If there’s one thing you know about the native Maori culture of New Zealand, it’s most likely haka, their ceremonial dance that is used for everything from battle preparation to funerals, graduations, and the welcoming of distinguished guests. However, Maori culture is much more than synchronized stomping and facial tattoos. We’re here to say that if there’s a second thing you should know about the Maori culture, it’s their language, Te Reo. Here’s a rundown on nine interesting things about the Maori New Zealand Language.
One Land, Many Dialects
For the last 200+ years, Maori societies throughout New Zealand (known as Aotearoa in Maori) have seen their language go through some significant evolutions. It’s technically a direct offshoot of the Tahiti branch of the Eastern Polynesian languages, but because so many immigrants traveled to New Zealand via canoe from so many different Polynesian islands, it developed dozens of dialects.
There Was Previously No Written Language
Before the Europeans colonized the island and started Bungee Jumping and discovering the Best Skiing Spots in New Zealand, Te Reo was never written down. Instead, the dialects were taught and passed down orally through stories or depicted through shared symbols like carvings, knots, weaving, and dance.
Missionaries first attempted to write down the Maori language in 1814, and the local communities enthusiastically took up the challenge. By the 1820s, missionaries all over the island reported that Maori were teaching each other to read and write using everything from charcoal and leaves to wood and cured animal skins.
Te Reo is a Phonetic Language
Unlike English and many other languages, Te Reo is spoken (almost) exactly as it’s spelled. With a bit of practice, words and phrases can be spoken just as easily as they’re read. This is most likely because the written language was interpreted from the spoken language by English-speaking colonizers.
Take a look at the following Maori words, and see if you can sound them out yourself: Kia Ora (Hello), Ka Pai (Good), Nau mai (Welcome), Waka (Canoe).
Pronunciation Takes Some Getting Used To
That being said, there are some pronunciation techniques that are quite different from the English language. As far as vowels go, the letter “a” is pronounced as in “far,” “e” as in “desk,” “i” as in “fee” or “me,” “o” as in “awe,” and “u” as in “sue.”
As far as consonants go, there are fewer than there are in the English language, but some take adjusting to. “Wh” is a consonant, and is pronounced using the “f” sound. “Ng” also counts, and it’s pronounced as it is in “singer,” not as in “finger.” Other than that, the “t” is pronounced more like a “d” than a “t.”
The Macron Changes Entire Meaning
The macron — the little line above vowels that changes their pronunciation to a “long” sound — also changes the word’s meaning in Te Reo. Some words that are spelled the same have a completely different meaning depending on the length of a single vowel.
For example, anā means ‘here is’ or ‘behold.’ ‘Anā te tangata’ means ‘Here is the man.’ However, ana without the macron means ‘a cave,’ so a simple vowel mispronunciation could have you saying “A cave is the man,’ which doesn’t make any sense. But it’s OK — we’re learning.
Concepts in a Single Word
Like many indigenous languages, the Maori language encapsulates entire concepts into single words. Just as many Eskimo cultures had upwards of 10 different words for snow, and how the American Indian word ‘Tobyhanna’ means literally ‘a stream whose banks are fringed with alder’, indigenous languages often pack a lot of punch in a single word.
Te Reo is no exception. Manaakitanga means respect for hosts and kindness to guests but also to entertain and to look after. Taihoa means to delay, to wait, or to hold off to allow maturation of plans.
Te Reo Revival
Throughout the 20th century, as industrialization, World War II, and urbanization pushed people from the countryside into the cities of New Zealand, the Te Reo witnessed a stark drop-off. People began learning English for professional and personal advancement, and the indigenous culture took a hit.
However, during the 1970s and 1980s, many people began to reassert their Maori identity, and an emphasis on language was integral to that process. Student groups throughout the country began legislating for changes that established a Maori Language Day and offered the language to students from a very young age.
An Official Language of New Zealand
In 1985, efforts to solidify Te Reo as an important facet of the island’s culture really stepped up, and it was eventually recognized as an official language of New Zealand in 1987. The third and final official language in the country is New Zealand Sign Language.
Current Day Stats
Today, while English is by far the most widely-spoken language on the island, upwards of 15% of the population identifies as Maori, and they’re currently witnessing a resurgence. As of a few years ago, about one-quarter of all Maori New Zealanders could hold a fluent conversation in Te Reo.
Where to Hear (and Practice) the Maori Language
There are a few great places around New Zealand where you can learn about and practice the Maori language. We recommend heading north to Waitangi and getting linked up with Culture North. With them, you can organize cultural tours that are both fun and informational.
Further south, head to Te Puia, the home of the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute and the world-famous Pohutu geyser. Other great options to consider are the Wairakei Terraces and Thermal Health Spa and the Waimarama Maori Tours near Hastings. We also highly recommend signing up for this Maori Rock Carvings Scenic Cruise that tours around Taupo, New Zealand.