The Māori Language Act 1987 declared Māori to be an 'official' language and created a right to use Māori in court proceedings. This article provides a perspective of the history, current use, and likely future of te reo Māori in the light of the new legislation.
Māori* is the foundation language of New Zealand, the ancestral language of the tangata whenua and one of the taonga guaranteed protection under the Treaty of Waitangi. It also provides this country with a unique language identity in the rest of the world, as this is the only place where Māori is spoken widely. In more tangible terms, the Māori language is a powerful social force for the reconstruction of a damaged and deteriorated self-image among Māori youth, a vehicle of contribution to society, and therefore a means of regaining dignity. Finally, human freedom is dependent at all levels on choice and diversity; linguistic pluralism can be nothing other than a guardian of individual freedom and identity against the forces of conformism.
Although detailed statistics are not yet available, it is estimated that some 50,000 New Zealanders, almost all of Māori descent, are fluent speakers of Māori, while perhaps a further 100,000 understand the language. While such a figure exceeds the numbers of native speakers of many other indigenous languages in the South Pacific and elsewhere, the picture is far less reassuring when one considers the age profile of Māori speakers: about 40 percent are aged 55 and above, whilst approximately the same percentage are between 35 and 54 years of age. It is equally alarming that there are probably 10,000 fewer fluent speakers of Māori today than just 10 years ago.
In terms of absolute numbers, Auckland has the lion's share of Māori speakers, accounting for almost a third of North Island figures. But areas of concentration are also to be found in the secondary urban centres and rural communities of Northland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty and East Cape.
New Zealand Māori is most closely related to language such as Cook Islands Māori, Tahitian and Hawai'ian, and forms with them a language grouping known by linguists as Eastern Polynesian. It is more distantly related to other languages of Polynesia, such as Samoan and Tongan, and can eventually be linked with the languages of Melanesia, Indonesia, the Phillippines, Taiwan and Madagascar.
Evidence for language groupings comes in part from shared vocabulary items. Allowing for regular sound correspondences, which are the result of historically divergent sound changes (e.g., Māori ng corresponds to Hawai'ian n or l, t to k, wh to h, and k to the glottal stop, written as an apostrophe), the few examples in Table 1 give a hint of the vocabulary common to a wide range of Polynesian languages. The language came to Aotearoa with the Polynesian migrations of some 1000 years ago, which most likely began somewhere in the area now known as French Polynesia. Since then, the language has developed independently of other Polynesian tongues to become the Māori of today.
In more recent times, following the arrival of the Pākehā, English (and to a much lesser extent other languages) have had some influence on Māori, especially in the area of vocabulary. Thus from English were borrowed such items as hōiho 'horse', kura 'school', motukā 'car' and tāone 'town'. From French came mīere 'honey' (from 'miel') and wīwī 'French' (from 'oui oiu'), whilst the word pīkiwhara 'big' (from 'bigfela') probably came from some version of South Seas Jargon, the name given to the pidgin-type lingua franca used throughout the South Pacific, principally in the latter half of last century, by sailors, merchants and other itinerant groups.
Table 1 - Comparison of vocabulary items from Pacific Languages
Linguistic ingenuity shown by the Māori is apparent in the adaption of words already extant in the language which were given an additional meaning to coincide with a similar sounding English word. Some examples are given in Table 2.
Table 2 - Post-European adaptation of extant Māori words
|Extant Māori word
||'post with receptacle for
Another influence of English on Māori was felt in the form of extending the meaning of an existing word to include new, yet related, concepts. This is especially apparent in the language of spirituality, where Christian values heavily modified the meanings of certain words, for example, hara 'infringement' has taken on the sense of 'sin', īnoi 'request' now also carries the meaning of 'forgive, remove guilt'. On a more practical level, waka 'canoe' has come to mean 'car, means of transport', whare wānanga 'school of lore for high-born males' now means 'university', while whare takiura 'school of esoteric lore' means 'tertiary education institution other than university'.
It is to be noted that Māori possessed no written code before the arrival of Pākehā missionaries, who saw in literacy a means of proselytising. The first document printed in Māori, a lesson book, dates from 1815. Fortunately, those who developed the writing system were good linguists - their legacy is a system founded on scientific principles, according to which one sound unit corresponds to a single symbol (which in the case of ng and wh is a digraph). The only shortcoming was the failure to systematically mark the vowel length. The Māori Language Commission believes the marking of contrastive vowel length, using the macron to mark long vowels, should be an integral part of the written code.
The Māori were eager to learn to read and write and it has been suggested that early on in the cohabitation of Māori and Pākehā, the former had the higher rate of literacy in their respective languages.
Looking at the internal structure of Māori, we see a phonological (or sound) system consisting of just five vowels (each can be either short or long, the long vowel being marked with a macron) and 10 consonants (h, k, m, n, ng, p, r, t, w, wh), which are arranged into syllables of either a single vowel, a consonant plus a vowel or a consonant plus two vowels (i.e., a dipthong).
At the morphological (or word structure) level, Māori makes frequent use of reduplication (e.g., whero 'red'. wherowhero 'somewhat red') along with a small number of prefixes (e.g., māori 'usual', whakamāori 'translate', kaiwhakamāori 'translator') and suffixes (e.g., kite 'see', kitea 'be seen', kitenga 'seeing') to form other words.
Whereas many European languages use suffixes to indicate such notions as plurality of nouns (e.g., road, roads) and verb tenses (e.g., love, loved, loving), Māori expresses these nuances in the third level of grammar, namely in syntax, where pre-posed function words convey a wide variety of information (e.g., te kōtiro 'the girl', ngā kōtiro 'the girls', i waiata 'sang', kua waiata 'have sung'). In Māori, the basic word order at the syntactic (or sentence structure) level can be stated as verb-subject-object. Thus, 'I'll see you' is rendered into Māori by ka kite au i a koe (literally, 'shall see I you'). Māori is also noticeable for its frequent use of the passive construction, where English would often use an active. So, for 'I have eaten the apple', we find kua kainga e au te āporo (literally, 'has been eaten by me the apple').
Little systematic study has been done on dialect variation within Māori. The most obvious differences are to heard in intonation patterns, vocabulary (e.g., māhunga, mātenga [Northland] 'head'; kāore, karekau [Bay of Plenty], kīhai [Northland], e hē [Tūhoe] 'not'), morphology (e.g., pōhiri, pōwhiri [Waikato] 'invitation'; tīpuna, tūpuna [Waikato] 'ancestor'), and phonetics
(e.g., mahana, ma'ana [Taranaki, Whanganui] 'warm'; whakaaro, wakaaro [Whanganui] 'think'; pango, pano [Tūhoe] 'black'). Some syntactic variation does exist (eg., kāore e taea e koe, [Ngāti Porou] kāore e taea i a koe 'you can't do it'), but is not as well understood as the preceding phenomena. Dialectal differences are in no way significant enough to impede mutual comprehension between Māori speakers of different tribal backgrounds.
Language Use Today
The last bastion against the continued encroachment of English into Māori institutions is the marae, that area where the Māori celebrates the rites of passage in a very Māori way. To encapsulate the notion of 'marae', no words are more appropriate than those of the late John Rangiāniwaniwa Rangihau, who first spoke them in 1973, at a meeting attended by the then Minister of Māori Affairs, Matiu Rata, in Rūātoki:
Marae are places of refuge for our people, and
provide facilities to enable us to continue with
our own way of life and within the total structure
of our terms and values. We need a
marae for a host of reasons:
that we may rise tall in oratory,
that we may weep for our dead,
that we may pray to God,
that we may house our guests,
that we may have our meetings,
that we may have our weddings,
that we may have our reunions,
that we may sing,
that we may dance,
that we may learn our history, and then know
that richness of life and the proud heritage
which is truly ours.
The marae is the only place where the Māori language is essential. All the formalities of the marae-karanga (traditional call of welcome), pōwhiri (formal welcome), maioha (call of response from visitors), poroporoaki (formal speech of farewell), whaikōrero (formal speech-making) and waiata (traditional chant sung at conclusion of formal speech) - are in Māori, although some marae, in a spirit of aroha, permit the use of English.
The act of oratory, which reached such heights in Polynesia, is one that only the skilled and the learned can truly master. It requires a knowledge of tribal history, mythology, proverbs and song; skills which are not easily acquired in a short time but from a period of observation and attendance of hui throughout the country. As so very few of the population at large have access to this kind of information, much of what the orators say is meaningless to the younger listeners.
It is not surprising that the young do not have access to this form of language, because it is the young who do most of the work that ensures the comfort of the guest on the marae. Because of their preoccupation with these chores they are never party to the learned exchanges which take place on the marae. One must have served an apprenticeship, as it were, doing the more menial chores. Eventually one graduates to the marae, and generally this is in early-to-late-middle age or even older.
One may sit and observe but keep a respectful silence because of the other prohibitions such as a son not speaking in the presence of his father, his father's or his mother's brothers, or his older brothers, the sons of his father's older brothers or the sons of his mother's older brothers (this holds even in relation to the tūpāpaku, or body, at a tangihanga). While this prohibition is no longer strictly observed in some tribal areas, in others it is still adhered to. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that some people do not make their maiden speech until they have nevertheless acquired a great wealth of information from the period of observation.
Māori boarding schools, state schools which have active Māori groups, speech competitions, such as the Pei Hurinui Jones, have all, in their way, accelerated the progress of orators who, in the more formal marae context, would not be permitted to make a public utterance. It is interesting to note that despite many of these younger people having mastered but the rudiments of the art, there is acceptance that the marae has a different set of criteria.
Whaikōrero is, in most tribes, the prerogative of the male, just as the karanga, in all tribes, belongs to the female. In Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Kahungunu, women were permitted to whaikōrero but only under certain conditions - in the main, they were women of rank.
Women must karanga before the men can whaikōrero, that is, it is the voice of the women which ritually clears the way for the men to be able to speak. The karanga is more than a call, it is that part of the cermony of welcome whereby the women give vent to their feeling; it can be said to be their form of whaikōrero. Women who are well versed in the art can bring a tingle to the spine and a tear to the eye. Like the whaikōrero for men, the women must be versed in the history of the tribe, whakataukī, and mythological allusion, in order to know how to couch the words being called, for those women among the manuhiri are listening to find how best to respond. All the information needed by guests on tribe, locale and other matters can be conveyed in the karanga of the women. Like all the arts, language is essential.
The schools mentioned in the description of whaikōrero above also teach the art of waiata and karanga. The prohibitions which apply to the orator also apply to the women who karanga, the only difference being that where it was the male relationship that was the source of the prohibition above, in the case of women it is the female relationship.
There is concern that the audience that fully comprehends the whaikōrero and karanga with its thrust and parry, its innuendo, its subtlety and nuances, is dwindling by the year. The language of the marae with its imagery and allusion is available to a select few, the majority of whom are well into middle age or even older. This does not augur well for the more specialised and ritualistic aspects of language. So what can be done?
Tribes that have recognised the danger have taken initiatives to see that their young are initially familiar with their own traditions. Tribal wānanga, where kawa, waiata and whaikōrero are taught, are held on a regular basis throughout the country. In some ways, these will help, but the essential ingredient is language, for without it, none of the marae rituals will endure or have meaning to a generation who is speaking Māori less and less.