Standardizing the National Language in Tokelau

Tokelau’s government is looking at standardizing its national language.

The changes, which were put forward at its parliamentary meeting this month, are in response to a different alphabet used in New Zealand.

Tokelau’s ulu, or leader, Kelihiano Kalolo, said there had been difficulties trying to coordinate meetings because of the language differences. “Language is very, very important for us, that’s how we express ourselves as Tokelauans. We are thinking of the future of our children who will grow up, they must grow up with … a common approach rather than having different versions.”

Kelihiano Kalolo said a working group will be tasked with establishing a new language policy.


Where is Tokelau?

A little about Tokelau…

Tokelau is a non-self-governing territory of New Zealand consisting of three coral atolls in the South Pacific: Atafu, Nukunonu, and Fakaofo. These atolls lie approximately mid-way between Hawaii and New Zealand and about 500 km north of Samoa. The islands are low-lying and range from 8 to 15 feet (2.4 to 4.5 metres) above sea level.

Tokelau has no harbors or ports nor does it have an airport. The best way for tourists and travelers to get to Tokelau is from Apia, Samoa, by ship, which runs every two weeks..

Formerly known as the Union Islands, the name ‘Tokelau Islands’ was adopted in 1946 and then shortened to ‘Tokelau’ in 1976. ‘Tokelau’ is Polynesian for ‘North Wind’. The people are Polynesian and are culturally and linguistically linked to Samoa. Tokelauan, a Polynesian language, is the official language, but English is widely used.

According to archaeological evidence, the islands were settled about 1000 years ago. Several hundred years of oral history remain, showing a belief in Polynesian mythology and the worship of the god Tui Tokelau.

Tokelauan society was ruled by clans. Each atoll was independent until the 18th century, when Fakaofo conquered Atafu and Nukunonu and united the three atolls. Inhabitants lived a subsistence lifestyle, relying on fish and coconuts for sustenance.

The first European visitor, in 1765, was the British commodore John Byron, who gave Atafu the name Duke of York Island. Nukunonu was sighted and named Duke of Clarence Island by Capt. Edward Edwards of HMS Pandora in 1791, while he was searching for the HMS Bounty mutineers. French-sponsored Samoan missionaries converted Nukunonu’s people to Roman Catholicism from the mid-1840s, and Samoan missionaries sponsored by the London Missionary Society reached Atafu in 1858; both groups later Christianized Fakaofo.

In 1889, the islands were claimed by Britain. They became part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (Kiribati and Tuvalu) in 1916, which was then renamed the Union Group. In 1925, the islands came under the administration of New Zealand. They became a New Zealand territory in 1948. In 1976 the group was officially named Tokelau. Although Tokelau is still a territory of New Zealand, Tokelauans have developed institutions and patterns of self-government. Today, more Tokelauans live outside Tokelau than on the islands. About 6,800 live in New Zealand.


Flag of Tokelau

The Tokelauan Flag…

Tokelau’s Flag depicts a Tokelauan canoe sailing towards the manu (Southern Cross).  The canoe symbolizes Tokelau’s journey towards finding the best governance structure for its people; the Southern Cross symbolizes a navigational aid for the journey.  The Southern Cross has helped Tokelauan fishermen navigate the waters around Tokelau for centuries while they have fished to sustain families and villages with its riches.

The white stars of the Southern Cross are a symbol of Christianity, an important part of everyday life in Tokelau.  White also signifies the cooperation and unity among the atolls of Tokelau and a shared aspiration to secure a better life for Tokelauans.  Yellow signifies a happy, peaceful community.  Blue signifies the ocean on which Tokelauans depend for their livelihood and is also the color of the sky which holds the stars that direct Tokelau’s people.

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