This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Nuts and Bolts: Maori.

While I was writing about the parson bird the other day I discovered (via Wikipedia) that while the Māori word for parson bird is tūī, the Māori for parson birds is ngā tūī.

It seems odd to an English speaker that Māori plurals should be marked by the form of the word such as the (singular te, plural ngā) or my (singular taku, plural aku) that precedes them, and not, usually, by a change to the word itself.

Māori is spoken by somewhere between 10,000 and 160,000 people in New Zealand. Yes, you'd think they could get a closer estimate than that, wouldn't you, but there are problems with deciding just how much Māori someone has to know in order to count as a Māori speaker. Do you need to know just place names? Place names plus a few native animals? Know a few songs? Or be completely fluent?

Māori was originally brought to New Zealand, so they say, from the mysterious island of Hawaiki. In the 1800s, after the English speakers had mostly stopped spending most of their time fighting the Māori speakers, a system of state schools was set up, and, on the insistence of various Māori Members of Parliament, the use of Māori was forbidden throughout the education system. This led to a steep decline in knowledge of the language, which the movement of people into towns accelerated. 

To be honest, that wasn't quite the story I was expecting to discover.

There has been, more recently, a laudable attempt to create a Māori renaissance. Māori was made an official language of New Zealand in 1987, and various institutions have been set up to support and encourage its use. Unfortunately there's some evidence that the existence of these institutions is reassuring people about the status of Māori to the extent that few are actually feeling the need to bother to learn it.

But how can the world lose a language that has such a charming way with a borrowed word, changing the dull English football to whutuporo? (In Māori you can't end a syllable with a consonant, of which there are only ten, anyway.)

How can the world lose a language where the word for my changes depending on whether the relationship between the possessor and possessed is dominant or subordinate?

The lesson of history, I'm very much afraid, is all too easily.

Word To Use Today: Māori. This word means normal, natural or ordinary, and it distinguishes humans tānguta māori from gods and spirits, and fresh water wai māori from salt. It comes from a Proto-Polynesian word that was something like maagoli meaning real or genuine.


  1. Most interesting, esp the my thing!

    1. Yes, it must add greatly to the opportunities to insult people!