Te Reo Māori o Aotearoa — The Māori Language

Aotearoa, or New Zealand, is amazing. Uninhabited before the 13th century, the Eastern Polynesians settled here after a long series of voyages through the islands of the South Pacific. These early settlers would later be the Māori people, calling Aotearoa their home. Now numbering about 775 000 in New Zealand (as of the 2018 census), the Māori language, or Te Reo Māori, is spoken by some 160 000 of them. A member of the Austronesian language family, Te Reo Māori shares many phonemes with the rest of the languages in the family, notably the five-vowel system and the lack of the ‘l’ sound in English.

Interestingly, the Cook Islands Māori, known as Māori Kūki ‘Āirani or Te Reo Ipukarea, is considered a separate language from the one spoken in New Zealand, even though both languages are referred to as Māori. Both languages have slight phonological differences, and vocabulary and grammar differences that makes them classified as different languages, instead of mere dialects. Here, we will discuss Te Reo Māori, the Māori language in New Zealand.

Like many Polynesian languages, Māori has very few phonemes, just 10 consonants and 5 vowels distinguished only by vowel length. The consonant /f/, represented by “wh”, has several pronunciations, ranging from a combination of both /w/ and /f/ sounds, to just an /f/. The former, however, is the original sound in Māori before Western influence. Overall, given the rather simple phonology of Māori, the sounds of Māori should not be difficult to pick up.

The grammar shares several characteristics largely conserved and similar to other Polynesian languages. Word endings do not change depending on the prepositions or other bits of context, but are added using particles like “i” (past tense), “ki” (towards, to), or “ai” (habitual marker). It is a rich assortment, like those found in Polynesian languages like Samoan. There are three concepts for “this” and “that”, being translated to “this”, “that” and “that over there”, much like the system found in Japanese. More interestingly, Māori has the concept of clusivity, whether or not the listener is included or excluded from the pronoun we.

There is an idea, that the basic unit of Māori speech is the phrase, where base words have particles and bits of other vocabulary or grammar that modify the quality of base word. Plurality is marked by various particles as well. This gives a phrase of words, serving as one unit in speech, such as “te whare nei” (this house), or “matua wahine” (mother, female elder). These form the fundamental basis of Māori grammar, something that learners should understand when they start learning Māori.

Like many Malayo-Polynesian languages, Māori shares a similar number system, notably the word for “five”, “rima”. It is interesting as most Malayo-Polynesian languages have similar pronunciations for this word, such as “lima” in Malay, Indonesian and Samoan, showing how conserved it is despite the linguistic diversity in this language family. The Māori word for fish, “ika”, is a stark cognate of the Malay/Indonesian word “ikan”. Various similarities can also be found in Tahitian and Hawaiian, both being “i’a”. It does makes the learner wonder how many possible cognates there are, and if they are widely intelligible across the language branch. Being a language without the sounds for “s” and “z”, for instance, and the lack of consonant clusters in a single syllable, loan words would either have to be “Māori-fied” using compound words, or to fully adopt the Māori pronunciations. The Māori word for “Merry Christmas”, for instance, is “Kirihimete koa”. Similar patterns are found in other Polynesian languages, with Hawaiian’s translation being “Mele Kalikimaka”.

Although substantial decline had taken place in the 1940s, Te Reo Māori has seen an unwavering support for revitalisation and revival in recent times. The 1980s saw a wave of education efforts to immerse children in Māori, from language recovery programmes like the Kōhanga Reo movement to the first Kura Kaupapa Māori and Wharekura in 1985. The immediate effects were not quite realised, as the language continued to decline. Factors such as the quality of education, and the accessibility to educational resources to support a full curriculum in Māori, were identified as “underlying causes” to this continual decline. This prompted the recommendation of several fundamental changes in related policies.

Today, we see a higher usage of Māori, even in people with non-Māori roots. Demand for Māori language education has also increased, and so too has the resources for learning the language. Many applications, free and paid, have also made their way into App Stores and Play Stores, that aim to teach Māori in an interactive, game-like manner. Drops, one of the language learning application platforms, has a vocabulary course dedicated to Māori. Some universities in New Zealand also offer Māori courses for anyone who is interested in learning Māori. Revitalisation and revival are still works in progress, but people are beginning to see the fruits of their labour. With strengthening interest from New Zealand and perhaps the rest of the world, we might see Māori becoming more widely used than it is today.

Afterword

This post has been in the works for some months, as I try to learn the language rather proper. There are a trove of resources for learning Māori, owing to the revival efforts since 2015, as the language gained popularity as a common national heritage. Toro Mai, by Massey University, is a free, self-paced Māori course, which is one of the few digital resources I used during my learning experience. Textbooks like Teach Yourself Māori (not really affiliated with Teach Yourself, the widely used language coursebook series) also helped a lot, in particular, with the grammar. If you are interested in learning Cook Islands Māori instead, the textbook I-E-Ko-Ko, available from the Pasifika Education Community, is one book you can use in your learning experience.

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