When the earliest inhabitants of Fiji arrived 3500 years ago, they brought with them the language of the homeland they had set sail from – an island in Vanuatu, or possibly the Solomons (but certainly not Africa!)
That language has changed and splintered over the years into a multitude of different ‘communalects’ now numbering more than 300. This is because language divides naturally as people spread out, and there may have been some additional input from more recent immigrants from other islands lying to the west.
The Fijian ‘communalects’ belong to the enormous Austronesian language family, which means they are related to thousands of other languages spanning the globe from Malagasy in the west to Rapanui (Easter Island) in the east, from Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the south to Hawaii and Taiwan in the north. The family includes such important national languages as Tagalog (Philippines) and Malay. After Fiji had been settled, the flow of population continued north and east. The languages of Polynesia (such as Maori, Tahitian, Tongan, Samoan and Hawaiian), the language of the tiny island of Rotuma to the north of Fiji, and of course their speakers, all originated in Fiji more than 3000 years ago. These relationships can be clearly seen in the following table of selected words.
The early missionaries had a keen appreciation of the importance of using local language in their work, and by 1840 had already devised an excellent spelling system for Fijian as well as published a number of books in different ‘communalects’. When the need for a standard language became apparent, they selected the language of Bau, the tiny island off the south-east coast of Viti Levu which was, and in some ways still is, the seat of the major power in Fijian politics. Nowadays the spoken Fijian of the towns and the Fijian used in books and newspapers are both known as ‘Bauan’, even though neither is quite the same as the language of the island of Bau.
While many of its Pacific relatives, such as Hawaiian and Maori, have been struggling for survival, Fijian has never been in serious danger of extinction, even though it was ignored for a long time in schools. The vast majority of Fijians have always used it as their everyday language, and most Indians understand at least some. In rural communities like Levuka, Taveuni and Savusavu, the Indians all speak Fijian fluently. In general, however, English is the lingua franca in Fiji.
Since independence in 1970, Fijian has also been increasingly used on the radio, in books and newspapers, and in the schools. To ensure that future evolution of the language has a sound base, the government has set up a department to research and develop the Fijian language. The department’s first major task is to compile a dictionary of Fijian for Fijians, with all definitions and other information in Fijian, which when completed will be the first of its kind in the Pacific.
Fijian spelling will come as a surprise to visitors because it uses some familiar letters in an unfamiliar way. Upon arriving in Fiji, you will soonrealise that ‘Nadi’ is pronounced ‘Nandi’ (rhyming with candy). As linguist Albert Schutz in his very fine primer Say It In Fijian explains, the reason for this alphabet system was ‘due neither to any perversity on the part of the first linguists, nor to chance’. Instead, David Cargill, themissionary who devised the alphabet especially for Fijian students learning to read, found that they considered it simple and satisfying.
The result of Cargill’s work is a spelling system that is economical and, more importantly, regular. This second quality is extremely significant to the learner of Fijian because it means there is a good chance the student will pronounce the words correctly when he or she reads them. Contrast this system with the English language, which is riddled with exceptions.
Consonants Most of the consonants other than b, d, q, g and c hold no surprises, but there are some differences from the way the Englishcounterparts are usually pronounced. Like the combination ‘dr’, the letters b, d and q are pronounced with a nasal sound in front of them – like ‘ndr’. ‘R’ is rolled or trilled, as in Spanish. ‘Y’ has not nearly as much glide quality to it as does the English ‘y’, as in ‘yes’.
The consonant letters that seem unusual to English speakers are:
Vowels The following is a guide to the pronunciation of vowels:
Some Useful Words
Some Useful Concepts
Some Useful Phrases
Those interested in further studies of Fijian will find Albert Schutz’s Say It In Fijian (Pacific Publications, Sydney, 1979) an excellent introduction to the language. The book is available in Fiji. Likewise, Schutz’s Spoken Fijian (University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1979) is a good primer for more advanced studies. My experience in Fiji has been that even the most minimal attempt at learning a few words or phrases will be amply rewarded with kindness and a greater respect for the visitor.
The language of the Fijian Indians is generally called Hindi or Hindustani, but it is quite different from the Hindi spoken in India. Fijian Indians call their language Fiji Bat (literally, ‘Fiji Talk’) or simply Fiji Hindi. This lingua franca of Fijian Indians is a hybrid of many Indian languages, dialects and borrowed words from Fijian and English. As Jeff Siegel, author of Say It In Fiji Hindi aptly puts it, ‘Fiji Hindi reflects the diverse origins of the Fiji Indians as well as their unique new culture which has developed in Fiji’. Linguists and scholars may argue about the legitimacy of this dialect, but there is no doubt that it is a living language with its own special grammar and vocabulary suited for Fiji.
The history of the language mirrors the history of the Indian experience in Fiji. The Indians who settled here were a diverse group – Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians from numerous castes and subcastes. Some people came from the northern districts of India speaking Urdu or Hindustani and dialects such as Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Bagheli and Maithili. From the southern regions some spoke unrelated languages from the Dravidian family such as Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam.
However, passage on the vessels to Fiji and later plantation life necessitated living at close quarters. This quickly resulted in the breakdown of caste taboos regarding food and work. The coming together of all the different Indian cultures also demanded a common language so that everyone could communicate. Thus Fiji Hindi was conceived. Siegel theorises that Fiji Hindi possibly evolved out of a ‘Bazaar Hindustani’ that already existed in India with many words and features of the various Indian languages. The influences of English and Fijian were later incorporated.
The vast majority of Fijian Indians speak Fiji Hindi, but some still speak a different language at home such as Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu or Punjabi. Some of these languages are taught in school, but mostly Indian Standard Hindi or Urdu are taught for use in connection with religion, literature or formal occasions. English is taught in all Fijian schools and is the lingua franca of the nation. The average Fijian Indian may thus speak Tamil at home, Fiji Hindi with the neighbours, the local Fijian dialect with the villagers, English at work and Standard Hindi at a religious gathering.
Scholar Richard Barz informs me that students of Fiji Hindi will be interested in knowing that the first play ever to be published in that language, Adhura Sapna (A Shattered Dream) by Raymond Pillai, is featured (along with an English translation) on pages 221-255 in Language Transplanted: The Development of Overseas Hindi (Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1988), edited by Richard Barz & Jeff Siegel.
Hindi – Hindustani – Urdu
It’s all very confusing. Hindustani is the language used in parliamentary debate yet Hindi is designated as the official language of Fiji Indians. The Fiji broadcasting system uses Hindustani but newspapers are in Hindi. According to a government survey, nearly 90% of Fijian Indian households speak Hindustani, but Hindus learn Hindi in school, while Muslims learn Urdu. How do we make sense out of this?
First of all, we must distinguish between spoken and written languages. Hindustani usually refers to the spoken language of northern India. It evolved from the classical Indian language of Sanskrit (which is studied much like Latin in the West) but utilises a lot of borrowed Persian words. A formal style of Hindustani is used on the radio. Fiji Hindi is a colloquial form of Indian Hindustani.
Formal Hindi is a literary form of Hindustani utilising Devanagari script (the same writing as Sanskrit), but replaces the borrowed Persian words with Sanskrit. Urdu is also a written or literary form of Hindustani using Arabic script and Persian as well as Arabic words rather than Sanskrit ones. There are also important religious distinctions between Hindi and Urdu. Urdu, used exclusively by Muslims, developed from the Persian court language spoken by India’s Moghul conquerors who were Muslims. Hindi, of course, is used by Hindus.
The bottom line is that Hindi and Urdu are very different in their formal and written forms but are almost the same spoken language.
Greetings & Civilities
Only rarely will the visitor encounter a Fijian Indian who does not speak English. Just the same, Indians will appreciate the visitor who extends him or herself by learning a few commonly used expressions.
Many greetings are used but the most heard is ‘Namaste’, meaning both hello and goodbye. Another common greeting, corresponding to the English ‘How are you?’ is ‘Kaise?’ The answers might be:
Some Useful Phrases
Out and About
Visitors interested in Fiji Hindi would be well advised to pick up a copy of Say It in Fiji Hindi (Pacific Publications) which is available in local bookshops.
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