This was originally written for my column Vosa na Vanua from Coconut Wireless, the bimonthly PCV newsletter that is run by Saki, of Nadarivatu.
Fijian, or iTaukei, is an incredibly dynamic language with a long history and surprising diversity of dialects. If you take the definition of a separate language being under a threshold of 70% of the vocabulary being different, then I’m quite convinced some Fijian dialects should actually be classified as separate languages. In my area, for example, all pronouns are different, we mark possessor of body parts before instead of after the root, and basic words like want, go and every are all different.
Unfortunately, over the past hundred and fifty years, since daku na kuila (before cession/colonization), there have been two major trends that are destroying the Fijian language. Both were initially triggered by colonization, and are currently propelled by the demands of being a modern nation-state.
The first trend is the Anglicization of the Fijian language. How do you say “draw the phone”? Drawinitaka na phone. “I’m driving this car”? Au na draiva ni motoka qo. “What time is it?” E vica na kaloko?
You can learn a lot about precolonial Fijian society from this Anglicization – taking absolutely no-one aback, there wasn’t a kompiuta or motoka before missionaries showed up, but more surprisingly there also wasn’t a strong two-dimensional artistic tradition.
Leaving the material world and moving into abstracter waters, you can also see the roots of “Fiji time” – which would be more accurately described as “how the whole world ran for the incredible majority of human existence.” There weren’t any clocks daku na kuila, only the sun’s position in the sky and how much of a grog-hangover you are still suffering through.
It’s not clear, however, whether the concept of counting the days by months was brought by kaivalagis or not. This Anglicization is by no means restricted to Fijian – in Fiji Hindi, for example, you waitkaro.
The introduction of English words is only one side of this – the other is the loss of words describing features of precolonial society that are no longer in vogue. Vakatadumata, for example, means for the chief to send out orders through his matanivanua to the turaga ni yavusa and turaga ni mataqali (heads of each yavusa and mataqali). This is less and less common as the turaga ni koro has gained authority in calling community meetings; though he still sits behind the tanoa.
For the curious Fijiphile, I suggest looking up the words serevasi, dele or rewana.
The other trend is the homogenization of the dialects towards the national Bauan dialect (which is actually no longer the same as what people from Bau island speak today, though still close). This is driven by a number of forces, but the strongest is most certainly the governments’ role in society.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a good socialist, like any other Peace Corps Volunteer – but it is clear that without schools, hospitals and private-sector jobs, Fijian mobility would be greatly decreased, and there would be much less need for a nationwide dialect. Without these postcolonial institutions, it would boil down to marriage, which normally consists of wives moving to their husbands village (though the opposite does occur).
At my school, for instance, only two of our eight teachers are from the area. The rest are a mix of interior villages and Lauans, who rely entirely on Bauan to get by, despite having spent years and, in at least one case, nearly two decades in the West. Though they don’t spend a lot of time in the village, they spend around six hours a day instructing children in the Bauan dialect, who then go home and mix some of that into Sabetoan (I’m coining that, but it’s known here as tatavaSabeto).
One clear indicator of this homogenization is our Peace Corps-condoned dictionary, which focuses very strongly on Bauan dialect. Ronald Gatty’s dictionary doesn’t have the words qi, mata or som (the Nadi words that mean “I”, “want to” and “drink” respectfully,) which are pretty integral words to everyday life here.
As jobbing becomes more and more common, government institutions strengthen and interregional marriages increase, Bauan and English gain stronger footholds in households, the cauldron of spoken language. And Fiji’s rainbow of spoken word, from TatavaSabeto to Vosava’aTawa’e, slowly melt together into beige, English-speckled VosavakaBau.