Pukapukan language

Not to be confused with the Marquesic dialect of Puka-Puka in the Tuamotus (French Polynesia)
Region Pukapuka and Nassau islands, northern Cook Islands; some in Rarotonga; also New Zealand and Australia
Native speakers
450 in Cook Islands (2011 census)[1]
2,000 elsewhere (no date)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 pkp
Glottolog puka1242[2]

Pukapukan is a Polynesian language that developed in isolation on the island of Pukapuka (Danger Island) in the northern group of the Cook Islands. As a "Samoic Outlier" language with strong links to western Polynesia, Pukapukan is not closely related to any other languages of the Cook Islands, but does manifest substantial borrowing from some East Polynesian source in antiquity. Recent research suggests that the languages of Pukapuka, Tokelau and Tuvalu group together as a cluster, and as such had significant influence on several of the Polynesian Outliers, such as Tikopia and Anuta, Pileni, Sikaiana (all in the Solomon Islands) and Takuu (off the coast of Bougainville, PNG). There is also evidence that Pukapuka had prehistoric contact with Micronesia, as there are quite a number of words in Pukapukan that appear to be borrowings from Kiribati (K. & M. Salisbury conference paper, 2013).

Pukapukan is also known as "te leo Wale" ('the language of Home') in reference to the name of the northern islet where the people live. The atoll population has declined from some 750 in the early 1990s to less than 500 since the cyclone in 2005. Literacy in the Pukapukan language was introduced in the school in the 1980s, resulting in an improvement in the quality of education on the atoll.

The language is spoken by over 4,000 people, the vast majority living in a number of migrant communities in New Zealand and Australia. A bilingual dictionary was started by the school teachers on the island and completed in Auckland within the Pukapukan community there (publication date 2013; URL http://www.massey.ac.nz/~bwhite/PukapukaLexicon/lexicon/). An indepth study of the language has resulted in a reference grammar (Mary Salisbury, A Grammar of Pukapukan, University of Auckland, 2003 700pp.). The most significant publication in the Pukapuka language will be the "Puka Yaa" (Bible), with the New Testament expected to be completed for publishing in 2013.


Pukapukan, also known as Bukabukan, is the core language spoken on the coral atoll of Pukapuka, located in the northern section of the Cook Islands (Beaglehole 1906-1965). Pukapukan shares minor intelligibility with its national language of Cook Islands Maori, and bears strong links to its neighboring Western Polynesian cultures specifically Samoa. The island of Pukapuka is one of the most remote islands in the Cook Islands. There is evidence that humans have inhabited the atoll since 300 BC, but it is not clear whether it has been continuously inhabited. It may be certain that a final settlement took place around 1300 AD from Western Polynesia. Local oral tradition dictates that a giant tsunami produced by a cyclone came and hit the island and killed all the inhabitants except for 15–17 men, 2 women and a few children, from genealogy studies probably around 1600 AD. It was from these survivors that the island was repopulated. The island was one of the first of the Cook Islands to be discovered by the Europeans, on Sunday 20 August 1595 by the Spanish Explorer Alvaro Mendana (Beaglehole 1906-1965). Since then the language of Pukapukan has survived hundreds of years on the remote island of Pukapuka and has remained a strong link to the ancestors of its speakers.


The language of Pukapukan is not only spoken on the Island of Pukapuka but on the neighboring Cook Islands as well as New Zealand and Australia. Today the population of Pukapuka has diminished with only a few hundred native speakers. From a 2001 census there were only about 644 speakers on Pukapuka and its plantation island of Nassau. As of a 2011 census, there are now only 450 speakers due to a devastating cyclone that hit the island of Pukapuka in 2005. There are a total of 2,400 speakers worldwide, including those who live on Pukapuka and the 200 speakers on Rarotonga, the most populous island of the Cook Islands.


Pukapukan is classified as an Austronesian language (Ethnoluge 2013). Though grouped with the Cook Islands the language shows influence from both Eastern and Western Polynesia.

Sound System


There are 15 letters in the Pukapukan alphabet – five vowels, 9 consonants and one digraph: a, e, ng, i, k, l, m, n, o, p, t, u, v, w, y


The consonant phonemes in Pukapukan are: / p, t, k, v, w, y, m, n, ŋ, l / (Teingoa 1993).

The letters ‘y’ and ‘w’ are not in the Cook Islands Maori language but are additions to Pukapukan. The semivowel /w/ and the palatalised dental spirant /y/, in general, regularly reflect *f and *s, respectively. The ‘y’ sound in Pukapukan actually acts somewhat differently and is difficult for non native speakers to pronounce. It is pronounced like ‘th’ or ‘θ’ in English.


The vowels in Pukapukan are respectively /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, and /u/. All vowels have two sounds, a long sound and a short sound. A vowels length is indicated by writing a macron above each vowel.

In Pukapukan it is safe to say that every syllable ends with a vowel, every vowel is pronounced, and there are no diphthongal sounds.


Basic Word Order

Pukapukan uses the two distinctive word orders of Verb-Subject-Object and Verb-Object-Subject, although it is clear that VSO is used more commonly. Adjectives always follow their nouns in Pukapukan. Waka is often used as a causative prefix in Austronesian languages, but in Pukapukan it has various functionalities. Due to Rarotongan influence ‘waka’ is shortened to ‘aka’, whereas ‘waka’ is seen to be more formal (Teingoa 1993). Nouns prefixed by waka become verbs with similar meanings:

Adjectives prefixed by waka become transitive verbs:

Some verbs marked by waka have specialized meanings that become somewhat difficult to predict from the base meaning.


Like many other Polynesian languages, Pukapukan uses a lot of full and partial duplication, some times to emphasize a word or to give it new meaning (Beaglehole 1906-1965).


tayi “one” lua “two” tolu “three” wa “four” lima “five” ono “six” witu “seven” valu “eight” iva “nine” katoa/laungaulu “ten”

Pukapukan uses two different counting systems in the language; the ‘one unit’ and the ‘two unit’. Numeral classifiers are also used as prefixes for numbers over ten and different objects. The ‘one unit’ uses its word for ten ‘laungaulu’ and adds the ‘one unit’ number (Teingoa 1993).

For numbers above nineteen the single unit numbers are used.

The ‘two unit’ is derived from the ‘one unit’.


Indigenous Vocabulary

kāvatavata “noise made by snapping tongue” Pōiva “name of a deified ancestor” pulu “the calf of the leg” Yāmatangi “prayer for a fair wind”


Pukapukan is not closely related to other Cook Islands languages but it does show substantial borrowing from Eastern Polynesian languages, such as Rarotongan. In fact, because there is no ‘r’ in Pukapukan ‘l’ takes its place in Rarotongan borrowings (Teingoa 1993).

Pukapukan Rarotongan
Rarotonga Lalotonga Rarotonga
torch lama rama
hurry limalima rimarima
angry lili riri
pour lilingi riringi


Pukapukan uses many homophones in its vocabulary usually to give names to new words or items with similar origin meanings (Beaglehole 1906-1965).


  1. v. to clap hands in rhythm
  2. v. to cry loudly
  3. n. corner


  1. n. an emotional shock
  2. n. shadow
  3. n. Dawn
  4. v. to change color
  5. Verbal prefix: good at, skilled in


  1. v. to tie up
  2. n. Bundle, village, group, team
  3. n. Name of a taro preparation
  4. n. Name of a bird



There is a limited list when it comes to the language of Pukapukan. Although, today speakers of the language, locals of Pukapuka, and especially teachers on the island are working to put together books and resources dedicated to the teaching and structure of Pukapukan. Collaboratively the locals of the island are also working to bring back to their own community since the devastating Cyclone percy in 2005. Since 2005 it has taken nearly 6 years to rebuild their communities (Pasifika 2009). Currently there are a select number of manuscripts and dictionaries on the language of Pukapukan, but their culture is kept alive through music and dance collaborations across the pacific and websites like YouTube.


According to Ethnologue Pukapukan is considered to be a threatened language and its “Intergenerational transmission is in the process of being broken, but the child-bearing generation can still use the language so it is possible that revitalization efforts could restore transmission of the language in the home (Ethnologue 2013). Speakers of Pukapukan especially children are multilingual in English and Cook Islands Maori, but English is rarely spoken outside of schools and many classes are actually taught in Pukapukan. Today, revitalization efforts of Pukapuka and its language is underway (Pasifika 2009).

Further reading


  1. 1 2 Pukapukan at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Pukapuka". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
Pukapukan language test of Wikipedia at Wikimedia Incubator
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