A Linguist’s Paradise

Thought you might enjoy this photo of Seven a la mode Tahitienne. Actually, I believe only the women wear flowers in their hair, but I think it suits him.

Seven with hibiscus flower

Seven is definitely still provoking interest, especially among the Islanders, and all our most interesting encounters have been with people who want to know who he is and where he comes from. One person guessed Hawaiian; another thought he might be Rarotongan. No one yet has thought to suggest New Zealand, which seems like the obvious choice, or Tongan or Samoan for that matter. This would seem to indicate that there aren’t too many non-French Polynesians traveling in these parts.

Our encounters really emphasize how separated the Pacific is by this English v. French colonial divide, but it’s frustrating seeing people with so much in common separated from one another in this very fundamental way. Maybe if his Maori were better they would have a Polynesian lingua franca, but I don’t know. Everyone tells us that speakers from different island groups are mutually unintelligible.

Or, rather they tell us that people from other islands can understand each another, but that they can’t understand them. Marquesans, we are told, sound like Maori; or Tuamotuans sound like Marquesans; or Easter Islanders sound like Hawaiians; but no one, apparently, sounds like Tahitians, at least from the Tahitian point of view. We have, however, met an interesting assortment of people from the eastern Pacific, including a  guy from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) who spoke to us in a mixture of French and English, taught us a few words of Rapa Nui, and counted out our change in Spanish!

On a completely different subject, I have become painfully aware (from questions put to me by people at home) how little I know about birds and plants and I’m sorry to report that I cannot be at all interesting on either subject. However, I did see the most magnificent pair of breadfruit trees the other day. They were so huge and glorious that I made Seven turn around and drive back about a 1/4 mile to take some pictures. (The kids were utterly bored by this; “Hey, let’s stop and take a picture” is becoming code between them for anything time-wasting and stupid). You can’t really get a sense of how big they were (this is shot down from the roadside above) but they had to have been 40 feet high at least.

breadfruit trees

This is what the leaves and fruit look like up close. Beautiful, isn’t it?


Breadfruit is, of course, the cargo that Captain Bligh of the Bounty was supposed to pick up in Tahiti and take to the Caribbean (where it would be grown to feed slaves) before his crew mutinied and left him to perish in an open boat. It is prepared in various ways, including most famously a fermented mash, which is, I believe, an acquired taste. Dani wouldn’t get near it…

Abraham Joins the Crew



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Editor of Harvard Review and author of "Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia" and "Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All."

12 thoughts on “A Linguist’s Paradise”

  1. I’m not sure if your adventure will take you there, but the French vs English colonial divide is at its most fascinating in Vanuatu. From law to cuisine, it permeates the group of islands.

  2. Great fun! You are the children and the kids are the bored adults…well, not quite…yes, the language is most interesting, how people connect…back here…we are working away…tell Seven we are like 90 units behind because of not enough bodies and definitely not enough barrels…the guys are going to make their annual trip up there next week…all else is good…i am preparing for a September contest…a one mile swim contest on the Merrimack River in Lowell…I am in the 40 + division…so I’ll be competing against 40 year olds !!…well, enough for now…i love the postings…keep it up…emmanuel

    1. Thanks for that! Gail, my wonderful copyeditor from Harvard Review, is also keeping an eye on the blog and I keep thinking of all the mental corrections she must be making. “Linoleum,” for that example, should that be uppercase? Or am I thinking of “Formica”?

      1. I had forgotten about breadfruit. The comments on Spam versus breadfruit are great. Wonder if they taste equally discusting?

        On to business….linoleum is out of trademark if it ever was trademarked, but its neighbor in MWC, Linotype, is not. Odd. Who uses a Linotype machine these days? Formica = still trademarked.

        That said, your comments continue to transport us along on your adventure. Thank you for this wonderful report on your experiences.

        The language as a barrier is fascinating. Spameaters versus non-Spameaters makes more sense. Is the agriculture similar among the islands?

        Seven should consider flowers in his hair as a fashion must.

        Travel safely and keep the news floating our way.
        love, Sallie

  3. Breadfruit is (or was) also a staple in Micronesia, where it is prepared in any number of ways; that is until the Americans introduced Spam during WWII. Now, instead of dying from infectious diseases and the like, they die from Life-style deseases such as diabeties and cardiovascular problems. They would be wise to go back to breadfruit and other traditional foods

  4. Hi, C.

    I am not keeping a critical eye on any spelling as I enjoy this blog. You are hopping from one country to another and bravely flying in those scissors-hand prop planes … Don’t anyone worry about spelling. The photos of the huge breadfruit tree and the close-up view are gorgeous. And Seven does look very Tahitian with that hibiscus(?) flower behind his ear, a very patient man.


  5. One more comment regarding breadfruit vs. Spam: Some years back, while we still lived in the Mariana Islands, a researcher noted that Spam has shortened the lives of more Micronesians than did the Atomic bomb testing back in the 1950s. If I am not mistaken, the mean life expectancy out there is less than 60.

  6. Yummy! I LOVE breadfruit especially freshly picked off of the trees. Anxiously awaiting your arrival to the hidden treasures in the Island of Tonga. My brother in law Sateki and his family will anxiously await to meet you! When are you arriving in Tonga?

    With Love and Envy,

    1. We’re arriving in Tonga on July 24 and will be there for four days. I think we get there on a Saturday evening. If you want to email me a phone number I will call your brother-in-law when we get in (or whenever you think would be appropriate).

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