‘Good talk’ and ‘bad talk’: T-style and K-style in gagana Sāmoa

‘Good talk’ and ‘bad talk’: T-style and K-style in gagana Sāmoa

Language changes over time, and the way we speak is influenced by who and where we are and how we are putting language to use. For Sāmoan Language week 2020, we have invited Le’ausālilō Lupematasila Fata ‘Au’afa Dr Sadat Muaiava to share some insights from his doctoral research on Sāmoan language change from 1906–2014. Le’ausālilō, is a lecturer in the Sāmoan Studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Oomi i nei mo le gagana Sāmoa

One of the most controlling factors in language choice is group membership, or buy-in. People choose or are made to choose, the language they use in different settings1. In the gagana (Sāmoan language), there are language registers – or formality levels – that determine language choice.

These are: (1) tautala lelei (t-style), and (2) tautala leaga (k-style)2. Tautala lelei and tautala leaga, literally meaning good talk and bad talk, are also referred to as formal and informal registers, respectively3. For instance, the informal pronunciation of the noun tapuā‘iga (church service) is kapuā‘iga.

An aged sepia photo of a man in a lavalava leaning on a stick and holding a baton with a tassle at the end. In the background is a Sāmoan fale with a flax roof
Elderly Man with Fue, by Thomas Andrew. Gift of Alison Beckett and Robert McPherson, 1996. Te Papa (O.001379/01)

Evolution of the elements of style

There are various arguments about the evolution of the t- and k-styles in the gagana. The first argument leans towards the idea that the t-style was Sāmoa’s register before the arrival of Europeans and missionaries4. In favour of this, the second argument theorises that the k-style was a Tongan influence. To clarify, while the Tongans use the letter k, it is replaced in Sāmoan with the koma liliu (glottal stop). The final argument presents the belief that the missionaries’ recording of the t- and k-styles were merely a reflection of what they had heard and thus were not involved in crafting the language based on a religious or civilising agenda.

In all of these arguments, there is evidence to suggest that the k-style may in fact have been a missionary influence when they introduced the letters h, k, and r to accommodate foreign words in the gagana and to assist them in the construction of a written orthography5. This is where, in my opinion, the k-style was developed.

A wooden baton with a flax tassle at the end that looks like a horses tail. The baton has silver caps at both ends.
Fue (fly whisk), 1900s, Sāmoa, horsehair, wood. Gift of Mrs Alice Hunt, 2000. Te Papa (FE011563)

Separation of church and culture

I disagree with linguist and author G.B. Milner’s (1966, p. xv) account that foreigners’ attempts to adopt the colloquial language was well-intended. In my opinion, the development of the k-style register was rather a deliberate ploy to relegate the local language.

The motive for this ploy was to elevate the new church discourse using the existing t-style while at the same time relegating, at least in comparison, Sāmoan rituals and practices through the use of the k-style. The motive was part of the overall push to consolidate religious conversion in Sāmoa.

A black, leather-bound book on a white background. The gold writing on the front is in Sāmoan and says O le tusi paia. It has a pink ribbon at the base.
Bible, Gift of Reverend Ete, 1995. Te Papa (FE010401)

The t- and k-style distinction became a decoy for the demotion of the local language and culture. To clarify, the missionaries assigned the pre-mission t-style register, which had pre-European prestige to Sāmoans, to the church setting. Therefore, Sāmoans spoke in church using the t-style. By doing this, the language used in church was held with great respect. This respect for the church language was enforced by print which was also in the t-style.

But the missionaries wanted to separate the sacredness of the language used in church from the language used in everyday rituals. To do this, the k-style was allocated to cultural practices. This is why the language used in cultural rituals today is for the most part in the k-style.

But it is not rare, though, to hear some Sāmoan orators, for example, use the t-style during their customary speeches. But in saying that, hearing the t-style being used in this way still sounds out of context for many Sāmoans, myself included.

A red necklace made from closely strung pandanus pods. It is sitting on a white background.
‘ulafala (pandanus key necklace), plant material. Te Papa (FE013200)

However, language use does not always follow beliefs about the correct ways to write or speak a language. In reality today, we will find that both the t- and k-styles are being used in both church and cultural rituals. Thus, there are signs that these forms of language style distinction and separation are weakening as the language and culture continue to blend with all facets of Sāmoan religion and culture.

Understanding this part of Sāmoan language development and change is important because we can make sense of how the evolution of t- and k-styles plays a significant part in our understandings of the gagana in all facets of Sāmoan society.


1 Fishman, J. A. (1973). Language and nationalism two integrative essays. Rowley, Mass. Newbury House Publishers. p. 68
2 Pratt, G. (1862). Pratts Grammar Dictionary and Samoan Language. Malua Printing Press. Sāmoa.; Duranti, A. (1990). Code Switching and Conflict Management in Samoan Multiparty Interaction. Pacific Studies 14(1), p. 1.;  Mosel, U. and E. Hovdhaugen (1992). Samoan Reference Grammar. Scandanavian University Press. Oslo.;  Hunkin, G. (2009). Gagana Sāmoa: A Samoan Language Coursebook. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.;  Milner, G. B. (2012). Samoan Dictionary. Auckland New Zealand, Pasifika Press.
3 Duranti, A. (1990). Code Switching and Conflict Management in Samoan Multiparty Interaction. Pacific Studies 14(1), p. 1., p.4; Mosel, U. and E. Hovdhaugen (1992). Samoan Reference Grammar. Scandanavian University Press. Oslo
4 Milner, G. B. (2012). Samoan Dictionary. Auckland New Zealand, Pasifika Press. p. xv
5 Horst, C. (1986). A lexicon of foreign loan-words in the Gagana. Kolner ethnologische. Mitteilungen. , p. vxi

Oomi i nei mo le gagana Sāmoa

1 Comment

  1. I was always interested to know where the t and k styles came from… similar to Hawaiian Olelo I believe

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