the coastal plains of the high islands.

The Society group is divided into two parts:

The Tuamotu archipelago, occupying the largest region of French Polynesia, is located to the east of the Society Islands and consists of eighty atolls. These are ring-shaped coral islands surrounding a lagoon. The largest is Rangiroa, and the other main atolls are Fakarava, Anaa, Kaukura, Taaroa and Tikehau.

The Austral Islands are five high islands to the south of Tahiti, separated from each other by distances of 160 to 230 km. The islands present a sharp mountainous relief, and are each surrounded by a coral reef: either a fringing reef (at the coast level) or a barrier reef (at the ocean level). The island lying farthest away from Tahiti is Rapa, at a distance of 1500 km. from Papeete.

The Marquesas are located 1500 km. northeast of Tahiti. They comprise nine islands with hilly relief.

The Gambier Islands are a group of ten small, high islands extending to the southwest of the Tuamotus.


With the exception of the Marquesas and the northernmost islands of Tuamotu, the climate of French Polynesia is equatorial with lots of rain.

Southeast trade winds make for equable temperatures, with an annual average of 27°C (76°F), and bring higher rainfall to the windward sides of islands. Average annual rainfall in Papeete is 1,905 mm., but on the windward coasts it can reach 3,050 mm.


Village agriculture is at a subsistence level and is based on root crops, fruit and coconut cultivation. The decline in the traditional commercial crops, such as copra, vanilla, coffee and mother-of-pearl has been offset by the rapid rise of tourism. Economic ties with France remain strong.

The People


According to the 1988 census there were 188,814 people living in French Polynesia, and for 1993 the population was estimated at 208,000. The 1988 figures gave the following distribution by regions:

131,309 people, or about 70% of the total population, were shown to live on Tahiti, with an ongoing trend within the archipelago towards the main island and its capital Papeete, whose suburbs have grown to a larger size than the town itself.

The population's ethnic composition is as follows:

The indigenous inhabitants of Tahiti are the Eastern Polynesian people who call themselves Maohi (i.e. "Maori"), closely related to the New Zealand Maoris and the Hawaiians, and more distantly to Western Polynesians such as Samoans and Tongans.

It is the Chinese who run the businesses of Papeete's Quartier du Commerce.

All the above are legally French citizens.

Racial intermarriage is common, so many Tahitians can claim French, Chinese, American and Polynesian ancestry. It is said that this accounts for the physical beauty of the inhabitants and the absence of racial prejudice on all sides.

In the nineteenth century, subsequent to the upheaval of European contact, Polynesians and Melanesians were widely believed to be on the verge of extinction due to disease, the razzias to obtain cheap labour, and the impact of Christianity which all but destroyed the pre-existing social structure. The vertiginous downward trend is illustrated by the following figures:

  1840 1860   1925/6
Solomon Is.   150,000 => 60,000
Marquesas 30,000   => 2,000

However, the downward trend has been reversed since World War II, thanks in part to improvements in medicine and hygiene; cf. the following more recent statistics:

  1948   1978
Solomon Is. 57,000 => 215,000
French Polynesia 57,000 => 145,000


The official languages of French Polynesia are French and Tahitian. Each island group has its own language, e.g. Tuamotuan in the Tuamotus and Marquesan in the Marquesas.

These languages, together with Tahitian, are East Polynesian languages and members of the vast Austronesian language family.

Tahitian is by far the strongest of these. Originally the language of Tahiti and its neighbour islands in the Society group, Tahitian is now spoken on about 100 islands in French Polynesia. Its prominence is due to the facts that Tahiti was the most populous island and the Tahitian language chosen for missionary work. As the written word in Tahitian and Christianity were spread by native pastors, this language more or less superseded the closely related local languages and dialects. Furthermore Tahiti continues to attract immigrants from other islands and island groups. It is thought that in 1970, of the 150,000 inhabitants of French Polynesia at least 100,000 were Tahitian speakers, while other native languages are slowly being replaced by Tahitian or French.

Although English is now spoken by many shopkeepers, hotel employees and students, tourists would find it useful to come equipped with some command of either French or Tahitian.

About Tahitian...

Tahitian's closest relatives include Hawaiian, Maori, Marquesan and Tuamotuan; other Polynesian languages such as Samoan and Tongan are also quite closely related. The relationship of these Polynesian languages to many Micronesian and Melanesian languages, such as Fijian, is more remote but still evident, as is the affiliation of all the above to the enormous Austronesian (or "Malayo-Polynesian") language family which encompasses most languages of Oceania, Indonesia (e.g. Malay), the Philippines (e.g. Tagalog), Madagascar (Malagasy) and Taiwan, which together number in the thousands, making this one of the world's most important language families.

Even a casual observer notices the occurrence of cognate words across these languages for some basic concepts, as in the following classic examples illustrating related words for "eye", "die", "fish" and "three":

  Tahitian Hawaiian Samoan Fijian Malay Tagalog Malagasy
"eye" mata maka mata mata mata mata maso
"die" mate make mate mate     maty
"fish" i'a i'a i'a ika ikan    
"three" toru kolu tolu tolu   tatlo telo

Despite France's long presence in Tahiti, few French words have found their way into Tahitian. On the other hand, English loan words, often dating back to missionary times, are numerous. These are commonly assimilated into the Tahitian language through fairly drastic changes in their sounds. Some examples follow:

English Tahitian
money moni
time taime
half 'áfa
hundred hánere
letter rata
book puta
English Tahitian
butter pata
coffee taofe
pineapple painapo
rice raiti
frying pan faraipáni
needle nira

Yet Tahitian also has the capacity to create words from native elements to express new ideas, as in manureva "aeroplane" (literally "spacebird") and tahua-manureva "airport" (literally "spacebird-field"), faremoni "bank" ("moneyhouse"), vaira'arehu'ava'ava "ashtray" ("tobacco-ash-place") and 'áfatateatana'ina'i "television" ("small-cinema-box").

Here are some useful Tahitian phrases for the visitor:

Ia ora na! Good day!
Eaha te huru? How are you?
Maita'i. Good.
Manuia! Cheers!
Maeva! Welcome!
Máururu. Thank you.
E ara! Watch out!
'Aita pe'ape'a! No problem!
'Eiaha e ru! No hurry!
Párahi. Goodbye.

Tahitian has five short vowels, a e i o u, and five corresponding long vowels shown as á é í ó ú above but which should really have a horizontal macron above them. There are just nine consonants: p t m n f h v r and the glottal stop, shown in spelling by the apostrophe '.


Formal education is mandatory in Tahiti for every child up to the age of fourteen. Primary education begins at five and continues until the age of twelve, when secondary education begins. There are several technical and vocation schools in Tahiti including hotel, restaurant, nursing and teaching programmes, as well as a large adult education programme. Ninety-five percent of the population is literate.

Even though schooling in French Polynesia has been conducted entirely in French, using the same syllabus as schools in France for most subjects, as late as 1962 almost half of the population claimed that they were able to read and write only in Tahitian. This high literacy rate attests to the importance of Tahitian in everyday life, especially if we remember that Tahitian was forbidden in schools for both teachers and pupils, and banned both in the classroom and during recreation. This Tahitian literacy is maintained in adult life mainly through the writing of personal letters and the reading of religious texts.

Tahitian has furthermore retained its vitality through its use

As in other parts of Oceania, a nationalist minority seeks to introduce Tahitian into the schools. These attempts are highly suspect to the masses, in whose view the replacement of French by Tahitian would constitute a trick to prevent them from learning French, a necessary condition for their rise on the socio-economic scale. Already in the late 1960s, many Tahitian parents, while using Tahitian exclusively when talking to other adults, were speaking to their children in French with the intention of thus facilitating their progress at school. Paradoxically, in a pioneering school on Moorea which had introduced the use of Tahitian into the classroom, the majority of its pupils in 1980 were French-speaking children with parents of French extraction!

The situation of French Polynesia in the seventies was compared to that of New Zealand in the fifties, except that Maori at that time had at least a toe hold in the school system. While French may be supplanting Tahitian on Tahiti itself, it is likely that Tahitian rather than French will pose the greatest immediate threat to the survival of the other Polynesian languages spoken in the territory.

On Tahiti itself, where the influence of French is greatest, this is mainly due to

On the outer islands, e.g. in Tuamotu, there is a high dropout rate with less than 20% of children finishing elementary school, while Tahitian is reinforced by radio broadcasting, popular music, and personal contact with Tahitian speakers.

Historical Outline

prehistory Some islands of present-day French Polynesia are believed to have been populated as early as two thousand years ago. (This is more recent than other parts of Oceania, e.g. New Caledonia and Fiji, which were already populated in 800 BC.) According to archaeologists, from here the Polynesians continued their spread to Easter Island around 400 AD, New Zealand in about 1000 and Hawaii about 1200.
European discovery This region spreads over such a large area that it took several European explorers centuries to discover and chart.
sixteenth & seventeenth centuries "Daring" voyages of Spanish or Portuguese and Dutch ships to some island groups.
1767 The English captain Samuel Wallis was the first European to discover Tahiti.
1768 Arrival of Bougainville.
1769 Arrival of Cook.
1788 Capt. Bligh of Bounty mutiny fame [and more links].
1836 Arrival of the French Order of the Sacred Heart, who implanted direct rule in contrast to Britain's colonial policy of indirect rule.
1880 End of rule of Tahiti by the Pomare dynasty.
1884 Tahiti a French colony.
pre-WW2 The whole of Oceania became a strategic area; small islands useful for landing planes.
WW2 During the Vichy Régime New Caledonia and Tahiti support "la France libre".
post-WW2 While British and Australian dependencies in the Pacific achieve their independence, this is not the case for French or American territories.
1946 French Polynesia becomes a French overseas territory with representation in the French Assembly.
1958 This status confirmed by vote of the islanders.
1984 French Polynesia is given "internal autonomy": a directly elected legislature, with control over local affairs, is headed by a High Commissioner representing the French Republic, who is in charge of relations, justice, defense and currency.
Why isn't French Polynesia independent?
The majority of islanders do not seek independence, and France has strong interests in maintaining it as a dependency. Some of the reasons:
  • French military interests in the area, e.g. for nuclear experiments conducted at Mururoa atoll (Tuamotu) since 1966;
  • the possession of a strong local currency vis-à-vis the Australian and New Zealand dollars;
  • the policy of full French citizenship rights for everybody;
  • the existence of the Territorial Assembly.

However, France's continued nuclear weapons testing is opposed by many Pacific nations and has fuelled local demands for greater autonomy.




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Last updated: Tuesday, 20 January 2004