What’s in a name? Cook Islands Language Week 2020

What’s in a name? Cook Islands Language Week 2020

The theme for Cook Islands Language Week 2020 is Kia pūāvai tō tātou reo Māori Kūki ‘Āirani i Aotearoa, That the Cook Islands Māori language may blossom throughout New Zealand. Kaitiaki Taonga Collection Manager Humanities Grace Hutton looks at some of the history of the names and languages of the different islands that make up the Cook Islands archipelago.  

The Cook Islands are a group of 15 islands only 12 are inhabited continuously. The islands are divided up into northern and southern groups. Penrhyn also known as Tongareva, Rakahanga, Manihiki, Pukapuka, Nassau, and Suwarrow make up the Northern group. The southern group is made up of Atiu, Ma’uke, Mitiaro, Aitutaki, Mangaia, Palmerston, and Rarotonga all inhabited. The uninhabited islands are Manuae a marine reserve and breeding ground for birds and Takutea is a sanctuary for seabirds. Suwarrow is only inhabited intermittently when there is a caretaker at certain months of the year.

The names that were given to these many islands have changed over time. Ocean explorers have “discovered” an island and given it a name that meant something to them and the name may continue for years or it can change when someone else gives it another name. For example Ao-tea-roa ‘long white cloud’ was named by Kuramārōtini, the wife of Kupe on seeing the North Island for the first time. The island was then ‘re-discovered’ by Abel Tasman in 1642 and given the name Nova Zeelandia or New Zealand as we know it today.

Map of the Cook Islands. Image by Directorate of Intelligence, CIA. Public domain

In 1773, Captain Cook named Manuae atoll Hervey Island. This atoll is enclosed in the same reef as another atoll, Te Au o Tu. Over time the islands of the southern group became known as the Hervey Islands. Then in 1824 the Russian cartographer Adam Johann von Krusenstern named the Hervey Islands the Cook Islands in honor of Captain Cook who died in Hawai’i in 1779. Currently there have discussions by many Cook Islanders throughout New Zealand, Australia and the Cook Islands to change the name of the Cook Islands to an indigenous name, what that name would be is still be agreed upon.


There are three official languages in the Cook Islands, English, Cook Islands Māori and Pukapukan. Cook Islands Māori (usually Rarotongan) belongs to the same language family as New Zealand along with Hawai’i and Tahiti.

Pukapukan belongs to the same language family as Samoa, Tuvalu and Tokelau islands. It was known to early Pacific explorers as an island to be visited on the way to islands in the west, such as Sāmoa and Tonga. Oral histories speak of voyages to Tuvalu, Tokelau, Niue, Tonga, Rarotonga and Tahiti. Pukapuka was sighted in 1595 by the Spanish navigator Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira who named it San Bernado. Pukapuka is also known as Te Ulu-o-Te-Watu (the head of the rock) by Pukapukans.

Greetings in the Pukapukan language

Listen to Poti Maeva, Principal of Rutaki School, Rarotonga. His words are transcribed below as well as translated into English.

Ke ola kotou I na yauyau nunui o te Matua Ya.
Greetings to you all in the blessed name of our God.

Ko manaki atu ko lelei wua kotou I te motayao lelei nei.
I trust you are all well today.

Yaula ko tuki te makalili I Lalotonga nei.
However, it is really cold in Rarotonga now.

Eke koi Lalotonga nei au I te vaia nei.
Yes, I am in Rarotonga right now.

Ko Poti Maeva toku ingoa.
My name is Poti Maeva.

Na wanau au I Wale mamao.
I was born in far away in Wale.

Koia oki ko toku wenua viti ongo ko Pukapuka.
Which is my beautiful island of Pukapuka.

Ko Casey Poila toku matua tane.
My father is Casey Poila.

Ko Piva Timote taku matua wawine.
My mother is Piva Timote.

Na wakaao au I taku wawine.
I am married.

E wawine Pawenua ko Nane Ngamata tona ingoa.
My wife is not from Pukapuka and her name is Nane Ngamata.

E lima a maua tamaliki na wowou mai.
We have five children.

E wa tama tane e tayi tamawine.
Four boys and one girl.

I te vaia nei ko Puapii Wolo au I te Apii Rutaki I Lalotonga nei.
I am currently the Principal of Rutaki School in Rarotonga.

Yaula, ko nunumi au ke wano ki Wale, ke puapii wolo ikiai.
However, I yearn to go to Wale to be the Principal there.

Eia wua ke veveia to kotou ayo nei.
May your day be blessed.

Nono ai kotou wakalelei.
Stay safe everyone.


The island of Rarotonga or Tumu te varovaro

Karika an important explorer gave the name of Tumu te varovaro after an atua or god to the island now known as Rarotonga.

Greetings in the Rarotongan language

Watch and listen to Tuaine Robati, his words are subtitled in English.

Palmerston Island was known as Avarau

Palmerston Island has its own distinct language a mix of Cook Islands Māori and English. Captain Cook stopped there looking for water and fresh food in 1774, and named it Palmerston after second Viscount Palmerston who at the time was the First Lord of the Admiralty. It was uninhabited but his sailors discovered adze blades buried in the roots of coconut palms, an old canoe and 12 ancient graves.

Palmerston atoll, looking towards North Islet from the Home islet. Photo by Grace Hutton

The island has become well known because of a man named William Marsters and his four wives who settled there in 1863. Today there are many descendants who claim to be connected to this well-known Cook Islands dynasty.

A marble headstone on sand
The headstone of William Marsters. Photo by Grace Hutton


  1. kia orana Aaby, that’s great to hear, meitaki ma’ata.

  2. An interesting post.Thanks to you. can’t believe, now i can say- Ko Aaby Vienna toku ingoa!!!..

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