An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Classification: Austronesian, Eastern Malayo-Polynesian, Oceanic, Eastern Oceanic, Fijian-Polynesian (or Central Pacific). Besides Fijian, the Central Pacific group includes, Rotuman and all Polynesian languages.

Overview. With less than half a million speakers, Fijian is one of the largest Oceanic languages belonging to the Austronesian family. It is the indigenous tongue of the independent South Pacific state of Fiji. Though Fiji belongs to the region of Melanesia, Fijian is quite closely related to Polynesian languages. It has a simple phonology and is uninflected, employing affixation as the main morphological device. It was not written until the arrival of the Europeans in the early 19th century.

Distribution and Speakers. Fijian is spoken in the Fijian archipelago located in the Southwest Pacific Ocean. It belongs to the Melanesia region of Oceania and it is composed of 500 islands, 110 of which are inhabited. Its closest neighbors are Vanuatu to the west, France's New Caledonia to the southwest, New Zealand's Kermadec to the southeast, Tonga and Samoa to the east, France's Wallis and Futuna to the northeast and Tuvalu to the north. Some Fijians have migrated to New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Canada. Fijian is spoken as first language by about 400,000 people.

Status. In 1997 Fijian was declared one of the official languages of Fiji along with English and Hindi. It is not compulsory at school and the language of education, commerce and government is English. There has been recently calls to upgrade its status. Two centuries ago, almost all of the inhabitants of Fiji spoke Fijian but today it is spoken as a first language by only half of the native population of the island.


Fijian has numerous dialects and some of them are not mutually intelligible. These varieties are gathered into two major subgroups: Western (western Vitilevu Island and adjacent islands) and Eastern (in the rest of the country). Standard Fijian is based on the dialect of the southeastern area of Vitilevu Island where the capital, Suva, is located.


Word structure. Syllables are open i.e. all end in a vowel. No consonant clusters occur.

Vowels (10): Fijian has five basic vowels, i, e, a, u, o, which can be short or long. Vowel length is phonemic though it is not marked in the script.

Consonants (16). The consonantal system is quite simple. Consonants are articulated at three main places: labial, dental/alveolar and velar. Voiced stops are prenasalized, they occur in initial as well as in medial position. The fricatives are asymmetric, there are no voiceless-voiced pairs.


Stress: falls on the second-last vowel of the word.

Script and Orthography

The script in use since around 1840 is based on the Latin alphabet. In fact, it is identical to the English alphabet though, of course, the pronunciation (shown between brackets) differ in some instances:

-f, h, p, x and z are used only in foreign words.

-[nr] is represented by dr.

-vowel length is not usually indicated but in didactic texts and grammars a macron is placed over long vowels.


Nouns, adjectives and verbs are not inflected. Grammatical functions are performed by affixes (prefixes and suffixes).

  1. Nominal

  2. Proper names, which include personal names, place names and personal pronouns, are preceded by the article ko; common nouns are preceded by the article na.

  3. Personal pronouns (shown in the table) distinguish four persons and four numbers (singular, dual, paucal [a small number greater than two], and plural. The first person can be inclusive (of speaker and hearer) or exclusive (the speaker is included but not the hearer). Subject pronouns are always obligatory and must be included in every predicate.

  1. Fijian, like other Oceanic languages, distinguishes different types of relations to express possession:

  1. i)Inalienable possession includes family relations, parts of the body and other relations between whole and part. It is indicated by attaching a pronominal possessive suffix directly to the noun:

  2. na tama-qu (my father)

  1. na: article for common names

  2. tama: father

  3. qu: possessive marker for the 1st person singular

  1. ii)Edibles and some inherent properties like length and height. In this kind of possession the possessive suffix is not attached to the noun but to the base ke-:

  1. na ke-qu tavioka (‘my manioc’)

  1. iii)Drinkables. The possessive suffix is attached to the base me-:

  1. na me-qu tī (‘my tea’)

  1. iv)All other types of relations are marked by the possessive suffix attached to the base no-:

  1. na no-qu vale (‘my house’)

  1. Verbal

  2. Person and number are indicated by placing a personal pronoun before the verb. Tense, aspect, mood, direction and emphasis are marked by particles preceding or following the verb. Plain stems are normally intransitive but can be made transitive by adding a suffix to them.

  1. Most verbs may be reduplicated to express a repeated or prolonged action. The object of the verb can be incorporated after the verbal root acquiring, thus, an indefinite or general meaning.


The normal word order is Verb phrase-Object-Subject (VOS):

  1. era ārai-ca na yalewa na gone

  1. The children saw the woman

era: 3rd pl. pronoun

ā: past tense marker

rai: verbal stem

ca: transitive marker

na: article for common names

yalewa: woman

gone: child

The plural of 'child' is not marked directly on the noun but through the personal pronoun.

Word order can also be VSO. Attributes follow their nouns. Fijian has a few prepositions.


Fijian had borrowed many words from English adapting them to Fijian phonology. They include plants, animals and natural substances alien to Fiji, months of the year and days of the week, theological concepts introduced by the missionaries, scientific and technical terms.

Basic Vocabulary

one: dua

two: rua

three: tolu

four: va

five: lima

six: ono

seven: vitu

eight: walu

nine: ciwa

ten: tini

hundred: drau

father: tama

mother: tina

male's elder brother: tuaka

male's younger brother: taci

female's brother: gāne

female's elder sister: tuaka

female's younger sister: taci

male's sister: gāne

son: luve, tagane

daughter: luve, yalewa

head: ulu

eye: mata

foot: yava

heart: uto

tongue: yame

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -The Oceanic Languages. J. Lynch, M. Ross & T. Crowley. Routledge (2002).

  2. -'Austronesian Languages'. C. Ross. In The World’s Major Languages, 781-790. B. Comrie (ed). Routledge (2009).

  3. -Fijian Grammar. G. B. Milner. Suva, Government Press (1972).

  4. -The Fijian Language. A. J. Schütz. University Press of Hawaii (1986).

  5. -The History of the Fijian Languages. P. A. Geraghty. University Press of Hawaii (1983).

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