Barbara McKenzie
BA (Hons) Linguistics; PhD (German Lit.)
stovouno.org

Barbara McKenzie has a PhD in in German Literature.

In the name of saving from extinction the Maori language (te reo Maori or simply te reo), New Zealand authorities have embarked on a unique project, breathtaking in its scope and ambition: to demote, hybridise or replace NZ English, the first language of the vast majority of the country, as best they can.  

New Zealanders are being led to believe that the only way to revitalise one language is via a full-frontal assault on the other.

The Policy

In 2019, following the passing of the Maori Language Act of 2016, the Maori Language Commission produced the Maihi Karuna (The Crown Strategy for Maori Language Revitalisation 2019-2023).  The  purpose of the Strategy is to ‘protect and promote the Maori language’.  However, the text boasts of a ‘bold vision […] different from others that have come before it’. There are three ‘audacious goals’, the first of which is that people actually have to embrace the project with enthusiasm (or else?).

  1. ‘By 2040, 85 per cent of New Zealanders (or more) will value te reo Maori as a key element of national identity’
  2. ‘By 2040, one million New Zealanders (or more) will have the ability and confidence to talk about at least basic things in te reo Maori’
  3. By 2040, 150,000 Maori aged 15 and over will use te reo Maori as much as English

The idea, apparently, is to create a bilingual country. 

‘when you travel internationally, you realise how common, and normal multi-lingual communities are. And if you are like me, you think how awesome it would be if more people spoke te reo Maori in Aotearoa and we were a truly bilingual country. (Nanaia Mahuta, p.5)

But not as other countries know the term, ie providing texts, signage and education opportunities in more than one language.   The aim is to impose Te Reo on the whole populace, willy-nilly.

‘Kia mahorahora te reo – Every day, by everyone, every way, everywhere […] te reo Maori is a normal part of daily life for wider Aotearoa New Zealand where te reo is used by everyone, every day, every way and everywhere.’

Te reo alert. Cartoon credit BoomSlang The BFD

It will not be possible to work in the broader public service, consisting of around 2,900 organisations and employing 404,000 people, without being able to speak Maori.

‘In order for the Crown to recognise the value of the Maori language, and to deliver quality services to Maori communities, it needs to ensure the public sector can “speak’”the language itself. By doing
so, it will have both a direct and indirect impact on language revitalisation. .

The strategies for achieving the goals include:

  • Insisting on ‘correct’ pronunciation of words of Maori derivation, while assuming that words from English should be adapted to Maori phonology and spelling;
  • Replacement: replacing English words with Maori words which are not usual in the context; dotting texts with terms that are completely unknown to non-speakers of Maori;
  • Insisting that all naming be in Maori, whether it be urban spaces, libraries or policies;
  • Consciously using government texts on unrelated matters as a tool for language instruction
  • Bribing the mainstream media to apply the above strategies.

‘Correct Pronunciation’

Arguably the process of conscious Te Reofication started in 1979 when Victoria University linguistics lecturer Harry Orsman published his Heinemann New Zealand Dictionary. There is a time-honoured practice of adapting foreign borrowings to the phonology, cadences, spelling of the receiving language: everything from sine die to champagne to the numerous examples from English borrowed into Maori.  However, Orsman chose to cross the line from descriptive to prescriptive linguistics when he decided that the original Maori pronunciation (to the extent that it is agreed) should be preferred to common Kiwi usage. 

New Zealanders who had never known any pronunciation for the kakapo bird other than kackerpoe, found that the ‘real’ New Zealand pronunciation was kahkahpaw.  In his note on Maori words and pronunciation, Orsman argued disingenuously that:

‘[…] the trend in New Zealander is towards the use of formal Maori pronunciation rather than uninformed [sic] anglicization.  Thus what may at first appear an anomaly is in fact in keeping with the standard approach to pronunciation in this dictionary – common usage’

This anti-intuitive policy does not apply to English words borrowed into Maori, which are automatically adapted to that language.

Language Replacement

Following the move to ‘correct pronunciation’, official policy has made other linguistic concessions to the sensibilities of Maori radicals: saying Maori instead of Maoris, establishing Kia Ora (probably a neologism) as a formal greeting to introduce speeches and correspondence, saying te Reo instead of Maori (language).  However since the release of  policies to implement the 2016 Act, the pace of change has accelerated dramatically.  Wellington City Council produced its own policy in 2018, with a stated vision of ‘Wellington: A te reo capital city by 2040’.  And they’re serious.  Compare Wellington City Council’s home page of 2020, with the current page.

Note that many of these concepts are expressed in Maori with vocabulary borrowed from English, though now just about unrecognisable as they have been adapted to Maori phonology and spelling (as you would expect).

Naming

Every public institution (and many private), every policy, every concept, every public space is given a Maori name which should there actually be an English name, takes precedence.  Government departments are given Maori names which are increasingly used on their own without translation:  The Ministry of Transport is routinely referred to as simply Waka Kotahi; the Climate Change Commission is He Pou a Rangi. The Maori Language Commission is now Te Taurawhiri, and the URL for its language policy is  https://www.tetaurawhiri.govt.nz/en/te-reo-maori/maihi-karauna/. 

The Biodiversity Strategy of the Department of Conservation (DOC) is now Te Mana o te Taiao: 

The strategic framework for Te Mana o te Taiao sets out how the different components of the strategy work together to achieve the long-term vision of Te Mauri Hikahika o te Taiao.

No meaning is offered for Te Mana o te Taiao; that of Te Mauri Hikahika o te Taiao is given in a box.  The vast majority of New Zealanders would not be able to explain the meaning of  the names being imposed on them.

The Wellington City Council’s Maori language policy is called Te Tauihu;  Wellington City Council committees have been given Maori names, which councillors are expected to use in preference to the English ones.  Civic Square is now Te Ngakau Civic Precinct while the Wellington Public Library has been renamed the mouthful Te Matapihi ki te Ao Nui – it looks like every library in Wellington will have a Maori name which takes precedence over or replaces an existing English name.  Subject headings within new libraries naturally give greater precedence to the Maori version.

New Zealand cities have been given Maori names, which increasingly replace the traditional ones, with no discussion.

Wanganui or Whanganui is a town in the central North Island, but Te Whanganui-a-Tara seems to be a recently coined term for Wellington.  Wellington’s DomPost recently published an article in its travel pages that appeared to refer to an (obscure) attraction in or near New Plymouth, but it gradually becomes clear that the subject of the title is actually the city itself. 

We can expect increasing pressure to change the names of small towns.  Currently, there is a proposal to change the name of the town of Maxwell to Pakaraka, on the basis of a disputed claim that its namesake, George Maxwell, was involved in a massacre.  

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