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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 5, 2007

Samoan war whoop explained

By Lee Cataluna
Advertiser Columnist

You may have heard it shouted from the bleachers at a school assembly or yelled gleefully from the stands at a football game. It has appeared on blogs, on YouTube, on T-shirts, banners, in published poetry, even taught to tourists during a midday hula show at Bishop Museum.

But the proper expression is "ususu."

When I wrote "chee-hu" as an aside in a column about an improper use of a Hawaiian term, James Kneubuhl sent a friendly e-mail scolding me for improper use of the Samoan language. How's that for busted?

Kneubuhl, press officer at American Samoa Community College in Pago Pago, checked with his colleagues and everybody shook their heads at "chee-hu." Kneubuhl suggested checking with his former teacher, John Mayer, Ph.D., professor of Samoan and interim chair of the department of Indo-Pacific languages and literatures at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.

Mayer laid the whole thing out in an e-mail. He wrote:

"The expression you refer to is termed "ususu" or "siususu" in the Samoan language (note that the final "u" is long in both words the English pronunciation would be like oo-soo-SOO). The words are onomatopoeic for what some have termed the "Samoan war whoop." Although the words are spelled with an "s," the actual articulation of the expression contains an initial fricative sound (sh-) or an affricate (ch-) and the "h" sound rather than the "s" used in the spelling of the word. Because of the initial high fricative/affricate in the first syllable, there is often a slight "i" sound (ee) when the word is yelled with intensity. The English pronunciations would be like Shoo-hoo HOO (Shyoo-hoo HOO) or Choo hoo HOO (Chyoo hoo HOO)."

But not "chee-hu."

So where did all the local chee-huing come from? The term is probably a reinterpretation of the original Samoan by younger generations of Samoan kids in Hawai'i.

"Young Samoans raised in Hawai'i (and on the Mainland) have created a "local" version of the language that they can identify with. This version of Samoan reflects both what 'they hear' and how they want to encode the language to make it their own," Mayer explained.

"I can see the pronunciation changing as Samoans venture to other parts of the world," Kneubuhl wrote. "It's a documented fact that there are now more Samoans living outside Samoa than in Samoa itself. Like any change in a language, (ususu) probably started to sound different not through any conscious design, but just by everyday use in different contexts."

Kneubuhl points out that there is now a Samoan Language Commission made up of academics from Samoa, Hawai'i, the U.S. Mainland, New Zealand and Australia who meet yearly to try and reach agreement on "proper" spoken Samoan.

So what does the term mean?

"The ususu is a very emotional expression and it is often used as a challenge or as way to intimidate an enemy or an opponent. The sound of the ususu also serves to embolden the challenger and his/her group," Mayer explained. He said it is also used to express joy and high spirits and is even used when serving chiefs and dignitaries at important public functions.

Though the pronunciation may have been altered in modern Hawai'i, the meaning and intention has remained true: "I'm overjoyed!" "So exciting!" "We're going to kick your ... win the game!"

Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or lcataluna@honoluluadvertiser.com.