Mardi Langwich week: Te Ray-Oh Mowe-re Orah

Guest post 


IT’S MAORI LANGUAGE WEEK and I’m a supporter of Maori language. I always have been; ever since a Ngai Tahu kaumatua took an interest in my interest in ancient Maori culture sitting there at the Canterbury museum drawing intricate Maori carvings hour after hour into a sketch book on my lap. Te Reo enriches NZ and Maori but I have some things to say about the regime of “correct pronunciation” today of Maori words.

“Correct Maori pronunciation” is a myth!

It’s a modern pakeha construct. There was no Maori centralisation. Even the idea of “New Zealand” (actually “Nova Zelandia” or “Zeland” or “Zeeland” -more correctly we should have been “New Sealand”) was never known as “Ao-te-aroa” -which was only a regional tribal variation of some groups.

Maori assimilated hundreds of pakeha words that they ‘Maori-ised’ (Cook- “Kuki”) as did Europeans who ‘Anglicised’ Maori words (“Mow-ree”). So the dialectical pronunciations by pakeha today of Maori words is simply an identical repeat of Maori processes in language that were varied and disparate in their culture as in ours. Maori in the North and South Islands and on Rakiura (only one of its Maori place names) -even inside each of the islands – had different pronunciations and meanings.

Southern Maori had more vowels and even completely different words for the same things. Ditto Chatham Is. Maori who migrated from the South Is. Christchurch was not known as “Otautahi” which was merely a small place within a huge district that had many other place names related to food gathering: Taumutu Waiora Papanui etc

“Maori” itself means something like “ordinary person” and the varying use of words (as with the ‘rolling r’ of the south or the modern upward pakeha/Maori inflection or “chewy Nu Zulun” dialects in different groupings of New Zealand as characterised by “Lynn of Tawa”) is an inevitable human evolution of the sounds and usages of words never frozen in time. This is true of “Maori language” itself which changed and evolved from Eastern or Western Polynesia (perhaps the Marquesas or the Society Islands or Tahiti or even Fiji, Samoa and Tonga) until it was effectively a different -but understandable- “foreign” language in the same way that sixteenth-century Old English is to New Zealanders today.

And let’s not get started on Australian “English.”

So whether it’s “jandal” (“Japanese Sandal”) or “Kiwifruit” (the Chinese “mihoutao” known during my childhood as the “Chinese gooseberry”) or “Tarrah-naky” for “Tah-ra-naki” or “Rah-mati” for “Rowe-matty” –language is a tide and as fluid as the moana. Let’s not wear concrete gumboots as we slosh about the shallows of awa gathering our cultural kai or taonga as we evolve 21st century New Zealand cultural diversity which includes the rich and deep vein of Maoritanga in all its own diversity


– John Stringer, Te Wai Pounamu


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