A Crash Course in TatavaSabeto

This is to follow on my last post, Mate!, to explain the real differences between the national dialect and the Sabeto dialect (TatavaSabeto).

First, taxonomy – the Fijian extended family of languages/dialects/communalects is, of course, very regionalized. The main groups could be understood as Lomaiviti/Bauan, Western, Northern and Lauan. And what the language is called, “Vosavaka…” means “Language of…” – but the Sabeto dialect word for “vosa” (eng. speak, language) is “tata”, and kaiSabeto (like most Fijians in their own ways) shorten “vaka” to “va” – so Sabetoan is TatavaSabeto. Sabetoan can be understood as a branch of TatavaNadi, which in turn is part of the Western group of Fijian dialects. Sabeto dialect is surprisingly similar to the Wayan dialect, spoken on the southernmost island in the Yasawas chain. And then radically different from Nadroga dialect, halfway between here and Suva.

The Sabeto dialect also sounds significantly harsher than Bauan – my friend and tutor in the dialect Don joked that they sound like Arabs. Basically, Ks are often very harsh, borderline Hs. The oft-added “-tia” on the back of Sabetoan words most commonly comes out as “cheeya”. We shorten most “vaka-” to “va”, unlike Northerners, who are known for dropping their Ks but leaving a space for them. Many popular women’s dances have come from the North, and I often hear the phrase vina’a na me’e

Basic verbs are often different. The most notably similar is the word kana, meaning “eat.” But som replaces gunu for “drink,” and lako, for “go”, is shortened to la, changing the most common greeting lako I vei? to the much smoother la’i vei? Bula, which means “live” or “life” and is the most ubiquitous greeting, is in fact cola out west – and bula vinaka thus becomes cola vina.

Nouns are a little more reliable, as the ones descended from their verb forms follow the same patterns. Chairs become ikovakova from idabedabe, because TatavaSabeto for “sit” is kova rather than dabe. “House” becomes were rather than vale, which I rather like.

And lastly, the trickiest of all things in Fijian – pronouns, which are all different in TatavaSabeto except for “you” (o iko) and “he/she” (ko koya). In TatavaSabeto, I translates as qi or qu rather than au, as it is in VosavakaBau. Qi is first-person present tense (also sometimes recent past tense) while qu is past tense – or future tense in certain situations, such as “diviya me qu la I so ke”, meaning “I hope to go there”. Kedaru and keirau, Bauan dialect for you and I and us two (not including you) respectfully, are merged into a single pronoun – maru, and the same with “we” pronouns with more people, such as mamtou and mam. Possessive pronouns are also changed, and noqu (my) becomes lequ, and so on with lea (his/hers) and lem (your). Most confusingly of all (and this I almost never attempt in TatavaSabeto), the structure for body parts reverses. Instead of my legs being yavaqu, where -qu marks it as mine (-na is his/hers, -mu is yours, etc.), it becomes qula, where qu- or the other possessive marker moves to the front of the word. And it changes. Needless to say, I don’t even fuck with it.

Another notable difference includes that the all-encompassing Bauan word sega, used to make negatives in any way imaginable, becomes two different words in Fijian – lala and tam. Lala is a more firm No, especially used when noting the absence of something – sa vo e so na madrai? E lala. “Is there any bread left? Nope.” Tam, on the other hand, is used to make a verb negative, such as in e tam la o koya, “she didn’t go.”

TatavaSabeto is undisputedly dying out. People say sega ni macala more than they say tam kilatia, and they say oti rather than the original itaku. Bauan is a nationbuilding project – or rather, an ethnicity-building project. It is the language of iTaukei in government, because a kaiNadroga and a kaiLau would rather speak Bauan together than VosavaValagi (English) or VosavaIdia (Fiji Hindi). Women that marry into the village from other regions are also blamed for the loss of TatavaSabeto. Nadi Province is the most major hub of tourism in the country – we have the main international airport, we have Denarau (a discomforting tourist haven) and we have the main wharf sending ships to the Mamanuca and Yasawa resort islands (at Denarau). Nadi is thus a major cauldron for people jobbing in the tourist industry from all over Fiji – an upcoming celebration in Nadi town is even called the Bula Festival, though a hundred and fifty years ago few people in this area knew what “bula” even meant.

I’ve now begun a TatavaSabeto dictionary – or an iVolatata ni TatavaSabeto – in an effort to preserve the language. I’m working with a wide ranger of counterparts, from a wide variety of koiSabeto to the Institute of iTaukei Language and Culture. People are supportive, and I’m personally quite excited about the project.


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