Issue 2 |

Te Reo Māori: More than just Haka

by on February 12, 2015

Māori is the native language of the earliest inhabitants of New Zealand, or Aotearoa—which means “land of the long white cloud” in Maori according to the 1966 Encyclopedia of New Zealand. It is one of the three official languages of New Zealand and also features in the opening stanza of one of New Zealand’s national anthems. Māori is more popularly known throughout the world thanks to the All Blacks Rugby Team who performs a traditional Māori war cry—called the Periperu Haka—before every game, to intimidate their opponents.

Māori is classsified by linguists as an Eastern Polynesian language, alongside Tahitian, Sāmoan and Hawaiian, which share a myriad of words and expressions. However, in Bruce Biggs 1994 book, Does Māori have a Closest Relative?, Māori is said to be more distantly related to other languages of Polynesia, such as Tongan, and could eventually be linked with the various indigenous languages of Melanesia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. All these languages, including Māori, fall under the larger umbrella of the Austronesian group of languages.

The Polynesians first arrived on Aotearoa roughly a thousand years ago from various islands of the south Pacific. These new inhabitants populated the islands of Aotearoa, which is now known as New Zealand. Over time they developed a unique variant of the Polynesian tongue their ancestors spoke prior to their colonisation of Aotearoa by the Polynesians—who then developed a distinctive identity in Aotearoa.  The term “Māori” never existed until the arrival of the Pākehā (a non-derogatory Māori term to refer to people of European descent)—when a necessity to differentiate themselves as ‘typical’ as opposed to those who were foreign and of European descent, arose. The arrival of the Europeans has had a lasting impact on the Māori way of life as they continue struggling to preserve their culture and identity.

Māori possessed no written form before the arrival of Pākehā missionaries, who saw in its literacy a tool for proselytising. They then developed a system using the Roman alphabet with one sound unit corresponding to a single symbol, with the exception of the diagraphs ‘ng’ and ‘wh’. The literacy rate of the Māori people surged and it has been suggested that during the days of the cohabitation of Māori and Pākehā, the former had the higher rate of literacy in its native language. The first book written in Māori was published in 1815. The first Māori language newspaper Te Karere o Niu Tireni appeared in 1842. Following this there were approximately 39 Māori language newspapers. Māori has since been written using the Roman alphabet with the additional macron symbol (for example ā, ē, ī, ō, ū)  for long vowels.

Language features

In Māori, we see a system consisting of what appears to be orthographically five vowels with each either being short or long (with long vowels marked with a macron) and 10 consonants (h, k, m, n, ng, p, r, t, w, wh), which are arranged into word units that consist of either a single vowel, a consonant and vowel, or a consonant and a diphthong. Diphthongs are adjacent vowel sounds within a syllable, for example in the syllable “mao” in Māori.

In Māori, the basic word order is verb-subject-object. Thus, “I’ll see you” is rendered into Māori as ka kite au i a koe (literally ‘will see I you’). Interestingly, passive sentences are used much more frequently in Māori. So, for “I have eaten the apple”, we get kua kainga e au te āporo (literally ‘has been eaten by me the apple’).

Māori frequently reduplicates by repeating word units (e.g., whero ‘red’, wherowhero ‘somewhat red’), 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 new words, or inflect them for grammatical functions.

In English, suffixes are often used to indicate plurality of nouns and tenses. Māori however expresses these nuances by adding other words that denote quantity and tense while the verbs and nouns remain unchanged. Take for example the word for ‘go’, haere.

Kua haere au – I have gone
I haere au – I went
Kei te haere au – I go
E haere ana au – I am going

Like many other cultures that have had close contact with the English language, Māori has a quite a number of words influenced by English, although in a form that looks and feels distinctively Māori.

hōiho – horse
kura – school
motukā – car
tāone – town

According to the Māori Language Commission in New Zealand, a growing population of Māori are converting to Christianity, and so the meanings of existing words have broadened to express new spiritual concepts and Christian values:


The broadening of word meanings is also found on a more secular level:


Māori language issues today

Since about 1800, the Māori language has been the predominant language of New Zealand, and has also had a very tumultuous history. In the 1860s, it became a minority language in the shadow of the English spoken by many settlers, missionaries, gold seekers, and traders. By the 1980s, only 20% of the Māori population spoke the language and only then did Māori language and culture advocates (both Pākehā and Māori) begin to realise the dangers of the erosion of their native language, culture, and identity. Through their conviction and sheer hard work, they initiated Māori-language recovery programmes in the 1980s. Many were targeted at young people through the education system. The Kōhanga Reo programme, which immersed Māori pre-schoolers in the Māori language, began in 1982, when the first Kōhanga Reo kindergarten opened in Lower Hutt, near Wellington. Other programmes soon followed, such as Kura Kaupapa—a system of primary schooling in a Māori-language environment—thus saving Māori from its eminent extinction. To date there is an increase in the demand for more creative ways for younger generation Māori to learn the language, maintain their cultural values and hold fast to their Māori identities.

Toi tu te kupu, toi tu te mana, toi tu te whenua.
“For without language, without spirit, and without land (the essence of being Māori would no longer exist).”

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