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Māori Language

Māori or Te Reo Māori, commonly shortened to Te Reo (literally the language) is an official language of New Zealand. An Eastern Polynesian language, it is closely related to Tahitian and the languages of the Cook Islands; slightly less closely to Hawaiian and Marquesan; and more distantly to the languages of Western Polynesia, including Samoan, Niuean and Tongan.

Official status

Māori is one of three official languages of New Zealand, the others being English and New Zealand Sign Language. Most government departments and agencies now have bilingual names, for example, the Department of Internal Affairs is known as Te Tari Taiwhenua, and bodies such as local government offices and public libraries also have bilingual signs. New Zealand Post recognises Māori place names in postal addresses. State funding for teaching of the language ensures that it is an option in all state schools and from March 2004 a Māori TV service part broadcast in the language has been funded. The current interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi sees language preservation as a Government responsibility.


Māori was brought to New Zealand by Polynesians coming, most likely, from the area of the Cook Islands or Tahiti who likely arrived in seagoing canoes which may have been double-hulled and were probably sail-rigged. As part of the great Austronesian family of languages it has links to many of the languages of the peoples of South-east Asia and Polynesia. For example, the numbers one to five in Malay: satu, dua, tiga, empat, lima. In Hawaiian: ekahi, elua, ekolu, ehā, elima. In Māori: tahi, rua, toru, whā, rima.

In the last 200 years the Māori language has had a tumultuous history—going from the position of predominant language of New Zealand until the 1860s when it became a minority language in the shadow of the English brought by British settlers, missionaries, gold-seekers and traders. In the late 19th century the English school system was introduced for all New Zealanders, and from the 1880s the use of Māori in school was forbidden (see Native Schools). Increasing numbers of Māori people learned English because it was required at school and because of the prestige and opportunity associated with the language. Until World War II, however, most Māori still spoke Māori as a native language. Worship was in Māori; it was the language of the home; political meetings were conducted in Māori and some literature and many newspapers were published in Māori.

As late as the 1930s some Māori parliamentarians were disadvantaged because the Parliament's proceedings were, by then, carried on in English. From this period the number of speakers of Māori began to decline rapidly until, by the 1980s, less than 20% of Māori spoke the language well enough to be considered native speakers. Even for many of those people, Māori was no longer the language of the home.

By the 1980s Māori leaders began to recognize the dangers of the loss of their language and initiated Māori-language recovery programs such as the Kōhanga Reo movement, which immersed infants in Māori from infancy to school age. This was followed by the founding of the Kura Kaupapa Māori, a primary school program in Māori.


The major subgroupes of East Polynesian

Māori is a Polynesian language. Linguists classify it as an Eastern Polynesian language belonging to the Tahitic subgroup, which includes Rarotongan, spoken in the southern Cook Islands, and Tahitian, spoken in Tahiti and the Society Islands. Also closely related are Hawaiian, and Marquesan (languages in the Marquesic subgroup), and the Rapa Nui language of Easter Island (see articles by Biggs, Clark, and Harlow cited in References section below). While all these Eastern Polynesian languages are very closely related, they are not just dialects of a single language, but languages in their own right: they have been diverging for many centuries, and mutual intelligibility is limited. Nonetheless, on his voyages to New Zealand in the late 18th Century, Captain James Cook was able to communicate effectively with Māori by using a Tahitian interpreter.

Geographic distribution

Māori is spoken almost exclusively in New Zealand, by upwards of 100,000 people, nearly all of them of Māori descent. Estimates of the number of speakers vary: the 1996 census reported 160,000, while other estimates have reported as low as 50,000. The level of competence in the language of those claiming to be Māori speakers is unknown. The number of Māori-only speakers is likely to be very small indeed, counted in dozens, but of those who spoke Māori before they learnt English will be higher, because Māori persists as a community language in isolated settlements in the Northland, Urewera and East Cape areas. The Māori language effectively ceased to be a living community language in the post war years when there was a period of rapid urbanisation of the Māori population. The language's status has been compared with that of Irish, as a minority language in an island nation of 4 million threatened by increasing use of English.


There are fifteen letters and digraphs in the Māori alphabet: A E H I K M N O P R T U W NG and WH.







i ī

u ū


e ē

o ō


a ā

For the non-phonologist; the five long Māori vowel sounds are similar to those of Italian or Japanese. All vowel-pairs are in use except uo, and all vowel sounds are given their full value, whether stressed or not, except as noted for Southern Māori, but final short vowels may be devoiced (giving rise to the non-Māori speakers' versions of names like Waiuku and Paraparaumu, "Waiuk" and "Paraparam").

The most difficult vowel sounds for the English speaker are final e (as in "pen" without the n), and eu, which is rare except in "Te Heuheu" (the name of the paramount chiefs of Ngāti Tǖwharetoa). The surest sign of an English accent is the mispronunciation of o (which should be a pure "aw" sound) as English "oh".





















<ng> is pronounced /ŋ/, that is, like the ng in English "sing." However, unlike English, <ng> appears in a syllable-initial position. The pronunciation of <wh> varies, but it is generally pronounced [ɸ], an "f" or "h" sound made by putting the lips together as if to make a "w" sound; today [f] (labiodental) is also used, which may be an influence from English. ("WH" has occasionally been written with "F", to emphasise that the sound is a single consonant and not w + h, but this has not caught on in general usage.) Māori <r> is a tap, /ɾ/ , like the <r> in Spanish, or the t in the American English pronunciation of "city".


A syllable in Māori has the form V, VV, CV or CVV. Two consonants are never together (ng and wh being single consonants), and no syllable ends with a consonant. (These rules give rise to such transliterations as Perehipeteriana, "Presbyterian".) All CV combinations are in use except who. wo, wu and whu occur only in a few loan words from English such as wuru, "wool" and whutoporo, "football".

The Māori vocabulary is parsimonious; almost all possible short words are meaningful, making clear pronunciation of the vowels essential, unlike English.


Professor Bruce Biggs of the University of Auckland developed a grammar of Māori (see Biggs 1998 in References below) in which he divided bases (lexical words) into nouns, universals, statives, locatives and personals, and particles (grammatical words) into verbal particles,


Bases that can take a definite article, but can not occur as the nucleus of a verbal phrase, such as ika, fish, rākau, tree. Nouns usually keep the same form in both singular and plural, the change of number being indicated by a change in the definite article from te (singular "the") to ngā (plural "the"). Some words lengthen a vowel in the plural, such as wahine, woman; wāhine, women.


Bases that can be used passively, such as inu, drink, (inumia, be drunk - of a liquid), tangi, weep (tangihia, be wept over). The passive suffixes are -a, -ia, -ina, -hia, -kia, -mia, -na, -ngia, -ria, -tia and -whia. Each universal always takes the same suffix. The passive may be used imperatively, as in Inumia!, Drink (it)!.


Bases that can be used as verbs but not passively, such as ora, alive/healthy, tika, correct.


Bases that can follow the locative particle ki (to, towards) directly, such as runga, above, waho, outside, and placenames (ki Tamaki, to Auckland)


Bases that take the personal article a after ki, such as names of people (ki a Hohepa, to Joseph), personified houses, personal pronouns, wai? who? and Mea, So-and-so.

Nouns can be derived from bases by adding the suffixes -nga, -anga, -kanga, -manga, -ranga, -tanga or –whanga. There is a correspondence between the beginning of the passive suffix and that of the derived noun suffix, so inu drink, inumanga, occasion of or thing for drinking, and tangi, weep, tangihanga, occasion for weeping.

Verbal particles

ka – inceptive i – past kua – perfect kia – desiderative me – prescriptive e – non-past kei – warning (“lest”) ina/ana – punctative-conditional, "if and when" e … ana imperfect


The pronouns have singular, dual and plural number, and the first-persons are inclusive or exclusive of you, the listener.


ki, towards; kei, at; i, past position; hei, future position - all in time or space.


Possessives fall in two classes, a and o, depending on the dominant/subordinate relationship between possessor and possessed, so ngā tamariki o te matua, the children of the parent, but te matua a ngā tamariki, the parent of the children.


Articles: te (singular) and ngā plural

Possessive: and . These also combine with the pronouns.

Demonstrative: tēnei, this; tēnā, that (by you); tērā, that (far from us both); taua, the aforementioned.

Which? tēhea?

A certain, tētahi

Those beginning with t form the plural by dropping the t: ēnei, these.


Biggs' grammar defines possible forms of the phrase, which he says is the unit of Māori speech, not the word.

Of all of the existing Polynesian languages, Māori is the only member of the group where compound nouns are formed extensively. Biggs calls these the head and the qualifier in the nucleus of a phrase. Longer compound nouns are possible but rare.


  • Kia ora: hello (also: thank you)
  • Hei konei: bye
  • Kei te pēhea koe: How are you?
  • Kei te (tino) pai ahau: I'm (very) well


The 1894 (Fourth) edition of Grammar of the New Zealand Language (by the Archdeacon of Auckland, R. Maunsell, LL.D.) described seven distinct dialects for the North Island alone — Rarawa, Ngapuhi, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, East Cape, Port Nicholson–Wanganui, and Wanganui–Mokau — but mentioned some variations within some of those.

By 2004, many of the minor dialects have probably declined almost to extinction, and most new students and speakers can be expected to use the official and/or Māori Television standards. However, regional variants are still apparent, on different websites and even between speakers and subtitle-writers on Māori Television.

Dialects of Māori are nothing like the barrier to comprehension that many non-speakers believe. There are some regional variants of pronunciation and accent, and a small number of lexical differences, but it is basically a single language across the country.

The main pronuncation variations are that

  • the iwi (tribes) of Wanganui and Taranaki replace the h (including the h of wh) with a glottal stop
  • Tuhoe and some Eastern Bay of Plenty people pronounce ng as n.
  • in part of the Far North, the sound of wh is more bilabial as in English wh (when speakers distinguish it from w).
  • the lower part of the South Island uses variants described in more detail below.

A Māori phrasebook which is a useful general guide for visitors is here at Wikitravel.

Kāi Tahu (Southern) Māori

One dialect that has returned to prominence in recent years is the Kāi Tahu dialect, often referred to as Southern Māori. The most obvious feature is the substitution of k for ng, as evidenced in the tribal name (Ngāi Tahu is the name used in certain acts of Parliament, leading to the common usage of both versions of the name).

Other variations from more northern dialects include variations in the sounds of consonants g (as distinct from ng or k, e.g., Katigi, Otago from Otakou), and l which substitutes for r (e.g., Little Akaloa, Kilmog (from kirimoku), Waihola, Rakiula (a variation of Rakiura or Stewart Island/Rakiura). The "wh" of northern Māori is also often replaced by a simple "w" (e.g., Wangaloa) or even "u" (e.g., uare).

Southern Māori also has apocope as a frequent feature, with the final letters of words often being pronounced as schwas or remaining unvoiced. For these reason, early European settlers to New Zealand referred, for example, to Lake Wakatipu as "Wagadib", and many locals still pronounce Otago as Otaguh.

Until the last decade or so, Southern Māori was used uniquely in the south and was actively discouraged in favour of standard (Central North Island) Māori, which was the only form used by government and most institutions. It has gained acceptance in recent years, however, leading to changes in the official names and translations of several southern places and institutions. New Zealand's highest mountain, known for centuries as Aoraki by southern Māori and Aorangi by northern Māori, was later named Mount Cook after Captain Cook. Its official name is now Aoraki/Mount Cook and only this name may be printed on maps and official documents. Similarly, Dunedin's main research library, the Hocken Library, now has the name Te Uare Taoka o Hākena, rather than Te Whare Taonga o Hākena.

Southern Māori still leads to some confusion among general Māori speakers, who will frequently persist in using standard Māori pronunciation rather than Southern Māori for southern place names, notably the town of Oamaru (pronounced with four syllables in standard Māori, but only three in Southern Māori).

Writing system

There is no native writing system for Māori. Missionaries made their first attempts to write the language using the Roman alphabet as early as 1814, and Professor Samuel Lee of Cambridge University worked with chief Hongi Hika and his junior relative Waikato to systematize the written language in 1820. Their efforts at phonetic spelling were remarkably successful, and written Māori has changed little since then, with only the distinguishing of w and wh and the addition of macrons late in the 19th century, though they were not commonly used outside of specialist publications until late in the 20th. Literacy was an exciting new concept that the Māori embraced enthusiastically, and missionaries reported in the 1820s that Māori all over the country taught each other to read and write, using sometimes quite innovative materials, such as leaves and charcoal, carved wood, and the cured skins of animals, when no paper was available.

There has been speculation that the petroglyphs once used by the Māori developed into a script similar to the Rongorongo of Easter Island, but there is no evidence that these petroglyphs ever evolved into a true system of writing.

Some distinctive markings among the kōwhaiwhai (rafter paintings) of meeting houses were used as mnemonics in reciting whakapapa (genealogy) but again, there was no systematic relation between marks and meanings.

Māori Language Week

Māori Language Day was an initiative of the activist group Ngā Tamatoa (The Young Warriors) in the 1970s. It grew into Māori Language Week, now celebrated annually in the last week of July.


  • Biggs, Bruce (1994). Does Maori have a closest relative? In Sutton (Ed.)(1994), pp. 96–-105.
  • Biggs, Bruce (1998). Let's Learn Maori. Auckland: Auckland University Press.
  • Clark, Ross (1994). Moriori and Maori: The Linguistic Evidence. In Sutton (Ed.)(1994), pp. 123–-135.
  • Harlow, Ray (1994). Maori Dialectology and the Settlement of New Zealand. In Sutton (Ed.)(1994), pp. 106–-122.
  • Sutton, Douglas G. (Ed.) (1994), The Origins of the First New Zealanders. Auckland: Auckland University Press.

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