Language of the New Zealand Maori

Through their speech, songs and dances, Maori re-live their history and keep their culture alive. Written forms of the language help communicate important ideas.

The indigenous people of New Zealand – the Maori – have a language (te reo) similar to that of other Pacific Island people. It is one of their most precious possessions.

After Europeans had been in New Zealand for some years in the 19th century, Maori were actively discouraged from speaking their language. Many still do not speak it. However, more recently both Maori and pakeha (non-Maori) have shown that they want to learn te reo. Many young children are now sent to kohanga reo – ‘language nests’ – where they learn the Maori language before they go to school. There are schools (kura kaupapa) where only Maori is spoken. And on one New Zealand television channel, te reo is the only language used.

Maori oratory

The best Maori orators are highly respected in Maori society, because they are able to influence others. When important decisions have to be made a meeting or hui is held. The best speakers have an advantage over less skilled speakers because they know how to get a positive response from the meeting.

Each speech has the same pattern. It begins with a chant to get listeners’ attention. The chant almost always ends with the cry Tihe mauriora – “Behold, there is life!” This is followed by greetings to the place where the meeting is being held, the people there, and those who have gone before. Only then is business discussed – sometimes with humour, sometimes with passion, often with both. Every oration ends with a song, either from the speaker alone or, preferably, the whole group that the speaker represents.

Maori song

Maori is a language built for music, and music is built into the language. At a hui every speech ends in a song. There are songs for other occasions as well. Examples are moteatea, which may be sad songs about heroes, or other collections of folk songs, and waiata tangi – songs sung at funerals. Each tribe, or iwi, has its own songs, which praise past victories and famous people.

The written language

Until Europeans came to Aotearoa/New Zealand there was no written form of the Maori language. When the early missionaries arrived, they wrote down what they heard. This made it possible for them to translate the Bible and prayer books into Maori.

Today most English words have a Maori equivalent – even scientific words like ‘laser’, ‘electricity’ or ‘rocket’, because new words are created when they are needed and written in dictionaries.

One interesting feature of Maori language is that, unlike English, there is a vowel sound between every consonant and every word ends in a vowel. So, for example, Henry, in Maori, is Henare; Katherine is Katarina and Samuel is Hamuera (Maori has no letter ‘i’ or ‘s’ in its alphabet).

Maori proverbs

Maori use proverbs to sum up situations, to remember important facts and to show their views of life. Two proverbs that are easy to remember are:

He tini nga whetu e ngaro i te kapua iti (Many stars cannot be concealed by a small cloud).

Me he manu motu i te mahanga (Like a bird escaped from a snare).

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