The best things Fiji has to offer (in addition to the beautiful scenery, of course) are its unique culture and friendly people. And the locals love it when you speak the language, even if you only know a few words! In this guide you'll learn some useful Fijian words and phrases that will help you avoid looking like a tourist.
There are three main languages spoken in Fiji. English is the most commonly used language in day-to-day life, and you'll hear and see it pretty much everywhere. This is because the British claimed Fiji as a colony in 1874 and the country remained in their control until it declared independence in 1997.
The second main language is Fijian, otherwise known as iTaukei (the official name of the indigenous Fijian people) or Vosa Vakaviti (which directly translates to 'spoken Fijian language'). Fiji didn't have a written language until the 1830's, when colonists from the London Missionary Society began working on an alphabet.
Working with the locals, as well as their knowledge of the similar Tongan language, missionaries David Cargill and William Cross developed a writing system which was published in 1835. In the years following, it was discovered that there wasn't just one dialect of Fijian - there were many, some very different from each other - which isn't surprising as the country is comprised of over 300 islands spread out over an area of more than 1 million square kilometers. Eventually it was decided that the standard Fijian dialect would be that of a small island off the east coast of Viti Levu called Bau, whose chief would later act as the official king of Fiji.
In 1879, the British colonists began bringing indentured labourers (no, you know what? let's call them what they were - slaves) from India to work on their sugarcane farms in Fiji. By the time this horrible practice ended in 1920, the British had shipped over 60,000 Indians to Fijian shores. Although by that time much of the Indian population was Fijian-born, and therefore no longer knew India as home, they still held onto their native culture and language. Currently, about 30% of Fiji's population is of Indian descent, making Fijian Hindi the third most-spoken language in the country.
While I hope to eventually write a separate post on Fijian Hindi, I don't currently have much knowledge about it, so the words provided on this page are from the Bau Fijian language.
FINDING THE RIGHT FIJIAN PHRASEBOOK
You may wish to invest in a standard phrasebook, such as this good one published by Lonely Planet. If you want to learn more about Fijian grammar, I highly suggest checking out this awesome book by linguistics professor A.J. Schütz. Keep in mind that Fijian phrasebooks, while very useful, may not be completely accurate, and when learning new Fijian words and phrases it's good to talk with the locals to find out the proper way to use them.
You should also consider making your own Fijian phrasebook. I like using a tiny moleskine notebook, which I can easily add words and phrases to as I learn them.
PRONOUNCING THE FIJIAN ALPHABET
Because Fiji had no existing written alphabet and the missionaries only had the means to translate the Fijian language using their own English alphabet, it was a long and difficult process which has resulted in some vowels and consonants being difficult to properly pronounce for first-time speakers.
Though they may be difficult to remember, the rules are fairly simple, and you'll be able to pronounce Fijian words the right way as long as you remember these things:
The one word you won’t be able to escape is Bula, which is the Fijian hello and means both 'life' and 'good health'. This is pronounced 'mm-BOO-la’ and is usually said with a lot of enthusiasm. The full greeting is ni sa bula vinaka (pronounced 'nee-sam-boo-la-vee-nah-kah'), though unless you’re in a situation where a formal greeting is required, I recommend not using the full phrase so you can avoid immediately standing out as a tourist.
If you’re greeting someone early in the day, and want to look less like a tourist, you can use the word Yadra (pronounced ‘yahn-drah’), which means ‘good morning’.
Fijians are extremely friendly, and it's completely normal for every stranger you pass on the street to greet you with a smile and nod, or a "bula". While this can seem strange to those of us who have lived in big cities most of our lives, it doesn't take much time to get used to!
If you're asking for something, it's easiest to do it in English, though you can add the word kerekere (pronounced 'carry-carry'). Though technically it translates to 'request', it's very often used as a way of saying 'please'.
When thanking someone, you can say either vinaka (pronounced 'vee-nack-ah'), or the commonly used shortened form, which is just 'naka. If you wish to express extra thanks to someone, you can say vinaka vaka levu (pronounced 'vee-nack-ah vah-kah leh-voo'), which literally means 'big thanks'.
If you want to apologise to someone in Fijian, you can say vosoti au (pronounced 'voe-sah-tee ow'), which translates to 'I'm sorry' or 'pardon me'.
At some point during your visit to Fiji, it's pretty much a guarantee that you'll experience 'Fiji time'. Sometimes the only thing to do is push your frustration aside and say sega na leqa, which is the Fijian version of 'hakuna matata' and means 'no worries'. This is pronounced 'seng-ah nah len-gah' (see rules above for proper pronunciation of G and Q). Though it may feel unnatural at first, it will roll off your tongue in no time, and take all your cares with it.
SAYING YES AND NO IN FIJIAN
Though it's probably easier to just say 'yes' and 'no' in English, they're also pretty easy to say in Fijian. The word for yes is io (pronounced 'ee-oh'), and you may see a Fijian simply nod their head up and raise their eyebrows as a form of agreement.
The word for no is sega (pronounced 'seng-ah'). I've found this quite helpful when taxi drivers ask me if I need a ride - a polite 'sega vinaka' makes them realize I'm not just a tourist, and if I say it loud enough for nearby drivers to hear, I don't get offered a ride by every one of them.
If you're enjoying a cold, refreshing drink like Vonu or Fiji Bitter (beer is bia, pronounced 'bee-ah') and want to order another round, it'll make your server very happy to hear you say dua tale (pronounced 'nn-DOO-ah TAL-eh'), which means 'one more'. If you'd like to order two more of something, just say rua tale (pronounced 'ROO-ah TAL-eh'). For other amounts, just add 'tale' (which means 'more') to the end of the number you want:
I DON'T UNDERSTAND
Since English is the main language spoken, you're unlikely to encounter someone speaking to you in Fijian. If, however, this does happen, you can tell them you don't understand by saying au sega ni taura rawa (pronounced 'ow seng-ah nee too-rah rah-wah'. No need to practice this one too much though - if you say it too perfectly they may not believe you!
When saying goodbye to someone in Fiji, you just have to say the simple word moce (pronounced 'moe-they'). This word means both 'goodbye' and 'sleep', so it can also be used as a way of saying 'good night'. If you're saying goodbye to someone you plan on seeing again shortly, you can say sota tale (pronounced 'sow-tah tal-eh'), which means 'see you again'.
Hopefully these words will help you enjoy the warm and welcoming culture on your visit to Fiji. If there are any other words or phrases you're interested in learning, please leave them in the comments below and I'll try my best to translate them for you!
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