A Papa'a's Guide

A papa'a is a foreigner - the word literally means four layers of clothes and refers to the way missionaries used to dress. James Chalmers from Scotland (pictured) was one such missionary who arrived in Rarotonga in 1867 and spent the next 10 years of his life working there.

These days, the four layers are optional, and definitely not recommended! And unlike in Chalmer's time, you will find almost everyone you meet is happy to speak to you in English, unless you venture to the most remote northerly islands.

However, according to the authoritative, there are still five living languages (including English) in the Cook Islands.   


This ‚Äčis sometimes called Rarotongan after the capital island and it's the most widely spoken version of maori. It's estimated that about 27,000 people worldwide speak it, although numbers are rapidly declining. It's also the language of islanders on Atiu, Aitutaki, Mitiaro, Mauke and Mangaia where they have their own accent and a few of their own words.

Some useful words

Kia orana = Hello
(literally, "may you live long")
Aere ra = Goodbye
Meitaki = Thank you
'Ae = yes
Kare = no
Tane = man
Vaine = woman
Manea = pretty/handsome

Mataora = happy
Kai = food
Teia ra = today
Apopo = tomorrow
Ra = sun
Marama = moon
Moana = ocean
Maunga = mountain
'Ura = to dance 

As in other countries though, there are local variations  of language. How you say thank you very much is a good example....
Meitaki maata becomes: Meitaki ngao on Mangaia. Meitaki atupaka on Aitutaki. Meitaki polea on Penrhyn. Meitaki nui on Mauke

If you want a bit more, pay a visit to The website where you'll find colourful posters with some ba sics of the language. Click the logo to go the site


You can learn common phrases and a whole lot more in Rarotongan Maori thanks to a great free resource from Digital Dialects. Not only will you hear words and phrases spoken aloud, you can then test yourself with some simple games

Click here to try it out. It's fun

The least spoken language is PENRHYNESE which is unique to the Northern Group island of Penrhyn and is rapidly disappearing. It's also spoken - after a fashion - on Palmerston Island where it's mixed up with words from the Gloucestershire accent of England and where English is the only official language. More of this at the bottom of the page

PUKAPUKAN is more like the Samoan language than Cook Islands Maori and is completely unintelligible to most other Cook Islanders. Remarkably though, there are more speakers outside Pukapuka than on the Northern Group island pictured here. It's estimated 2,300 people are fluent, with the majority in Australia and New Zealand. Until December, 2007, there was no known written form of the language. The very first work to be created was a translation of the Bible's New Testament which is still a work in progress

Still without any written form though is RAKAHANGA-MANIHIKI which is spoken by about 2,500 Cook Islanders, only half of whom live on the two islands from which it takes its name. The rest are in New Zealand. Speakers of Cook Islands Maori can understand some of it, but not much.


On the remote island of Palmerston, only English is the official tongue, and has been since William Marsters settled there from the Midlands of England in the 19th century. But lingustics experts say that to this day there are still remnants of an English Midlands accent in the words and the way they're spoken

Find out more about this unique oddity of language

Find out more about Palmerston

The Willam Marsters story