Tongan Customs & Language Guide

Beautiful school girls in Lifuka

No matter which country you find yourself in it’s always a good idea to learn a little of the language and a few of the customs. Doing so makes the locals feel good and respected. We always try to learn at least the basic pleasantries such and “hello”, “goodbye”, “please” and “thank you”. Even when we don’t pronounce it quite right we are always rewarded with giant smiles. Maybe they are laughing at us but we’re pretty sure it makes them feel good to know we are at least trying.

Here’s some of the phrases and words you might want to try while you’re here in this beautiful country.

To make learning Tongan a bit easier, we’ve got a couple of hints… anytime an “n” and a “g” are together… “ng” … it sounds like “ing”. Lei always sounds like “lay”. Ai always sounds like “I”.

General Phrases and A Few Helpful Nouns


If you like spicy food you will likely find the food in the islands to be a bit bland. The Pacific Islanders aren’t much for spicy food. We have found, however, than if you get with the locals they will share some amazing and flavorful food. One of our favorite things we’ve had in the islands is cooked taro leaves. They cook it down like spinach in a coconut broth. It’s pretty tasty!

Day Of The Week

Counting 1-100 in Tongan

It turns out that counting in Tongan is rather easy once you learn zero through nine. All subsequent numbers are literally the numbers combined.

  • 21 is two “ua” plus one “taha” combined to be Ua Taha (21)
  • 64 is six “ono” plus four “fā” combined to be Ono Fā (64)

There are three exceptions…. 22, 55, 99. 22 is “uo ua”, 55 is “time nima” and 99 is “hive hiva”.

One hundred is “teau” (teh-ah-oo)

Tongan Customs

Learning the language is a great start but learning some of the customs also makes you a better guest. Something you think is completely innocuous can offend the locals and make you seem more like a threat than a curious guest. Here’s a couple of things to know about your stay in Tonga.

  1. Sunday is a religious holiday. First and foremost remember….Sunday is a religious day and is very strictly observed by all Tongans. Most businesses will be closed however you will find a few restaurants open in the tourist areas. By law, Tongans may not swim or fish on Sunday. It’s important as a visitor that you show respect for their Sunday traditions. If you go into town make certain you are dressed appropriately (see dress code below) and don’t host rowdy get togethers on your boat that may disturb their normal activities on this day.
  2. Dress Code. These are islands but there is a dress code when in the towns and villages. The Tongans dress pretty conservatively. Men wear shirts in public places and women never go to town in short shorts or low cut tops. When we questioned the man at Customs on the way in he said that modest shorts and shirts are fine for women however on Sunday women should always have their shoulders and knees covered whether by pants or a knee length skirt. If you plan to attend church then men will be required to wear slacks and women a skirt that covers the knees and a top that covers the shoulders.

    Note that we also have heard of shopkeepers and others who refused to provide service to tourists who dressed inappropriately in town. While we saw many cruisers and other tourists who clearly did not seem to care about this custom we always made certain to follow it and in return were treated with great respect.
  3. Tipping is discouraged. The Tongans are proud people and tipping is discouraged because they do not want to create an environment where this is expected and therefore the Tongan people begin to harass cruisers or other tourists. If you really want to do something for someone who has gone above and beyond then you should provide them with a gift or a photograph of you and them.
  4. Ask Permission First! We’ve said this before but it bears repeating….coconuts and fruits growing ashore are private property. Do not take any without permission from the landowner. We didn’t encounter many villages where you couldn’t buy produce if you wanted it. They are all too happy to sell you the things they grow in their villages.
  5. Village Visits. When you leave the main town and head out to anchorages it’s important to show the proper respect when you want to go ashore and visit the villages. It’s always a good idea to ask around for the Chief and get his permission before just wondering around on your own. Bringing a gift of kava, some line, canned food, tea or other items is proper and welcomed. Also, be sure to dress appropriately here too. Women should not go into the village unless they have knees and shoulders covered. And men should always have on a shirt. It’s very much frowned upon to do otherwise.

Read About Our Adventures In Tonga…Click Here!

For more resources to learn Tongan online. Click Here