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Language of the Month: Māori

by Saaropean

Māori is called Te Reo (the language) by the Māori people. It is a Polynesian language closely related to Samoan, Tongan and Hawaiian. Distant relatives are Malay/Indonesian, Tagalog (the national language of the Philippines) and Malagasy (spoken in Madagascar).

Māori is spoken by the indigenous people of Aotearoa (New Zealand), where it is the second official language besides English. Today only about 10% of the four million New Zealanders are Māori, and only about 70,000 of them still speak the language.
New Zealanders of British origin are called Pākehā by the Māori.

New Zealand consists mainly of the North Island (115,777 km²) and the South Island (151,215 km²), which lie in the southern Pacific Ocean, about 2000 km south-east of Australia.

The islands were settled by Polynesians a thousand years ago and were formally annexed by Britain in 1840, seventy years after James Cook first visited the country. They still have the English queen as their head of state.

Because the Māori language was not written before the Europeans conquered New Zealand, it was the European missionaries who invented a simple spelling for the language. Now it uses a subset of the Latin letters plus a macron (¯) to mark vowel length:

A [a] as in English but
Ā [a:] as in English father
E [ɛ] as in English pen
Ē [ɛː] as in English pair
H [h] as in English hot
I [i] as in English bit
Ī [iː] as in English beat
K [k] as in English key
M [m] as in English man
N [n] as in English nice
NG [ŋ] as in English sing
O [ɔ] as in British English hot
Ō [ɔː] as in English law
P [p] as in English pay
R [ɾ] is an alveolar tap (as in Japanese, not rolled), similar to the American TT in letter
T [t] as in English ten
U [u] as in English put
Ū [u:] as in English boot
W [w] as in English way
WH [v̥̥] is something between English F and V, but some people pronounce it [wh], others [f]

If you can’t write Ᾱ (A with macron) on your computer, use Ä or AA instead.
So ‘Māori’ is sometimes written ‘Mäori’ or ‘Maaori’.

The pronunciation is pretty easy, because every word ends in a vowel and there are never two consonants in a row.
Here’s an example (the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights):

Ko te katoa o nga tangata i te whanaungatanga mai e watea ana i nga here katoa; e tauriterite ana hoki nga mana me nga tika. E whakawhiwhia ana hoki ki a ratou te ngakau whai whakāro me te hinengaro mohio ki te tika me te he, a e tika ana kia meinga te mahi a tetahi ki tetahi me ma roto atu i te wairua o te noho tahi, ano he teina he tuakana i ringa i te whakāro kotahi.

A hill in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, has one of the longest place names in the world: According to Wikipedia, T a u m a t a w h a k a t a n g i h a n g a k o a u a u o t a m a t e a t u r i p u k a k a p i k i m a u n g a h o r o n u k u p o k a i w h e n u a k i t a n a t a h u roughly translates into English as The brow [or summit] of the hill [or place], where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid [down], climbed [up] and swallowed mountains, [to travel the land], [who is] known as the Land Eater, played [on] his [nose] flute to his loved one.

Saaropean illustrates how he went deeper into Māori:

When I first saw Māori, I thought it was quite a simple language: no verb conjugations, no adjective declensions, no cases, very simple pronunciation, not even plurals are marked in nouns.

Of course I used the World Wide Web to get information about Te Reo. I found sites explaining the pronunciation and sites with dictionaries, but no good courses explaining the grammar. So I thought Māori was just somewhat simpler than English. One sample sentence was Hoatu te ipu ki a Mere, which can be translated literally: ‘Give the cup to Mary’.

But I wanted to know more. So I went to the State Library and ordered all the books they had about Māori grammar. Yes, I really took both of them. ;-)

The first one was the 1969 translation of the 1967 book Язык Маори written by the Slovak Linguist, Viktor Krupa. It explained the pronunciation in detail: There are only 5 vowels in Māori, but they can be pronounced in many different ways, depending on the context. The book also mentioned that the East Polynesian languages (to which the dialects of Māori belong) are all highly mutually intelligible, that means people can understand each other without using English. Krupa’s hypothesis that the long vowels are actually double vowels, however, seems to be no longer accepted today.

Māori only has 10 consonants, but it uses many English loan words. That’s why the letter H can represent many different English letters: ‘hōiho’ = horse, ‘Hātarei’ = Saturday, ‘kahiti’ = gazette, ‘hāte’ = shirt…

The other book I read was a 1967 article written by Patrick (Patu) Hohepa: A Profile Generative Grammar of Maori. Hohepa is now the official Māori Language Commissioner. The book explains the grammar in great detail and gives many examples. That book made me very enthusiastic about Māori, because the language is so exotic – maybe even more than Chinese. :-)

As in English, there are several ways to form new words out of existing ones. English inherited things like to act – action - actor through Norman French from Latin. Māori has a so-called causative prefix: ‘mutu’ = to come to an end, ‘whakamutu’ = to finish (something) or the nominalising suffix that transforms ‘ora’ = alive, well, satisfied, survive into ‘oranga’ = food, livelihood, welfare, satisfaction, survivor. There also many compound words: ‘arawhata’ (road hang) = ladder, ‘oro puare’ (sound open) = vowel.

But what makes Māori so fascinating is its grammar. Instead of declining adjectives and nouns and conjugating verbs, they have very expressive particles at the beginning of sentences. That's one small word indicating tense, aspect and more. For example, if the first word is ‘ko’, it means the second word is a noun phrase, but if there are other noun phrases, it is not the subject, and if the sentence gives a location, then the sentence is about the future:

Ko hea te hui?
KO where the meeting
= Where will the meeting be?

The only thing that can happen with a verb is the addition of the -a suffix to mark the passive:

I patua ngā kurī e Hemi.
(descriptive sentence in the past) hit(passive) the(plural) dog by Jim
= The dogs were hit by Jim.

They also have entirely different approaches to mark possessions:

Nō Hōne te whenua nei.

(possessive sentence not in the future) John the land here(near speaker)
= This was John's land.

Kua pakaru te wati ā Hōne.
(perfective sentence, ‘non-time’) break the watch (dominant or acquired possession) John
= John's watch is broken.

Those ‘initiators’ make Māori (and Austronesian languages in general) special. I would love to learn more about the language, but web resources are very limited, and not even the biggest library in my state has a real course. I guess I have to go to New Zealand and buy a good book to learn Te Reo there. ;-)

Hungry for more? Here are some links to start learning Māori:

Some Māori expressions and proverbs

Written by Saaropean (Rolf Schmidt)

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Originally published in Babel Babble