Pronouncing Written Samoan

The Alphabet

The Samoan alphabet looks like this:


Each of the vowels has a short and a long sound. The long sound is marked by a line above the vowel, called a macron (or fa'amamafa).

A a » say 'cup'   Ā ā » say 'car'
E e » say 'leg'   Ē ē » say 'rain'
I i » say 'pick'   Ī ī » say 'bee'
O o » say 'hot'   Ō ō » say 'dough'
U u » say 'put'   Ū ū » say 'sue'

The consonants:

F f   M m   S s   H h
G g   N n   T t   K k
L l   P p   V v   R r

The glottal stop ( ' ) is also used in Samoan, and is treated as a consonant. With the exceptions of G g and the glottal stop, the consonants sound the same as they do in English.

Letter G

This letter makes the sound of ng in English, as in the words 'sing', 'ping', or 'ranga'. Try pronouncing these Samoan words:

tagata » person   agaga » spirit
galuega » work   gagana » language

Glottal stop ( ' )

This symbol creates a short pause between two vowels, for example:

fai » to do   fa'i » banana

In some words the sound can be very subtle. It is treated as a consonant, and produces its own sound. You can hear the sound of the glottal stop by whispering any of these words:

ma'i » sick   pa'e'e » thin
va'a » boat   ta'a » to roam

It is slightly trickier to pronounce a glottal stop at the start of a word:

ulu » head   'ulu » breadfruit

Spotting a glottal stop at the start of a word can be difficult at first, so you might find it easier to listen for words which do not begin with one. Words beginning with vowels can sometimes be voiced as if they begin with H h, especially when speaking loudly:

alu » go! (as yelled at an unwelcome dog)

Other Vowel Sounds

When two different vowels appear side-by-side, the sounds are combined. The words below demonstrate most of the vowel sounds which can occur in Samoan:

  a e i o u
a vae (leg) vai (water) vao (grass) tau (cost)
e fea (where) sei (water) leo (voice) teu (to decorate)
i fia1 (to want) 'ie (material) pi'o (crooked) niu (coconut)
o moa1 (chicken) moe (sleep) loi (ant) lou (your)
u lua1 (two) lue (to move) tui (fork) suō (spade)

Pairs of vowels starting with I i and U u produce sounds like the English letters Y and W:

'ioe » yes   iata » yard
uaina » wine   uili » wheel

Macrons, vowel length, and stress

In most words, the second last syllable is stressed

'isŭmu » mouse   pepĕlo » to lie
fafǐne » woman   samasǎma » yellow

Words can have multiple stresses, especially compound words. Also pay attention to the presence of macrons, which change the pronunciation of the vowels:

fa'amālamalǎma » to explain   violē » purple

Long vowels are important to meaning. The only real use of the macron in everyday writing is to avoid confusion between similar words:

tama » boy   tamā » father
palapala » dirt   palapalā » dirty

Different Styles (Registers) when Speaking

There are two styles of speaking in Samoan. They are known as T-style (“formal”) and K-style (“colloquial”). Samoan is written in the T-style, which is preferred in formal situations, and is generally the style that learners start with. These are examples of T-style sentences:

'Ua moe le tamaitiiti. » The child is asleep
'Ou te matamata le tivi » I watch the TV

In the K-style, which is far more common in everyday situations, the consonants are changed slightly:

T t is replaced with K k tama (boy) becomes kama
N n is replaced with G g namu (mosquito) becomes gamu
R r is replaced with L l kitara (guitar) becomes kikala

So the above sentences would be pronounced in the K-style as if written:

'Ua moe le kamaikiiki » The child is asleep
'Ou ke makamaka le kivi » I watch the TV

Polite and respectful words, church services, reading from print, or addressing a group will usually be done in the T-style. Everything else is spoken in the more colloquial K-style. Writing in the K-style is unconventional, but not entirely unheard of.

Passages to practice

These are a few passages to practice pronunciation with. You will notice that normally, Samoans don't use macrons and glottal stops very much at all. If you are unsure of how to pronounce a word, then click on it to see how it's shown in the vocabulary.

Passage 1: 'O le Tala i le Tusi Paia

O le La'au e iloa ai le Lelei ma le Leaga: — E itiiti tala sa maua i le ulugalii sa mau i Etena. Ua tuuina atu e le Atua la te leoleo lea fanua ma galulue ai. 'O le tasi faatonunga na tuu atu i ai, e sa ona tago i le laau o le fanua e ilo ai le lelei ma le leaga. E tele laau eseese ua tuuina ia te i laua te aai ai, na o le tasi ua faasaina. O le fua o le laau ua faapea atu le Atua: "Aua lua te aai ai, 'aua foi lua te papa'i atu i ai nei oti oulua."
From a printed copy of the book – Public Domain (1904)

Passage 2: Wikipedia Gagana Samoa

O Sāmoa o se atunuu Polenisia i le vasa o le Pasefika. E lua motu tetele, Upolu ma Savai'i. E 180,741 le aofai o tagata e nonofo i totonu o Sāmoa. Sa tutoatasi Sāmoa i le tausaga 1962. Ua manumalo Sāmoa i le tutoatasi ua lana pule anamua, Niu Sila. O Sāmoa o le atunuu muamua i le Pasefika na ia uluai maua le tutoatasi ao i lalo ai o le vaavaaiga a Niu Sila. I aso nei, e lua ni atumotu tetele i Samoa: O Sāmoa i Sisifo lea ua faaigoa o Sāmoa, ma Sāmoa i Sasa'e lea ua faaigoa ia American Sāmoa, po'o Amerika Sāmoa.
– From – cc-by-sa 2.5 (2011)