tonga island
Photo credit: Edwin456

She’s an exotic import with an appealing sound.

Thanks to Danielle for suggesting Vailea as our Baby Name of the Day.

First, a confession: I used to research names before I agreed to write about them.  But I’ve become confident, even cocky these days.  And sometimes I agree to take on a name only to realize that there’s not much out there.

Such is the case with Vailea, and yet her tale is a fascinating one.

She’s a Tongan name.  Chances are you don’t know much about Tonga.  It’s quite close to Australia, and it is a nation comprised of islands, ruled by a monarch.  I knew that much thanks to arrival of Prince Taufa’ahau Manumataongo earlier this month.  He’s second in line, following his dad, Crown Prince Tupouto’a and the current king, his grandpa, King Tupou VI.

Compared to Taufa’ahau, Vailea seems approachable.

Or is she?

The Tongan pronunciation seems to be vah ee LEH ah.  Pretty, but potentially problematic.  She looks like she could be a super-creative twist to Kaylee and Hailey, pronounced to rhyme with Bailey and company.  Or maybe VAY lee uh or vah LEE uh, sort of like Malia.

As I searched for lists of Tongan baby names, I found it difficult to unravel Tongan traditions.  It’s a Polynesian language, with similarities to Hawaiian.  There’s also a vibrant oral tradition, compared to a relatively slim written one.  Religious texts have been translated into written versions, but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of Tongan literature.  So while names are recorded, teasing them out is difficult.

There are at least two categories of names:

  • European names translated into Tongan.  The best example I could find was George.  When first imported, he was Jiaoji.  Over the years he’s evolved even more, and now Jiaoji is Siaosi.
  • Then there are names that seem to refer to the natural world or perhaps with significant events.  I found OpeliOpal, among many others.

Still, it is tough to guess what’s what.  Mele is a form of Mary, but is Kalolaine from Caroline?  Is Sione a form of John?

Some sources indicate that most Tongan names are gender neutral.  But the -lea ending seems to be used mostly for feminine names.  Besides Vailea, I also found Toilea – great sound, if something of an unfortunate spelling.

Vailea is definitely a nature name.  The Tongan word for water is vai and lea means speaks, so Vailea means something like “water that speaks.”

It’s tough to pin down the frequency of various names, but Vailea was in use earlier in the twentieth century – certainly by the 1950s.

Could there be other sources for Vailea?

  • Should you meet a Vailea, it certainly could be an invented name, a sister for Jayleah.
  • The French surname Vallée and Italian Valli refer to someone who lived in a valley.  Ditto the sometimes-heard English surname Valley.  While they all sound something like Vailea, they’re completely unrelated.

Mostly, though, Vailea is a rarity amongst rarities.  Should you meet one, chances are that she is of Tongan descent.  If you have ties to the islands, she seems like one of the most wearable possibilities to consider.

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About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. Hi Abby! I know it was a long time ago that I suggested this name but I thought I should let you know that we did end up using it for our new baby girl! I loved Vailea since I found it and it allowed me to make her initials – V.I.P 🙂

  2. I see a few Tongan names in my travels, but never seen this one … it’s so pretty!

    I guess “speaking waters” could refer to surf, or waterfalls, or any place that water is noisy?

  3. From what I understand, glottalized vowels are very common in Polynesian languages (like Tongan, Samoan, Maori, Rapanui, Hawaiian) so I suppose the pronunciation of the “ai” would have the same kind of stop that native Hawaiians use when pronouncing the apostrophe in Hawai’i. Definitely not an easy sound for the English speaker, but beautiful nonetheless!

  4. I dig it, with the vah ee LEH ah pronunciation especially, but I could resign myself to the VAY lee uh way too.

  5. My best friends are Tongan! I’m fairly familiar with Tongan names I haven’t heard this one. So exciting to see Tongan names being represented on Appellation Mountain!