Rotuman language

Fäeag Rotuma
Native to Fiji
Region Rotuma
Native speakers
(2,800 cited 1990)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 rtm
Glottolog rotu1241[2]

Rotuman, also referred to as Rotunan, Rutuman or Fäeag Rotuma, is an Austronesian language spoken by the indigenous people of the South Pacific island group of Rotuma, an island with a Polynesian-influenced culture that was incorporated as a dependency into the Colony of Fiji in 1881. Classification of Rotuman is difficult due to the large number of loan words from Samoan and Tongan, as a result of much cultural exchange over the history of the Pacific. Linguist Andrew Pawley groups the language with the West Fijian languages in a West Fijian – Rotuman branch of the Central Pacific sub-group of Oceanic languages.

The Rotuman language has sparked much interest with linguists because the language uses metathesis to invert the ultimate vowel in a word with the immediately preceding consonant, resulting in a vowel system characterized by umlaut, vowel shortening or extending and diphthongisation.

Unlike its Pacific neighbours, Rotuman is typically considered an AVO (agent–verb–object) Language.


Labial Coronal Post-
Velar Glottal
Nasal mn ŋ
Stop pt k ʔ
Fricative f v s h
Liquid r l
Front Back
Close i u
Mid ɛ ɔ
Open a

Rotuman has no phonemic vowel length and is underlyingly a language of open syllables. Thus, only consonant + vowel syllables exist in the underlying syllable structure, although phonological processes provide for more variation. A minimal word constraint that disallows words of less than two moras also alters this underlying representation so that, other than words from non-lexical categories, a word like /ka/ ('tomorrow') is realized as [kaa]. This constraint applies before word compounding (including reduplication as well): /fu/ ('coral reef') + /liʔu/ ('deep sea') → [fuuˈliʔu] ('deep sea pool').[5] Vowels are also lengthened when both final and stressed.[6]

Non-high vowels are raised when followed by a syllable with a high vowel.[7]

Generally speaking, when /a/ is followed by /ɛ/ within a metrical foot) it is fronted to [æ].[8]

complete incomplete gloss
[tuˈturu] [tuˈtur] 'post...'
[ˈmosɛ] [ˈmøs] 'to sleep...'
[ˈpikɔ] [ˈpiɔk] 'lazy'

An important aspect of Rotuman morphonology is what will be hereafter called the "incomplete" and "complete" phases although they have also been referred to as "long" and "short" forms, "primary" and "secondary" forms, "absolute" and "construct" cases, and "proper & original" and "altered or construct" forms.[9] The complete phase applies to semantically definite or specific terms. Otherwise, in normal conversation (that is, excluding song, poetry, and chant), the incomplete phase applies to all but the last morpheme of a word and all but the last word of a phrase.[10] This can lead to syllable-final consonants in a language that has an underlying all-open syllable system.

i ɛ a ɔ u
i iC jɛC jɔC juC iC
ɛ eC ɛC jaC ɛC ɛC
a æC æC aC aC ɔC
ɔ øC œC waC ɔC oC
u yC wɛC wɔC wɔC uC

The above table (C indicates any consonant) shows that metathesis and deletion are important parts of incomplete phase formation. The final vowel and immediately preceding consonant metathesize going from V1CV2#, to V1V2C# where V1 is any underlying penultimate vowel, V2 is any underlying ultimate vowel, C is any consonant, and # is the word, phrase, or morpheme boundary. [12]

After metathesis, "V2 is deleted if V1 is not further back than V2 and if V2 is not lower than 1" or if the two vowels are identical.[13] Further processes of elision result in coalescence or spreading of features. That is, back vowels are fronted before front vowels of equal or greater height (/ɛ/ and/or /i/ affect /ɔ/ and just /i/ affects /u/) before the latter are deleted.

In addition, the /a/[æ] rule takes effect again, this time outside of the moraic foot, and can occur with a following /i/; and both /ɛ/. and /a/ become [ɔ] after a syllable with a high vowel (/i/ or /u/).[14] When V1 is higher than V2, it is devocalized to the corresponding semivowel; [j] for front vowels and [w] for back vowels.[15]

Word stress is associated with left-dominant bimoraic feet. The penultimate mora of nonderived words carries the stress. Other than the nominalizing suffix |-ŋa| and the causative suffix |-ʔaki|, stress is assigned before additional morphemes are affixed[16] and before incomplete phase morphonology.[17]


Upon missionary contact, various orthographies abounded on the island of Rotuma. The French Catholic Missionaries built an orthography based on their own alphabet, while the primarily English Wesleyan Methodist preachers developed their own orthography to write in Rotuman. The prevalent one used today is one from the English Methodist Reverend C. M. Churchward, in whose knowledge of linguistics the Tongan orthography was also devised. The alphabet, as it appears in Churchward's seminal work, "Rotuman Grammar and Dictionary":

  • ȧ or ä/a/
  • /ɔ/
  • ö/ø/
  • ü/y/

In the cases of the variations to the vowels a, o and i, Churchward's dictionary treats these letters as though there is no variation between the species within the base letter. Hence the word päega, meaning seat, appears before pạri meaning banana, which in turn appears before pau, meaning very much.

In addition, there are instances where all original vowels above appear with a macron, indicating length (that is, they are longer) although vowel length is arguably a phonological process.

Because Churchward’s alphabet was created before a sufficient analysis of Rotuman phonology, it is not purely phonemic. George Milner[18] proposed a more phonemic spelling without diacritics that incorporates the understanding of vowel allophony as having to do with metathesis (see above)

Churchward IPA Milner Gloss
complete incomplete incomplete
mose mös [møs] moes 'sleep'
futi füt [fyt] fuit 'pull'
a+su a+s [ɔs] aus 'steam'
a+ti ȧt [æt] ait 'gather (shellfish)'

Text examples

This is the Rotuman language version of the Our Father, as found in the translation of the Bible published in 1975 (Matthew 6:9–13) . It is written using the diacritics of Churchward's orthography:

'Otomis Ö'faat täe 'e lạgi,
'Ou asa la äf'ȧk la ma'ma',
'Ou pure'aga la leum, 'ou rere la sok,
fak ma 'e lạgi, la tape'ma 'e rän te'.
'Äe la naam se 'ạmisa, 'e terạnit 'e 'i,
ta 'etemis tela'a la tạumar,
Ma 'äe la fạu'ạkia te' ne 'otomis sara,
la fak ma ne 'ạmis tape'ma re vạhia se iris ne sar se 'ạmisag.
Ma 'äe se hoa' 'ạmis se faksara; 'äe la sại'ạkia 'ạmis 'e raksa'a.
Ko pure'aga, ma ne'ne'i, ma kolori, mou ma ke se 'äeag, se av se 'es gata'ag ne tore. 'Emen


  1. Rotuman at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Rotuman". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Blevins (1994:492)
  4. Blevins (1994:492)
  5. Blevins (1994:497–499)
  6. Schmidt (2003:178)
  7. Blevins (1994:492)
  8. Saito (1981)
  9. Schmidt (2003:176)
  10. Blevins (1994:492–493)
  11. Blevins (1994:493)
  12. Schmidt (2003:179–184)
  13. Schmidt (2003:187)
  14. Blevins (1994:492)
  15. Schmidt (2003:90)
  16. Blevins (1994:493–497)
  17. Schmidt (2003:189)
  18. Milner (1971:422)


Rotuman language test of Wikipedia at Wikimedia Incubator
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