17. Animals as Metaphors in Rotuman Sayings
Alan Howard and Jan Rensel
[Published in Man and a Half: Essays in Pacific Anthropology
and Ethnobiology in Honour of Ralph Bulmer, edited by A. Pawley.
Auckland: The Polynesian Society, Memoir No. 48, 1991]
Ralph Bulmer's research into the role of animals in Karam culture
stands as a landmark in anthropology. Few others have examined the
human-animal interface in such breadth, or paid such attention to detail.
This paper is inspired by Bulmer's achievements, although its goals
are far more modest. We explore the roles animals play in Rotuman idioms,
and the ways in which they reflect Rotuman cultural values and attitudes.
We then compare Rotuman sayings with collections from Samoa and Hawaii,
with the aim of exploring the possibilities for developing a comparative
framework. Our goal is to contribute, in however small a fashion, to
an understanding of the ways in which human beings use their knowledge
of the natural world in constructing a meaningful social existence.
The sayings used as the basis for this paper were compiled by Elisapeti
Inia, a retired Rotuman school teacher and a remarkable woman. She
was the first Rotuman woman to be educated as a teacher and enjoyed
a long, distinguished career. She is a student of Rotuman culture and
has written a number of stories and lessons in the Rotuman language
for the schools. Mrs. Inia compiled a typed list of some 458 sayings,
along with their explanations in Rotuman, and graciously gave us a
copy. She then spent many mornings over a period of weeks going over
them with us, one by one, explaining their use and clarifying ambiguities. 
Animals in Rotuman Life
Rotuma is located at 12º 30' S. latitude and 177º 40' E.
longitude, some 300 miles north of Fiji, with which it is politically
affiliated. The island is of volcanic origin, with the highest craters
rising to heights of 850 feet. It is divided into two main parts joined
by an isthmus of sand, forming a total configuration about 8 miles
long along an east-west axis. At its widest the island is nearly 3
miles across. The total land area is approximately 17 square miles.
A packed-sand road encircles the perimeter of the eastern part of the
island, and extends to the northern and southern sides of the western
part. For the past century, at least, almost all settlement has been
in the coastal areas along this road.
The interior of the island is bushland that is cleared periodically
to make room for swidden gardens. In recent years bush paths have been
widened, and though still quite rough, make it possible to traverse
the interior of the island by motor vehicle. From shoreline to summits,
virtually the entire island is covered with coconut trees and other
introduced vegetation. Indigenous forests have long since disappeared
on Rotuma, although remnants of endemic plant life may still be found
on some of the offshore islets. Most of the land either is currently
under cultivation or has been under cultivation in the recent past.
Pigs, cows and goats are kept in the bush within convenient walking
distance of the villages. Pigs are kept in stone-fenced enclosures
where they are fed by their owners, each of whom uses a unique call
to attract his herd. Cows and goats are usually tethered to trees and
allowed to graze. Pork and beef are prized as feast foods, and are
normally eaten only on special occasions. Goats are relative newcomers
to the island and are exported to Fiji, where there is a ready market
among Fijian Indians. Rotumans eat goat meat on occasion, usually curried.
Chickens are sometimes kept in the bush, but they are also permitted
to roam freely within the villages. They scratch for insects and grubs,
but are also fed grated coconuts by their owners. Their eggs are rarely
eaten, mostly because they are difficult to find; commercial eggs from
Fiji are available from the Co-operative Association stores and are
used to supplement the daily diet. Rotumans say that like pigs, chickens
know their owners' voices and respond accordingly. Chicken is usually
eaten on lesser occasions, such as family get-togethers, but at feasts
chickens may be ceremonially presented as supplements to pigs and cows.
Dogs and cats are kept as pets, more so it seems in recent years.
In 1960, when Alan Howard was conducting field work on the island,
pets were treated rather badly by European standards. The dogs were
scruffy, rarely petted, and fed only the meagerest of food leavings.
They were usually treated as nuisances and were the targets of well-aimed
missles or feet when they came too close while scavenging for leftovers.
Cats were rarely fed at all and were encouraged to hunt for mice and
rats for their subsistence. On our visit in 1988 the situation had
changed. As a result of outmigration, household size has decreased,
and a number of single-person households were in evidence. Many of
these single individuals keep pets in their households. Although cats
still serve to control the rodent population, many more cats and dogs
are now in the role of pets. They are generally well-groomed and fed,
petted frequently, and spend more time with people, rather than skulking
on the periphery of human activity.
Prior to the opening of the bush roads, horses were used widely to
transport food and copra from interior gardens to coastal settlements.
Now, however, pickup trucks and motorbikes are the favored means of
transport, and fewer horses are to be seen. Like cows and goats, horses
are generally tethered to trees in the near bush when not in use. They
seem to be regarded more as work animals than as pets.
Other than rats and mice, there are no wild mammals on the island.
Occasionally a few pigs break out of their enclosures, but they generally
do not stray far and are easily rounded up. When the Fiji government
sent a contingent of soldiers to Rotuma "to help control a sudden outbreak
of extensive damage to food crop plantations by wild pigs" in January
1988, Rotumans treated it as a great joke. They understood the underlying
metaphoric message well--that the group of rebels who were advocating
Rotuma's secession from Fiji following the second military coup in
September 1987 had better be careful!
Marine life, especially on the reef fringing most of the island, is
extremely important to Rotumans. Fish are plentiful, and until recently
were captured periodically in communal fish drives. Nowadays fish drives
are relatively rare, but both men and women regularly work the reef
with goggles & spears for a wide variety of species. Crustaceans
and octopus are also gleaned from their reef habitats and are highly
valued food items. Only a few Rotuman men now venture into the waters
beyond the reef, but their catches of deep-sea fish and turtles are
Both land and sea birds abound. The latter are sometimes hunted, especially
on the offshore islets, and their eggs are considered a delicacy. There
are few species of harmless snakes, a variety of lizards, and along
the shore numerous varieties of crab. Insects, especially flies and
mosquitoes, are ubiquitous and a general nuisance. A great deal of
effort goes into fanning flies away, especially at mealtime.
Sayings in Rotuman Culture
Mrs Inia titled her document "Haihi'ag ne 'Ea'Ea
Fak Rotuma,"  which
might best be translated as "List of Rotuman Sayings." It contains
proverbs, aphorisms, epithets, and apothegms which are used by Rotumans
in a wide variety of situations as cryptic remarks. The sayings generally
condense a great deal of information, and often require an insider's
knowledge of events, personages, and places. For example, one saying, "noa
'o le Maikeli", "Michael's labour", refers to an incident
some years back when a Fijian man by the name of Maikeli was working
for a European District Officer. He worked very hard, only to be
rewarded by having hot water thrown on him by his temperamental employer.
Rotumans use this saying to communicate about situations in which
work efforts are unappreciated by those in authority. As in this
instance, the sayings often have strong connotative loadings that
are disguised by metaphor. Since the references in many of the sayings
are to local events and conditions, their use distinguishes integral
members of the Rotuman community from mere Rotuman speakers, including
Rotumans who have grown up abroad.
Metaphors are by no means confined to this set of sayings. Lay preachers
pepper their sermons with Biblical references, but these seem to be
largely confined to religious discourse. Also, news of general interest
from abroad sometimes becomes the basis for cryptic comments, but these
usually have only faddish appeal. As interest in the specific events
decline, so do references to them. The sayings compiled by Mrs Inia,
in contrast, are more deeply embedded in community experience. They
are learned by most Rotumans as part of ordinary discourse and are
not ephemeral allusions.
Rotumans classify animals primarily according to their location and
means of locomotion, and secondarily according to their main characteristics.
The basic division is into two groups, i'a 'sea
creatures that swim' and manmanu 'land
and air creatures'. I'a includes turtles,
whales and octopus as well as fish, but does not include crabs, shellfish
and other creatures that inhabit the shoreline.  Manmanu are
divided into manman la haphäke (four-legged
animals, including lizards and rodents as well as land mammals); manman
jijiji (slithering animals, including snakes, worms, caterpillars
and eels); manman vatvata (crawling creatures,
including crabs, centipedes and millipedes, ants, spiders and lice),  and manman
ferfere (flying creatures). The latter category is further broken
down into manman 'es lalavi (feathered
creatures, including birds of all sorts and chickens) and an unmarked
category, manman (flying insects). Shellfish
are an anomalous category, perhaps because their means of locomotion
is unclear. They were referred to as te ma 'on
pilo (things with shells), based on their main characteristic. 
Of the 458 sayings that constitute our corpus, 117 (25.5%) make reference
to animals, with some selected from each major category.  A
breakdown, by Rotuman categories, is as follows:
Cultural Values and Attitudes Reflected in the Sayings
- I'a: fish (20), octopus (4), turtle
(1), lobster (1)
- Manman la haphäke: pig (9), cow
(5), dog (4), horse (4), cat (4), rodent (3), lizard (1), elephant
- Manman jijiji: snake (2), eel (2)
- Manman vatvata: crab (5), caterpillar
(1), ant (1), louse (1), cricket (1), cockchafer (1)
- Manman ferfere
- Manman 'es lalavi: chicken (10),
swamp hen (5), dove (5), owl (4), peahen (3), other (12)
- Manman: fly (2), dragonfly (1),
generic animal (1)
- Te ma 'on pilo: shellfish (1)
- Unclassified: monkey (2) 
In order to examine the ways in which the sayings reflect Rotuman
values and attitudes we find it convenient to group them into seven
thematic categories: work, status, interpersonal decorum, courtship
and sexual conduct, personal appearance and hygiene, challenges, and
Rotumans place a high value on hard work, and indeed, are known in
urban Fiji for their diligence and responsibility. In Rotuma, work
revolves for the most part around the production and preparation of
food. Men's work primarily involves preparing and tending gardens of
taro, yams, bananas and other crops; in addition, they cut and dry
coconut meat for exportation as copra. Women's work centers on the
making of mats and keeping the home and its surroundings well-groomed.
Both men and women may fish, tend the animals, prepare food and cook.
Nearly equal in importance to working within the domestic orbit is
communal effort--work on behalf of the church or the community. This
generally involves efforts similar to those within the household since
feasting is a central part of most communal activities. Until recently
at least, an individual's worth was judged on the basis of his or her
reputation as a worker, and producer, more than on any other factor.
A prestige economy based on the production and distribution of surplus
food, and produce of extraordinary size, flourished until recently
(Howard 1970:102-3). Today hard work is still valued and is central
to an individual's reputation, but having a well-paying job and/or
a well-constructed and well-furnished European-style house provide
alternative paths to gaining social merit.
Perhaps the saying which best sums up the Rotuman attitude toward
work is the proverb "pa hö sus ne kau, ma
hag kau ta la loh", "if you want to milk the cow, feed the cow
until it's full". This conveys the message that success is a result
of the work one puts into a project. Skill in producing food is also
acknowledged in the phrase, "le' maf i' e", "someone
with an eye for fish". The importance of working together to achieve
success is encoded in the saying, "moa ta pulou
ka 'uaf ta polou", "the rooster is fat and the hen is fat".
This is said not only of husbands and wives who prosper as a result
of their joint efforts, but also in reference to events, the success
of which is the product of contributions by guests as well as by hosts.
Positive valuing of work is also encoded in negative expressions.
Several different sayings referring to birds, chickens and fish admonish
shirking. "A'u'ua ne täväke", "repose
of the tropic bird", refers to the long rest periods taken by the tropic
bird, and is said to someone who takes a break from work that is too
long. Even more sharply critical is the expression, "'itake
'ipe te Ka' ta", "like the dove at Ka'
ta" (a natural bridge on the western side of the island). The
allusion is to the behavior of doves who start to fly, inciting other
birds to fly off, then settle back onto their perch. This is said of
someone who starts a project, gets other people working, and then abandons
it. Similar in meaning is the remark, "moa tau
tatar", "a fighting cock who repeatedly retires from the fray,
then returns". It is said of someone who takes frequent rests during
communal efforts while others are working. The expression "le'
Magere ne Tumagere" is an allusion to two fish who are so big
that they are unable to move quickly. It is used to describe people
who are sluggish workers because of their size.
Socialisation to accept work graciously begins early and a child who
shows reluctance to take on a task is often likened to "a horse with
yaws", "'itake has la jona". This alludes
to the child's shuffling back and forth from foot to foot, which is
taken as a sign of displeasure over the assignment. If a child displays
displeasure by stomping around heavily on his feet he or she may be
likened to an elephant, "'itake 'alefene".
The epitome of hard work in the sayings relates to hunting for the kaläe (swamphen).
Thus the phrase "re kaläe", "to catch
the swamphen", is often said in reference to women working diligently
weaving mats, or men hard at work in their gardens. Hunting swamphen
is used to convey difficulty in other contexts as well. For example,
the proverb "kal vea' ma gagaj, po'ia ma fek'ia
ka saien ma fek'ia", "don't hunt the swamphen with a chief;
if you catch it he'll be angry and if you let it escape he'll be angry",
refers to the difficulty of working with a chief. The notion conveyed
is that if you do something with a chief, and perform too well, the
chief may be upset because you have outshone him; but if you do not
perform up to standard he may be upset because you have done less than
The latter saying encodes some very central propositions about Rotuman
chieftainship, as well as about hard work. It presumes, for example,
that commoners work with chiefs rather than for them.
Although there are occasions in which chiefs are ceremonially inactive
when work is being done, it is quite common for them to take their
share of the burden. Indeed, chiefs, as exemplary persons, are expected
to be especially hard workers as long as they are physically capable.
Implied in the proverb is the relatively egalitarian perspective Rotumans
have on chieftainship. In Rotuma, chieftainship is a role played on
occasion, but there is a good deal of "time out". One needs to be sensitive
to when a man expects to be treated as a chief and when as an ordinary
person. Working with a chief can therefore be a tricky business, as
the proverb communicates.
The egalitarian emphasis in Rotuman social life is conveyed in several
sayings focusing on relative elevation. "Moa
a'mamas lalavi", "the rooster dries his feathers [spreading
his wings this way and that while perched on something high]",
is said to embarrass someone sitting on a chair or stool while others
sit on floormats. "'A ka magke la päe hehe", "like
a monkey sitting up above", communicates the same message. The idea
is that monkeys sit high in trees, people low on mats. The more cryptic, "ka
'äe magke?", "are you a monkey?", is often said to children
to get the point across. It should be pointed out that while visiting
dignitaries are almost always offered chairs to sit on, Rotuman chiefs
are physically elevated only on special ceremonial occasions. Under
normal circumstances they sit on mats like everyone else.
Also in support of the egalitarian ethic are sayings which impress
upon listeners not to discount those of lesser status. The statement "jikjik
he ka ma 'on 'al", "even the smallest crab has teeth", conveys
the message that anyone, regardless of status, can do important things.
However, when persons of lesser status make unwarranted claims or speak
arrogantly in public, they are admonished for being "'itake
'uf he", "like a head louse",--small, but with a big mouth.
This may also be said to/of children who speak out inappropriately.
Social life in Rotuma is based on reciprocal exchange and inter-household
cooperation, at least ideally. In fact Rotumans put very little pressure
on one another to engage in communal events. Those who choose not to
participate are not hassled, and the phrase, "puer
se 'äea [ia, iris]", "it's
up to you [her/him, them]", is often heard in this regard.
Of greater concern are individuals who are involved, but do not follow
the rules--those who are seen as selfish and/or two-faced. Many of
the sayings in our corpus warn against trusting people of such reputation.
The stonefish (which buries itself in the sand with only its poisonous
stinger protruding), and the octopus (which displays a variety of deceptive
behaviours), are favorite metaphors for such individuals.
Rotuman concerns for an honest presentation of self are subtlely conveyed
in the meta-metaphor "noh he", "little
home". The "little home" referred to is that of the stonefish, which
lies hidden, quiet and very poisonous. Thus a negative (covert) message
is disguised beneath a positive (overt) image, paralleling the human
masquerade being criticized. More direct is the straightforward comment "ia'
famu", "stonefish", which is said of individuals who hide their
true feelings, which are poisonous, beneath a pleasant facade.
The octopus is also used to characterize deceitful individuals, but
it implies less venom. "He' rou ki", "the
octopus leaves behind inky fluid", suggests a betrayal of trust, but
it is the octopus' tendency to hide after being seen that captures
the Rotuman imagination. "He' tuku", "the
octopus goes down", is said of someone who has wronged another and
tries to hide when he sees them because he feels guilty. The comment "he'
ta a'mofmofua ia", "the octopus turns itself to look like a
coral head", has a similar connotation. It refers to someone who pretends
that he is not the one who has done something wrong.
English speakers are familiar with the use of snakes and rats as metaphors
for individuals who turn on their benefactors. While the proverb "haghag
'on fa' heta ma fa' heta 'ania ia", "feed a pet and the pet
eats you", does not overtly specify the kind of pet, it alludes to
a story about a couple who fed a snake, first keeping it in a bowl,
then in a larger vessel, until the snake was so big it chased them
because they were unable to feed it enough. It is a comment made about
adopted children who ultimately turn against those who adopted them.  The
portrayal of rats as turncoats is likewise indirect. "Va
ne höt ka la kao", "[someone who] wants to come
aboard, but sinks the ship", refers to a story about a rat who successfully
begged the captain of a ship to come aboard, but once aboard chewed
the wood and sank the vessel. The saying is used to chastise those
who are given things, but are not satisfied and ask for more.
That one cannot expect to get away with such behaviour--that taking
advantage of others will eventually incite retaliation--is encoded
in the proverb "teranit ka mas heta la 'af", "one
day the mas (a type of crab) will bite".
This particular type of crab is a favorite food of the octopus, but
it seems that on occasion it will defend itself by biting off an octopus'
tentacle. More generally the saying communicates that greed has a social
The hermit crab figures in two sayings that implicate interpersonal
decorum. "Fikou heta lel ma 'af'afia ma ia", "the
hermit crab bends around and bites itself", implies that individuals
or groups are only hurting themselves by their behaviour. This is often
said of a group of relatives who are fighting among themselves, or
of a chief whose behaviour is not in the best interests of his people.
Of an older person who is ignorant of Rotuman custom, it is said, "mafua
'a fikou", "[the] old one eats [the] hermit
crab", which is classified as inedible by Rotumans.
The importance of reciprocity as a principle is also reflected in
two other sayings, which focus on the improper disposition of valuables. "'Üh
'eseat ma na 'en kaläe", "[there is] only one yam,
but it is given to the swamphen", is a warning not to give away precious
gifts, like fine mats, frivolously. One should save them for when they
are truly called for. The saying "'ou telul mahmahan
heta 'äe hoa'hoa' tuen", "your warm telulu (fish
wrapped in banana leaves) you have been giving to the wrong place",
refers to a story about a brother and sister who lived in separate
houses. The sister kept making telulu but
only gave it to local dignitaries, never to her brother. Then one day
the roof blew off her house, and instead of going to the dignitaries
she asked her brother for help. He replied with the above saying, meaning,
take care of those on whom you rely.
Rude behavior is the focus of several sayings. Staring at people is
considered offensive and is the critical target of the saying, "'io
mag ma 'a lag", "stare with an open mouth and eat flies". Staring
at food as it is being served is admonished by likening the offender
to a dog: "kåm pa vr sui", "[the] dog
wants to bite a bone".
Indiscriminately calling out to people passing by is also considered
rude behaviour. Proper etiquette calls for maintaining a demure manner
with strangers and visitors, so someone who loudly engages anyone who
comes along is likened to "a dog that barks on the road", "kåm
au sala". "'Itake helavao he", "like
a helavao (a whistling bird)", communicates
the same thing. Rotumans say that in the bush, when a helavao sees
someone it whistles, and another one will answer, because helavao always
answer whistles indiscriminately. Someone who complains too much is
compared with a dove (the Pacific pigeon) in the expression "'itake
'ipe te' gugu'i", "like a dove who's always complaining" (but
note that "'otou 'iap he", "my dove",
is used to express endearment).
Rotumans are quick to accept apologies for interpersonal offences
and to forgive wrongdoers, which helps to promote community harmony--a
prime value. But chronic offenders get labeled as such and may lose
their right to be trusted. Two sayings specifically refer to skepticism
over promises to reform by those who habitually break the rules: "Tinanam
ta ho'ien se 'on kakauag ta", "the sow has returned to her wallow",
and "Hi'i 'ea 'otou ag 'alaga la rou la sei la
sap", "Hi'i says, 'it is my habit to eat flies and it will be
difficult to break it'." Those with a reputation for periodic bouts
of drunkenness are particularly likely to be the targets of these gibes.
Finally there are a number of sayings directed primarily at children.
Youngsters who bully others, or are cruel to those smaller than themselves,
are said to be "'itake sia'leva", "like
the sia' leva bird" (a large bird that
bullies smaller ones), or "'u'ui ne tanife", "offspring
of a shark".
When not working, Rotuman adults spend a good deal of time together
in relaxed conversation. They might sit quietly for hours on someone's
veranda or under a shade tree. Children are ubiquitous and are permitted
to move freely about, often going from lap to lap without impeding
adult interaction. If, however, the youngsters fidget about too much,
they are apt to be compared to dragonflies or mullet, or as with the
English expression "having ants in one's pants", they might be asked
if they are sitting on an empty coconut shell full of stinging ants, "päe
se pupu rau'at he". And a child who drops food scraps about
while eating is said to "eat like a chicken", "'ate
As many observers of have pointed out, rights over children in Polynesian
societies tend to be diffuse, and the community or extended family
is more likely to be considered the appropriate unit of socialisation
than the nuclear family. This is the case in Rotuma, and disapproval
of mothers (or mother surrogates) who overprotect their children, or
keep too tight reins on their mobility, is expressed in the saying "täntän
'ul he", "the täntän" (a
kind of fish with a sucker on its head by which it clings to sharks
and other large fish). A related saying identifies youngsters as old
enough to be free from their primary caretakers by comparing them to "wet
chicks," "'u'ui uas he"--chicks away from
the protection of their mother's wings.
Courtship and Sexual Conduct
Rotuman attitudes toward sex favour constraint and modesty, although
male potency is admired and its exercise tacitly encouraged. This leads
to courtship customs which are subtle and hidden from public display
(see Howard 1964, 1970). This subtlety is matched in some of the sayings
referring to courtship. For example, the comment "år
fakte'åk", "fit for special treatment", has two layers
of meaning. The first layer makes reference to the expectation that
chiefs be presented with large pigs (hata)
on special occasions, but that if a large one is not available a smaller
one will do. The second layer refers to a woman who is a bit young
for courtship, but is nevertheless desirable. Pigs (specifically boars)
also stand as metaphors for young unmarried men. The saying "kou
möl pa", "[the] boar climbs [the] fence",
suggests the restlessness of a young man who frequently strays away
from home looking for romance. That the imagery of man as boar reflects
more admiration than concern is made clear in the simple comment "kou
ta'a", "that boar". It connotes someone who is strong and fearless,
and is often said to a young boy who has fallen or been injured in
order to encourage him not to cry. It is also a flattering comment
about a man who has sired many children, or an older man who has had
many wives. The equation of boars with potency is thus very clear.
There are limits, of course, and a man who courts more than one woman,
or who is married but pursues extramarital relations, is likened to "an
animal with a double throat", "manman kia maja".
The equation here is between sex and eating, and such a man is criticised
for wanting more than his rightful share. Equally caustic is the saying "kåm
ta ho'ien se 'on mumuaf ta", "the dog returns to its vomit",
which is said of a man who has treated a woman badly, seducing then
discarding her, but who, after a time, returns to marry his victim.
A woman who is unfaithful to her husband or lover is likened to "a
brooding hen", "'uaf 'o'o", an allusion
to the evasive actions taken by a hen when its nest is threatened by
a predator. The hen moves away from its nest and cackles here and there
in order to distract a predator from the eggs or chicks. The idea is
that the woman "makes her nest" in one place but dallies about elsewhere.
In a more positive vein is the proverb "'iap
sui mano'a, sai ma oroan", "a tied-up dove, once it is free
it starts to sing". This is used in reference to a woman who has
been under the thumb of a domineering husband who leaves or dies.
The notion is that his departure gives her the freedom to enjoy life
Personal Appearance and Hygiene
Rotumans associate healthiness with large body size and strength,
as do most other Polynesians. They also value light skin; a pleasing,
open countenance; cleanliness and smelling good. All of these values
are represented in the sayings by negative counterexamples.
Three sayings contain allusions to thinness. Equating a person with
the 'iva'o bird, which is very slender, figures in two of them: "le'
iva'o", "a person [like an] iva'o",
and "'iva'o 'äe sua'ia, la' sagsaga la hai'ofiag",
a rhyme which translates as, "'iva'o you
have started, go smartly to the race". The latter comment is said mostly
by young men in response to a young woman's tucking up her skirt to
run, thereby revealing her legs. The joking and somewhat rude reference
is to her legs' being as skinny as those to the 'iva'o bird.
The other expression mocking thinness is, "jiaj
ur finäe", "[a] garfish with its intestines pulled
out", which implies that the person is already thin and getting thinner.
Dark skin is the target of the comment, "nono
ma jül het fer ma foa' sio sin", "after a while the plover
flies and lands on it". This is a teasing warning to someone who
fishes on the reef so often that their skin becomes quite dark. The
idea is that plovers will think the person, while bending over to
catch fish, looks like a black rock that plovers like to perch on.
The emphasis on having an open face is stressed by counterexample
in the observation that someone has "the face of an owl", "maf
ne ruru", the epitome for Rotumans of a devious-looking countenance.
To say that someone has the "eyes of a cow", "'itake
maf ne kau", is a gentler remark chiding an individual who is
looking wide-eyed at something he or she desires. A more general comment
on someone's ugly appearance is to equate them with an sea snake, "'itake
uahgia", which includes the connotation that the person so described
is harmless. An unattractive person who dresses up elegantly is said
to be ready to "frighten the swamphen", "rar
kaläe", a reference to the dressed-up scarecrows Rotuman
farmers sometimes put in their gardens.
Most sayings referring to dirtiness and smelliness are directed as
scolding remarks to children. They may be told that they are "'itake
puaka", "like a pig", or "'itake ki· he'", "like
octopus ink". If they track mud in the house they may be reproached
with the comment, "pa 'on puaka", "pig
sty", implying that they are treating their home as a pig would. Children
who fail to wash their hands properly are told they are "like blackfish", "'itake
ia' kele," a particularly strong-smelling fish, or that they "smell
like an owl", "pen rur". If their head
is smelly for lack of washing their hair it may be likened to the "nest
of an owl", "'o'oag ne ruru". Of adults
who bathe infrequently or inadequately it is said, "le'
ta vea' se ia", "the person is a peahen".
Four of the five sayings used as challenges are banters that accompany
dance competitions between villages or districts. Typically this occurs
during large weddings, church conferences, or the Christmas season
when one locality hosts another. All can be used as taunts by the visitors. "Kaläe
ta kiakia ma 'e 'on susu heta", "the swamphen shouts in its
own nest", and "moa tau ne hanuet nono ma 'e
hanue ta", "the fighting cock is only known at home", both refer
to the advantage local dancers have over their visitors because they
receive more encouragement from (local) spectators. The implied comment
is, "just wait until you're on our turf". The other tack is for the
visitors to taunt their hosts after giving a particularly spirited,
well-rehearsed performance. While waiting for their hosts to perform
they might call out that "the swamphen flies away from its nest", "kaläe
ta fer 'e 'on susu heta", or "the dove flies away and is afraid
to approach", "'iap ta fer ka manaf",
which implies that the host dancers have been so intimidated by the
quality of the visitors' dancing that they will want to give up. The
latter two sayings may also be used by the hosts, if they have prevailed,
implying that the visitors have been so badly humiliated they will
not want to reciprocate the invitation. Although primarily associated
with dance competitions, each of these sayings can be used to refer
to individuals in other contexts. The first two are sometimes said
of persons who act like big shots in their home villages, but are timid
elsewhere, and the second two may be used to describe people who move
away from their villages or homes in order to escape work obligations.
The fifth saying implying a challenge is more serious, and was used
to incite warriors in traditional times. It is associated with Riamkau,
a folk hero who urged his army to "return as a cockchafer" (stinkbug), "la
ho'im ke ia riagriag he". This was a euphemism for fighting
to his death, since the vile smell of the cockchafer is associated
with the smell of a rotting corpse.
The main emotions targeted by the sayings are anger and fear. With
regard to anger, all three sayings that refer to it are descriptive.
They neither contain overt moralistic judgments nor do they suggest
undesirable consequences. They merely seem to call attention to the
person's affective state. When someone is perceived as angry for no
apparent reason, they are said to have "eat[en] eel." Of an
angry woman who rushes about the house, going in and out, a husband
might chide her by saying, "'uaf pa sarap te", "the
hen wants to flap her wings". This alludes to the behaviour of a hen
when aggressively protecting her chicks from threat. "'itake
pus feke", "like an angry cat", is the third metaphor indicating
anger, and indirectly alludes to spitting behaviour, which is one way
Rotumans express their ire.
The sayings focusing on fear can be divided into those praising fearlessness
and those chiding fearfulness. As pointed out above, for Rotumans the
boar epitomises bravery and courage, and to liken a boy or man to one
connotes fearlessness. More generally, the saying "ia'
se fea 'e mamasa", "[a] fish unafraid of drying out",
communicates an individual's lack of trepidation. Depending on context,
it can be used as praise or as criticism for foolish risk-taking.
Interestingly, five different animals are used as metaphors to suggest
fearfulness: dog, horse, peahen, turtle, and mouse. Also noteworthy
is that the main social contexts for sayings indicating fearfulness
are teasing and banter. In many instances they are used as taunts by
perpetuators of practical jokes who have incited fear by their actions.
As in English, the dog's habit of fleeing with its tail between its
legs makes for an apt metaphor: "Kåm ta
fea ma näe feu", "the dog is afraid and puts its tail between
its legs". But Rotumans also focus on the horse's tail in the saying, "röj
se ma 'on joniga", "[it] extends out by his/her running",
which equates the extension of a horse's tail in flight with the way
a running person's hair flows backwards. "Je
haat vilien, la vea' heta kien", "when the dried coconut leaf
falls, the peahen cries", suggests that there is little reason to be
frightened, and is a teasing remark to someone who reacts with fright
to a practical joke. More serious in its connotation is the saying, "'itake
hoi jaja", "like a turtle trapped in a circle of canoes". It
implies that the individual referred to is in a desperate state. The
metaphor of the mouse, "feafea 'on pija", "fearfulness
of a mouse", parallels the English saying, "when the cat's away the
mice will play", in its implications. It refers to people who are ordinarily
well-behaved (presumably out of fear), but who play around when those
having authority over them are gone. Most commonly, the cat in this
instance is equated with a chief, the mice with his subjects.
Rotuman Sayings in Comparative Perspective
Sayings provide excellent opportunities for comparing cultural values,
since they share similar forms. Restricting comparisons to metaphors
based on common elements, such as animals, is especially appealing
since it provides a control on the overt subject matter. We are presented,
in effect, with an experimental condition. While it is beyond the scope
of this essay to present an exhaustive study of Polynesian sayings,
we hope to stimulate further work in this area by highlighting some
of the possibilities.
We have chosen Samoan and Hawaiian sayings to compare with our Rotuman
corpus since good collections have been published for each of these
cultures. The Samoan sayings were collected by Erich Schultz in the
first decade of this century and first published in Samoan in 1916.
They were later translated into English by Brother Herman and published
by the Polynesian Society in 1953 under the title Proverbial Expressions
of the Samoans. It is this latter version that we have used for
our comparison. The Hawaiian sayings we used were compiled by Mary
Kawena Pukui, who collected them over a lifetime, from around 1910
to 1960. The collection was published by Bishop Museum Press in 1983
as 'Olelo No'eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings. 
Our first question concerned the relative significance of animals
as referents in the three cultures. We found the differences to be
surprisingly small. In Rotuma 117 of 458 sayings (25.5%) allude to
animals. For Samoa the figures are 132 of 560 (23.8%) and for Hawaii
534 of 2942 (18.2%). Although the proportion for Hawaii is smaller
the absolute number is considerably greater. Whether the higher number
of sayings in the Hawaiian corpus represents a greater cultural elaboration
of idiomatic usage in the Hawaiian archipelago or an artifact of compilation
is a question we cannot resolve. Nevertheless, it does seem evident
that the use of animals as metaphoric referents is important in all
Somewhat more revealing of differences are the types of animals alluded
to in the sayings. Table 1 shows that in the Rotuman corpus domestic
animals are referred to most frequently, followed closely by sea creatures
and birds. The Samoan corpus, in contrast, lists only a single referent
to domestic animals (a chicken). Sea creatures account for nearly half
of the Samoan set, with birds a prominent second. The Hawaiian list
shows sea creatures to be dominant, accounting for more than half of
the referents, with birds a distant second, followed by domestic animals.
TABLE I: TYPE OF ANIMAL REFERRED TO BY SOCIETY
Type of Animal
*Totals differ from the number
of idioms containing animals because some idioms include reference
to more than one animal.
What might account for these differences? One possibility, of course,
is that there may have been systematic biases in the processes of collection
and compilation. It certainly seems odd that Samoans should so thoroughly
ignore domestic animals as a source of metaphor, since there is no
reason to believe they are of any less economic significance in Samoa
than in Rotuma or Hawaii.
Another possibility is that the relative importance of activities
that bring humans into contact with animals--like fishing, hunting
or animal husbandry--is a key variable. This would suggest that fishing
is a more salient activity in Hawaii and Samoa than it is in Rotuma,
which may have a basis in fact. What is striking is that all but one
of the marine life references in the Rotuman corpus are to reef animals,
while both the Samoan and Hawaiian sayings contain numerous references
to deep sea fish like sharks, bonito, swordfish, barracuda and the
like. Indeed, only a few Rotumans have done deep sea fishing in recent
years, and most fishing activity is confined to the reef fringing the
island.  The relative
importance of birds in the Samoan corpus may reflect the importance
of pigeon hunting as an activity there. Such a conclusion is supported
by the fact that 28 of the 51 sayings referring to birds in the Samoan
collection are about pigeons, and 32 directly refer to the hunting
of pigeons or seabirds. By the same reasoning we would expect animal
husbandry to be of greater relative importance on Rotuma. While it
is difficult to compare societies in this regard, we can attest to
the fact that nearly every Rotuman family keeps pigs and chickens,
at least, and that caring for them is a task that is taken quite seriously.
Still another possible factor may have to do with the symbolic significance
of types of animals for different cultures. Can it be, for example,
that domestic animals have symbolic appeal for Rotumans precisely because
they are not wild? One could argue that domesticity signifies cultural
control for Rotumans, who are a remarkably non-violent people. Domesticity
may also be opposed to hierarchy in the Polynesian mind insofar as
higher-ranking chiefs are associated with gods, and hence uncontrolled
nature. Then, too, there is very little of the Rotuman landscape that
can be considered "wild". Virtually the entire island, up to the summit
of the highest hills, is or has been under cultivation. The Hawaiian
elaboration of shark metaphors (13 instances compared to 3 for Samoa
and 1 for Rotuma) may be related to the Hawaiian equation of a chief
with "a shark that travels on land" (Pukui 1983:87), and hence to a
concern for the predatory potency of chiefs.
Clearly all of these explanatory possibilities are speculative, but
they point to some of the dimensions to be considered in a comparative
analysis of choice of animals for metaphoric constructions.
At a more refined level one can explore which specific animal behaviours
are focused upon in each set of sayings. Thus in the Hawaiian set there
are several references to a cock's crowing, but such an allusion is
absent in the Rotuman corpus. And while both Hawaiians and Rotumans
refer to a chicken's eating habits, the latter focus upon the sloppiness
of the animal's demeanour, the former on the habit chickens have of
cleaning their beaks after eating. In both the Hawaiian and Rotuman
sets, however, the staring of dogs is contrasted with proper human
What emerges from our examination of the comparative materials is
the great flexibility that animals provide with regard to metaphoric
construction. Within each set the same animal is often used in a variety
of ways. For instance the Hawaiian sayings allude to a wide range of
crab behaviors--scavenging, making noise in the dark, digging holes
in the sand, climbing up on rocks, scattering sand, exposing their
teeth, hiding in fissures. To further complicate matters the same behaviours
may be given entirely different meanings. For example, both Rotumans
and Hawaiians allude to the observation that dogs eat their own vomit.
But whereas Rotumans use this behaviour as a metaphor for a man's mistreatment
of a woman followed by his return to her (see above), Hawaiians use
it in reference to immanent justice--that speaking ill of someone may
result in those very things happening to oneself.
Another example is provided by the golden plover, a migratory shorebird
that breeds in the Arctic and winters in Hawaii (where it is called kolea),and
other Pacific Islands including Rotuma (where it is called juli).
Both Hawaiian and Rotuman sayings refer to the plover's call, and in
particular, to the fact that the bird seems to repeat its own name.
This is interpreted as egotistical behaviour (both groups), telling
lies about someone (Hawaiian), or seeking one's kin by repeating a
family name (Hawaiian). It is also the basis of a child's game in Rotuma
("juli, juli, don't talk!"). 
The plover's migratory nature is the basis of many Hawaiian sayings,
in which a kolea represents any foreigner
who comes to the islands only to "grow fat" and then leaves without
giving anything back. If a pregnant woman craves kolea meat,
it is said her child will be a traveler. Since the plover neither breeds
nor lays its eggs in the islands, its nest is used as a metaphor for
something which is impossible to find, and "a kolea's egg" is
a subject no one knows anything about, or something far away and out
In contrast, Rotuman sayings do not mention the migratory behaviour
of the plover at all. Since the bird exhibits the same behaviour in
both locations, we assume that its migratory behaviour strikes a chord
in Hawaiian culture that is absent in Rotuma. Perhaps the post-contact
situation in Hawaii, where many foreigners have behaved in the way
described, gave rise to such an expression; Rotuma, on the other hand,
is located off all major trade routes and has remained in control of
In addition to behaviour, an animal's physical features are often
the source of metaphor. Here again flexibility is evident. Both Hawaiians
and Samoans allude to the softness of an octopus' body, but with quite
different meanings attached. Thus the Hawaiian saying, "he
he'e ka i'a kino palupalu", "it is an octopus, a soft-bodied
creature", is said of a weakling (Pukui 1983:66), whereas the Samoan
saying, "o le vaivai o le fe'e", "the
softness of the octopus", implies that although it has a soft body
the octopus is a powerful creature. Samaons use this saying in reference
to a small but influential family or village, or a calm but momentous
speech (Schultz 1980:24).
Another way of making comparisons is to examine the themes in each
corpus. While there is some degree of overlap between the three cultures,
what was striking to us is the degree to which each corpus exemplifies
unique themes. The Rotuman corpus reflects elaboration upon the themes
of personal appearance (12 instances, involving 11 different animals)
and interpersonal trust (7 instances, involving 4 animals). The Samoan
sayings emphasise themes related to leadership and chiefly protocol
(20 instances, involving 12 animals), while the Hawaiian sayings reflect
strong concerns for status (17 instances, involving 4 types of animals,
all birds), and sexual behavior (16 instances, involving 8 animals).
One could make a good case for these differences reflecting basic value
themes in each culture, but a proper comparative analysis of values
as reflected in animal metaphors would require a more intensive analysis
that we can present here. As Bulmer has taught us, to do a convincing
job of it one would have to link the metaphors to their ethnographic
contexts and to their usage in everyday life.
As Lévi-Strauss (1963) has pointed out, animals are good to
think. They provide human beings everywhere with a rich set of possibilities
for constructing meaning, and for commenting about the nature of social
life (see Brandes 1983, Crocker 1977, Halverson 1976, Leach 1964, and
Tambiah 1969 for examples). What we have presented in this paper only
scratches the surface. The main lesson we have learned by engaging
in this exercise is to appreciate the flexibility of the communicative
codes humans construct out of animal metaphors. They are codes that
permit the expression of subtle nuances of connotative meanings, a
fact which makes them so suitable for social commentaries. 
The flexibility of animal metaphors for expressing cultural values
was brought home to us when we compared the Rotuman, Samoan and Hawaiian
corpora. One might have expected that there would have been a good
deal of overlap in the metaphoric usage of animals between these historically
related Polynesian cultures. The types of animals available are similar
and the cultural logic of the three cultures has a common core. Proto-forms
of idiomatic usage could well have persisted under these circumstances.
But we are convinced by our brief comparative excursion that animal
sayings are highly responsive to new social contexts, and that they
reflect the subtle concerns of social life as well as its broad outlines.
The careful analysis of such sayings may therefore provide insights
into cultural life that go beyond those reflected in the use of ordinary
language. They may prove to be one of our best keys to illuminating
the values of particular cultures, as well as providing us with a workable
framework for comparative analysis.
We would like to thank Jieni Howard and Vilsoni Hereniko for reading
earlier drafts to this paper. Both made useful suggestions and helped
us to correct errors in the Rotuman text. Any remaining mistakes are
 Another compilation of Rotuman Idioms
has been published by Parke (1971). Mrs. Inia's collection is considerably
more extensive, however, and provided a better corpus for our purposes. [back
 Throughout this paper we use Churchward's
orthography for Rotuman words. He offers the following guide to pronunciation,
using English equivalents: a as in clam, but shorter, unless written [with
a macron]; a [with a dot underneath] as in want; å as
in cat; ä as in fan; e as in bet; f as in fish; g as ng in sing;
h as in heart; i as in sit; j as tch in pitch; k as in rake; l as in
laugh; m as in mask; n as in nine; o as in obey; ö pronounced
as in German, somewhat like er in her; p pronounced as in English,
but blunted somewhat towards b; r pronounced with a slight trill; s
between English s and sh; t pronounced strictly dental, the tip of
the tongue being pressed against the back of the top teeth; u as in
put; ü pronounced as in German (this sound may be approximated
by endeavouring to pronounce ee in see, with the lips rounded); v as
in vat; when v falls at the end of a word, particularly when following
an a, it is often imperfectly articulated and sounds like o; ' glottal
stop (Churchward 1940, Part II). Where current usage deviates from
Churchward, we have opted to spell words in accordance with the former. [back
 The classification of animals in this
section is based on Churchward's Rotuman Dictionary (1940). Additional
information was provided by school teachers attending a science education
workshop conducted on the island in July, 1988, by the junior author.
The teachers were well aware of scientific classifications and were
careful to distinguish sea mammals and amphibians from fish, although
these distinctions are not made by Churchward. The classification presented
here should be regarded as tentative rather than definitive. In practice
there is some degree of ambiguity regarding the classification of several
animals. [back to text]
 Eels and crabs can be distinguished
from land animals in the same group by adding ne ss ta (of the sea)
to their category. Thus crabs are manman vatvata ne ss ta (crawling
creatures of the sea). [back to text]
 This may be a direct translation from
English. [back to text]
 The total for the individual animals
adds up to more than 117 since several idioms contain reference to
more than one animal. [back to text]
 Elephants do not inhabit Rotuma and
are known only from books, motion pictures and visits to zoos abroad. [back
 Monkeys are not present on Rotuma,
although in the past there is at least one instance in which a Rotuman
sailor brought back a monkey as a pet. Monkeys are ambiguous in their
means of locomotion and not readily classified within the Rotuman schema. [back
 Adoption, particularly of grandchildren,
is quite common in Rotuma and we do not believe this proverb carries
the implication that it is unwise to adopt children. Rather it seems
to aim at chastising someone who has failed to reciprocate properly
for the care his adopted parents have given him. [back
 We acknowledge that there is a methodological
problem created by the different time periods covered by the collection
of idioms in the three cultures, so our results should be interpreted
with caution. Ideally idioms should be collected during the same time
period. Nevertheless, comparisons can still be valid if it is acknowledged
that one is contrasting Rotuma of 1980 with Samoa of 1910, provided
the ethnographic data used are confined to a period contemporaneous
with the idioms. The Hawaiian case is more problematic since the collection
took place over a 50 year period. Our assumption, based on the history
of Hawaiian culture, is that most of the idioms reported by Pukui were
current in the earlier years of her collection. We therefore take them
to be indicative of Hawaiian culture during the early part of the 20th
century. [back to text]
 While turtles are captured in deep
water, Rotumans dive for them in inshore waters, between the main island
and offshore islets. [back to text]
 The game involves singling out one
of a group by following a chant ending in "Juli, juli, don't talk!" That
person then is supposed to keep silent. This game is referred to by
someone entering a group where no one is talking. It's a way of jokingly
asking why everyone present is so quiet. [back
 There are no Samoan sayings about
the plover (tuli) in the collection we examined. [back
 This is not to deny that the same
may be true of plant metaphors or metaphors of any kind. However, we
believe that animals provide special metaphoric opportunities for human
beings because they share such a wide range of characteristics with
their human counterparts. [back to text]
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