Emae language

Native to Vanuatu
Region Emae
Native speakers
400 (2001)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 mmw
Glottolog emae1237[2]

Emae is a Polynesian outlier language of Vanuatu.



The language of ‘’Emae’’ is a language spoken in the villages of ‘’Makatea’’ and ‘’Tongamea’’ on the Three Hills Island in the country of Vanuatu. Of the hundred or so native languages of Vanuatu, including ‘’Emae’’, not a single one is considered an official language of Vanuatu. The official languages of Vanuatu are ‘’Bislama’’, French and English. Most of the ‘’Emae’’ people speak ‘’Emae’’, North Efate (‘’Nguna’’), English, French and ‘’Bislama’’. Less than 1% of the people who speak ‘’Emae’’ as their native language are literate in the language, while 50% to 70% are literate in their second language, whether it be ‘’Nguna’’, English, French or Bislama. Today, only around 400 people speak ‘’Emae’’, mainly in ‘’Makatea’’’ and ‘’Tongamea’’, 250 more than in the 1960s - around 150 speakers. According to Lewis, ‘’Emae’’ is still underused by many of the people in the area, but 50% of children know and speak ‘’Emae’’ (2014), and children speaking ‘’Emae’’ will help the language thrive.


‘’Emae’’ belongs to the large group of Austronesian language, which contains the more than 1200 languages. Continually, ‘’Emae’’ is part of the Samoic-Outliers node also known as Polynesian Outliers. If there was a map of the Pacific, there would be a huge triangle enveloping all Polynesian languages within it. ‘’Emae’’ is one of the few located outside of this triangle. The final node of ‘’Emae’’ is the Futunic group and all languages part of this node are the sister languages of ‘’Emae’’ - of which there are nine. The Futunic group comes from languages linked to the island of Futuna.



In ‘’Emae’’ there are thirteen consonants that complete the alphabet: [p],[(m)b],[m] sometimes referred to as [mw], [f], [v], [t], [(n)d],[n], [l],[r], [s], [k] and [ŋ] - (Capell, 1962). According to Capell, “[h] appears, but is a variant of [f] and sometimes [s]. Not classified as phoneme.” The first five consonants, according to the phonetic alphabet, involve the lips with [v] and [f] , while using the teeth. The two sets are described as bilabial (both lips) and labiodental (lip to teeth). The next set of letters, to [r] are all alveolar placement, which is the pressing of the tongue on the alveolar ridge. Finally, the letters [k] and [ŋ] are velar placements: the placing of the tongue on the back of the roof of the mouth. [ŋ] is a sound like in the word sing. For sounds like [p] and [b] the manner is plosive; plosive is a burst of air released from the mouth. A second way in which these consonants are made is nasal, where the sound is pushed through the nose. A third way is a fricative, a manner in which two objects in the mouth are pushed close to each other allowing only some are to pass. From the list of consonants, the letter [m] is the only letter that is considered an allophone. An allophone is a letter with multiple sounds, for example the [p] in ‘pie’ and ‘spy’. For Emae, the only allophone is [m] and [m w]; the phoneme [m w] has a sound of ‘muah’.


The vowels of ‘’Emae’’ are [a],[e],[i],[o] and [u]. Looking at the phonetic alphabet map of placement of the tongue of the vowels, the letter [i] is a front vowel and [u] is a back vowel. The height of the tongue also helps to contrast the sounds of the vowels, from the vowels from low to high are: [a], [e], then [i]. Like most Polynesian languages, ‘’Emae’’ words can form diphthongs. A diphthong is when two vowels are placed right next to each other, an example in the Emae language would be the word ‘’sui’’ for “bone”. For ‘’Emae’’, when two vowels are placed next to each other the lengthening of a vowel is an outcome. The lengthening of the vowels is denoted by the symbol ‘:’ placed after the vowel. The lengthening of the vowel usually changes the meaning of the ‘’Emae’’ word, for example “|’’a’’| means ‘3rd person singular’ and |’’a:’’| means ‘what’ (Capell, 1962).” This is similar to the Polynesian language of Hawaiian where the ‘’kahakō’’ lengthens a vowel.

Syllable structure and stress

To create a syllable in ‘’Emae’’ the pattern is vowel or consonant-vowel only. The V and the CV pattern is shown in “Polynesian, generally neighboring Melanesian languages except, ‘’Makura’’.” Consonant-consonant sounds don't happen, so the sounds [mb], [nd] and [mw] are said to be single, pre-nasalized phonemes. When placing stress in a word the stress is usually placed on the third syllable from the end of the word, in Capell’s (1962) words: antepenultimate. An example antepenultimate word is |’’nanafi’’|, with the stress on ‘na’.


Basic word order

Frantisek Lichtenberk says there are six sentence patterns; S(subject) V(verb) O(object), SOV, VSO, VOS, OSV and OVS with the last two being the most rare (Sato, 2012). Capell says the syntactic pattern of ‘’Emae’’ is Melanesian, and can be shown by the comparison between the sentence pattern of Maori and Emae (1962). The pattern that Maori, a Polynesian language, follows is the VSO. Capell puts the structures in term of actor, predicate and goal. The actor is the subject, the predicate the verb phrase and the goal is the object of the sentence. Emae follows the SVO pattern, which is the structure that most Melanesian languages use.


Reduplication in ‘’Emae’’ is not as common as it is in other Polynesian languages. Most of the reduplication in ‘’Emae’’ is a loan from other languages located around ‘’Emae’’. In Capell’s book he states that there is presence of both noun and verb reduplication in Emae (1962).

Noun Reduplication

Verb Reduplication (Loan from Nguna)


Indigenous vocabulary

Most words in the ‘’Emae’’ language are general Polynesian words ‘’’‘’ex.’’’’’

This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.


The homophones are regarded as interesting in ‘’Emae’’ because, some of the time, one word is a general Polynesian word yet the other comes from another pacific language. ‘’GP=General Polynesian’’ ‘’ex.’’

  1. “road, path” GP
  2. “wake up” GP
  1. “How many?” GP
  2. “Desire, want” GP
  1. “to give” Maori
  2. “egg” GP
  1. “ Then, and then” Nguna
  2. “night” GP
  1. “hand” GP
  2. “five” GP



There are no known documents in which the Emae language appears. Examples of these materials would consist of books, television, radio, and even YouTube. The only material of the Emae people is a short video of the people singing a hymn, not in Emae, but in the language of Bislama. This could lead to no records of the language, leading to its being regarded as endangered by some.


When trying to classify a language as endangered, linguists have to take into account other aspects of the language’s uses in the area it is spoken. The use of the language in the daily life of the Emae people is an important piece of information in determining Emae's level of endangerment. According to Lewis, ‘’Emae’’ is used in most domains (2014), yet this is a very vague statement because it does not specify the domains it refers to. This information can cause skeptics to have a different point of view. One domain in which a language might be used is at a religious gathering. While use in religious ceremony can be a way to preserve a language, there is no documentation of the Emea people using their language in this type of domain. For example in one of the villages, ‘’Makata’’ or ‘’Natanga’’, the title of the hymnals was in ‘’Tongoan’’ (Capell, 1962). ‘’Tongoan’’ is small language no longer spoken on Emae located on the island of Tongoa. The second source came from a Youtube video of a VHS recording of a small congregation of Emae people singing a gospel song. Instead of using Emae the people were singing in Bislama, one of the official languages of Vanuatu. This presents another issue with the lack of documentation of Emae, as there are no audio recordings of the language. There is a small elementary school located in Emae called ‘’Nofo’’ School, but it is unlikely that the language is taught there, as it is more popular to learn one of three official languages, which are spoken in the college on Efate. The use of official languages over indigenous languages and the lack of documentation of Emae are contributing factors to the endangered state of the language. There isn’t any sign that Emae people have kept up with modern technology, or even radios, which would be a perfect domain to help the language spread and survive. Inter-generational transfer, or the transferring of a language to a younger generation, is also a predictor of a language's vitality. According to Lewis, the language is used by 50% of the children (2014),which is a positive sign for the language, as the children will help keep the language alive. In Capell’s book Reverend Herwell says that “The population figures for [Makata and Natanga] are together now 157 (1962).” With about 400-500 speakers recorded in 2001 the total number of Emae speakers more than doubled in over forty years, which supports that children of Emae have and still are learning the language, keeping Emae alive.



  1. Emae at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Emae". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
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