On the dumb stuff people say about Te Reo Māori

06 Feb On the dumb stuff people say about Te Reo Māori

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 8.2.21


One of life’s many delights is that, no matter your age, you keep learning new things. It thrills me that my brain still has room, for example, to fit new words into its filing system. When I’m reading and I find a word that tickles or intrigues, I like to jot it down, and wait for an opportunity to put it in a sentence. Current favourites are “farrago” (meaning “a medley or hotchpotch”) and “emetic” – something that causes vomiting.

Imagine my joy, then, when I heard fresh complaints from some grey corners of public discourse about the growing use of te reo Māori by broadcasters, public figures and national institutions and found myself thinking, “Auē! What an emetic farrago of arguments.” Tick and tick.

It is true that in recent years there has been a growing embrace of te reo – it’s one of the things returning Kiwis notice about us now, that you will hear Māori words and phrases in formal and informal settings from our parliament to school events to sports games to news broadcasts to boarding a plane. 

Some would have it that this is some great conspiracy – an imposition from on high, possibly in a memo, forcing those with public voices to ram a non-English language down our collective throat. (Not so, according to those who have chosen to embrace it and been given the room to do that.) Or that there is something silly and inauthentic about finding Māori words for things that did not exist before Europeans arrived – like “irirangi” for “radio”. (Forgetting, of course, that given the radio hadn’t been invented when Europeans first arrived in Aotearoa, our early settlers would not have had a word for “radio” either. Also ignoring that “irirangi” means “spirit voice” and is a deliciously apt word for the sound that fills your room from people who are not physically there.)

It is also argued that using te reo instead of English – referring to New Zealand as Aotearoa, for example – signifies a rejection of European culture and that, if you are not tangata whenua, this other language will not resonate with you.

And yet it does for so many Pākehā. My first attempt at learning te reo in 1980 was a revelation. It wasn’t successful academically – which is part of why it was valuable to me. I wanted to learn the language that belonged uniquely here because I felt that understanding it would unlock some things about my country – the meaning of place names for starters, and also understanding its history and appreciating cultural practices.

It was really hard. All of it – almost every word then – was new to me. (You didn’t hear Māori on the radio back then.) Most of the other students had some experience of te reo that they brought from home, and could practice it there. I was starting from zero, and couldn’t take it home and ask my family. It made me deeply aware that the success I’d had in the (then) usual subjects like English literature owed a lot to being brought up surrounded by people who could support me in my studies because they knew the things I was learning. I did well in the classes I took that reflected my background, and did much less well (barely passed) in a subject outside my experience. It was an insight into privilege and advantage. You set out to learn a language and discover other lessons along the way.

I still don’t know enough and I’m still too close to the beginning of my journey, but I treasure each little step. There are kids in my wider whānau who learn Māori before they learn English. I am often in awe of a three year old.

I get it that being surrounded by a language you don’t understand is scary at times – think of arriving in a different country and the anxiety of not being able to communicate even simple things. Which is why we make the effort to learn at least a few phrases to ensure we can greet someone, ask for food, find the right place, and say thank you. It seems a small ask to do that, too, in the country we live in with the people who were here before us – particularly given the extraordinary patience and generosity of Māori to help us learn.

One last argument: that no one overseas knows where “Aotearoa” is. (To be honest, a lot of people don’t know where “New Zealand” is either.) But re-branding works if you do it right. Plus picture us at the Olympics when they announce the teams’ entrance in alphabetical order (or when you’re scrolling down a list of countries looking for yours). There you are, one of the first out of the blocks after Antigua and before Argentina. And well ahead of Australia. Tino pai.