Not surprisingly, the Tongan language is very different than any language I’ve studied before. Granted, that limits me to English, German, and Spanish, but I think most any language I had the opportunity to study would still be distinct from Tongan.
Here are some big highlights: Tongan lets the subject go any number of places in the sentence. It can go in the beginning or in the middle. You can use a third kind of construction if you want when using subject pronouns. Verbs aren’t conjugated, but instead there is a tense marker for the four tenses: past, present, future, and present perfect-ish. There’s no straightforward translation of “to be,” but rather a number of different constructions and words to choose from depending if the “to be” denotes location, characteristics, or other information.
Words often have more than one meaning. Like fua, has 14 definitions in the dictionary, ranging from “to bear the burden of” to “to gather from the sea” and “to bear fruit” to “to be afflicted with elephantitis.”
On the other hand, there are many Tongan words that are used for one very specific instance and for nothing else. For instance, punopuna means ”to jump along, or to proceed by jumps or short flights,” and it’s derived from puna, meaning “to jump or fly.”
Sometimes word tricks make Tongan easier to learn. Some words can be very simple, like counting in Tongan. Taha is one, and ua is two. And taha ua is twelve, and ua taha is twenty-one. Manu is animal, and puna is to fly, so a manupuna is a flying animal, or a bird.
Furthermore, the prefix faka means denotes likeness or causation. So, using the word fua and the definition “to bear fruit," fakafua means “to cause to bear fruit, to make fruitful.” Thus, with some words, it’s possible to guess the meaning, and with the prefix faka, that’s very important. In my Tongan-English dictionary, almost one-fifth of the pages dedicated to the Tongan words are pages that include the prefix faka. That’s 111 pages of words all beginning with faka.
(Here’s another example of a word that has a very specific meaning beginning with faka: fakatoutaakalo. “To keep on showing oneself and then dodging away when looked at.” Yes, I look up ridiculous definitions in my dictionary. I live on an outer island. What do you want me to be doing with my time?)
So here’s an example of a Tongan sentence, which would be surely corrected by anyone who actually speaks Tongan:
‘Oku’ ou maa, ko ia ai te’ u fakatoutaakalo. I am shy, therefore I’ll keep showing myself and then dodging away when looked at.
Or here’s another one, with a difference construction:
‘Oku ‘ikai ke feti ‘a Paula. ‘Oku’ ne fua. Paula’s not fat. He’s afflicted with elephantitis.
And I thought those two definitions would be absurd to learn. Seems they come in handy.