I am so grateful and thrilled to introduce this fantastic post by Dr. Natalie Keefer, my former AP Human Geography teacher! She got really got me into linguistics, so I had to ask her to write about this. Enjoy!
Thousands of years ago, small groups of humans sailed towards far away lands in the Pacific with a keen sense of how to navigate through the Pacific Sea on small sailboats. Over time, the language spoken by these peoples would morph into what is known as the Polynesian language family – a cluster of languages widely spoken on the Pacific Islands. From these languages were born the cultures that inspired the creation of Disney’s movie Moana. Since language is the heartbeat of culture, transmitting its myths, beliefs, and customs, the upcoming Tahitian language version of Moana is an important decision on the part of Disney to honor and preserve the Polynesian cultures that are represented in the film.
Disney wisely assembled a group of experts in Polynesian culture, known as the Oceanic Trust, to serve as culture, language, music, and dance advisors during the creation of the movie. The Oceanic Trust was comprised of a team of anthropologists, historians, linguists, and cultural experts on Polynesian culture who lent their expertise in assuring as much cultural authenticity as possible in the creation of Disney’s Moana. However, the movie Moana was still subject to scrutiny. One of the complaints from Polynesian community concerned the depiction of the revered Polynesian God Maui who is portrayed in Polynesian folklore as a trim and powerful youth. Why was he stereotypically depicted as an obese Samoan surfer-dude? Also, the use of coconuts to portray the Kakamora, short-statured people from the Solomon Islands, as pirates appropriates from a cringe worthy cultural slur of Polynesians as “coconut people”.1 Lastly, Polynesian culture is diverse; there are numerous differences in ritual, language, and beliefs across the vast expanse of the Pacific. However, in Moana the mix of Polynesian culture and language was depicted as uniform. Despite these concerns, the Oceanic Trust’s advice was instrumental in creating a film that included many accurate representations of Polynesian dance, song, and culture. The Oceanic Trust was also influential is securing from Disney an agreement to produce the much-anticipated Tahitian version of the movie as homage to the Tahitian culture and language.
In the English version of Moana, Polynesian language is interspersed throughout the film, mostly included in the Tokelauan lyrics of the song We Know the Way. This is prehistorically accurate if Moana is Samoan, hailing from the birthplace of Polynesian culture before the reawakening of island exploration.2 Today only a few thousand speakers of the Tokelauan language remain. Most speakers of Tokelauan live on islands that belong to American Samoa where the predominant language is English. This leaves the Tokelauan language at risk of becoming extinct, and with the extinction of the language comes the extinction of the culture, including its folklore, beliefs, and the secrets of the way of life of its speakers. It is for this reason that the retelling of Moana in another Polynesian language, Tahitian, is important for the preservation of Polynesian culture and language.
Fewer than 125,000 people speak the Tahitian language in French Polynesia. Its closest relatives are languages spoken in the Pacific such as Hawaiian and Rarotongan, a Maori dialect spoken on the Cook Islands.3 In order to preserve Polynesian culture the use of Polynesian languages in schools, in the community, and in the media is essential. In the South Pacific, English and French are widely represented in the media and spoken for business purposes. The dominance of English and French in the South Pacific has led to the near extinction of thousands of local languages such as Tokelauan and Hawaiian. On the Hawaiian Islands, for example, there are fewer than 2,000 native speakers. Tahitian is not in as precarious of a situation as Tokelauan or Hawaiian because it is still used in the media. Tahitian enjoys limited use in schools, allowing children to be socialized and educated in the language, yet another example of how Tahitian has fared better than its linguistic counterparts on other Polynesian islands. This may be why Disney selected Tahitian for the Polynesian language version of Moana. There are enough Tahitian speakers today that creating a version of Moana in this language can have an impact on the preservation of Polynesian culture and language. Polynesian language use in movies such as Moana, and Disney’s pledge to produce a Tahitian language version of the film is an important step on the road to preserve and instill pride in Polynesian culture for future generations.
Casting for the Tahitian language version of Moana began in October, 2016 with the assistance of Oceanic Trust member Hinano Murphy. Ms. Murphy can select the cast of Moana from a relatively large population of Tahitian speakers. Tahitian is the most widely spoken of the indigenous languages in French Polynesia, with 24% of all inhabitants speaking Tahitian at home. Hinano Murphy hopes that the Tahitian version of Moana will serve as an educational tool that will inspire the Tahitian community to maintain their pride and use of the Tahitian language. Ms. Murphy’s sentiment is key because children’s films such as Moana target the youth population that is vital for language revitalization projects. Teachers and parents will be able to use Moana as an educational resource for teaching children the Tahitian language in its spoken form. Successful language revitalization programs target youth, especially when indigenous languages, like Tahitian, were replaced by European languages for communication and business. In these cases, generational language loss often occurred because parents and members of the community believed that the indigenous language was not valuable for their children in the job market. However, a Tahitian language version of Disney’s Moana may inspire hope for many people who are interested in the revival of indigenous Polynesian languages.4 Disney’s popularity among children and parents has the capacity to reinforce pride in Polynesian culture, and the Tahitian version of the Moana will serve as an effective educational resource for Polynesian culture and the Tahitian language.
1. Herman, Doug. “How the Story of “Moana” and Maui Holds Up Against Cultural Truths”. The Smithsonian. December 2, 2016. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-story-moana-and-maui-holds-against-cultural-truths-180961258/
2. de Ferrière, Jacques Franc. “The True Origins of Disney Princess Moana”. Tahiti Infos. July 9, 2017. http://www.tahiti-infos.com/The-true-origins-of-Disney-princess-Moana_a142314.html#
3. “Tahitian”. Omniglot. July 9, 2017. http://www.omniglot.com/writing/tahitian.htm
4. “Disney Offers Tahitian Translation of Moana”. ABC News: Pacific Beat. November 11, 2016. http://www.abc.net.au/news/programs/pacific-beat/2016-11-11/disney-offers-tahitian-translation-of-moana/8019132
Natalie Keefer is an Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education with a background in educational anthropology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.