Piwakawaka Mini Te Mära Reo ~ The Language Garden
Possibly Musa troglodytarum, (Musaceae) and/or Cyathea affinis (Cyatheaceae).
Proto Central Eastern Polynesian: Possibly a generic name covering bananas & tree ferns -- i.e. plants with slim trunks and frond-like tops.


Although this proto-word has been reconstructed from apparently cognate terms in several Eastern Polynesian languages, both the precise form and original meaning of the source word are difficult to ascertain with confidence. The modern Mäori word has a long final vowel, both vowels in the Tahitian word are long, and Marquesan and Rarotongan words are both recorded with short vowels. To complicate matters further, although the Rarotongan form has been noted in connection with two species of tree fern by the botanist Arthur Whistler, it is not mentioned in either the Savage or Buse dictionaries, nor is it listed in the Cook Islands Natural Biodiversity database.

Although the Hawaiian and Tahitian words are cognate, the Hawaiian form may not been directly inherited from the proto-language. It was most likely introduced from Tahiti in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, along with the papaya and the starchy cooking banana Musa troglodytarum. However, the Pollex database also lists it as a name for the tree fern Cibotium menziesii, generally known as hapu'u 'i'i, or 'i'i'i (on account of its brownish fronds), and related to the New Zealand whekï. There are no corresponding entries in either the Pukui or Andrews dictionaries, or in the Palmer monograph on Hawaiian ferns. However, if this an old Hawaiian word for a species of tree fern, then quite possibly that sense may indeed have been inherited from an earlier stage of the language.

The Pollex database gives "A tree fern" as the probable original referent; however, on the basis of the known apparent cognate forms, I would guess that this may originally have been a rather vague term for slender, frond-bearing tree-sized plants. That doesn't solve the mystery of the differences in vowel length, but it may well have been that the word was a rather recent coinage at the time of its dispersal, with that detail not yet settled! David Malo noted that the bases of the fronds of certain species of tree fern were cooked and eaten as famine foods in Hawaii, and the young shoots of Cyathea affinis were also eaten in the Marquesas, so the applications of the name to a variety of kumara in Hawaii would fit in with both the banana and tree-fern word origins.


Tahitian: Fë'ï (Musa troglodytarum [Musaceae])
Marquesan: Heki (Cyathea sp. [Cyatheaceae])
Hawaiian: Hë'ï (Ipomoea batatas cultivar [Convolvulaceae]; also Musa troglodytarum [Musaceae] and Carica papaya [Caricaceae] & possibly Cibotium menziesii [Dicksoniaceae]-- see notes opposite)
Rarotongan: 'eki (Cyathea parksiae & C. feani [Cyatheaceae])
Maori: Wheki (Dicksonia squarrosa [Dicksoniaceae])

Fe'i Banana
Musa troglodytarum (Maui, Hawai'i)

Cyathea affinis
Cyathea affinis (Raiatea, Tahiti)

Dicksonia squarrosa (New Zealand)

Fe'i Banana
Cibotium menziesii (Maui, Hawai'i)

Photographs: The image of the fe'i banana is by A.K. Kepler, on the Pacific Biodiversity Information Forum web site. The photograph of Cyathea affinis is by Jean-Yves Meyer, and included in his Raiatea expedition blog. The picture of the wheki was taken by "D-rew @ en-Wikipedia". The photograph of Cibotium menziesii is by the Hawaiian photographers Kim and Forest Starr.
Further information: There is a little basic information about the Cyathea species C. affinis, C. decurrens and C. parksiae in the Cook Islands Biodiversity database, and a little on Musa troglodytarum in the Bishop Museum ethnobotany database. The Bishop Museum also published a monograph on the fe'i banana, Laurence H. McDaniels, A study of the fei banana and its distribution with reference to Polynesian migrations (Honolulu, 1947). (See the linked page on the wheki for further information about Dicksonia squarrosa.)

Hue flower

Te Mära Reo, c/o Benton Family Trust, "Tumanako", RD 1, Taupiri, Waikato 3791, Aotearoa / New Zealand
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