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Maori or Te Reo Maori, 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

Maori 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 Maori 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 Maori 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.


Maori 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, eh?, elima. In Maori: tahi, rua, toru, wh?, rima.

In the last 200 years the Maori 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 Maori in school was forbidden (see Native Schools). Increasing numbers of Maori 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 Maori still spoke Maori as a native language. Worship was in Maori; it was the language of the home; political meetings were conducted in M?ori and some literature and many newspapers were published in Maori.

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

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


The major subgroupes of East Polynesian

Maori 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 Maori by using a Tahitian interpreter.

Geographic distribution

Maori is spoken almost exclusively in New Zealand, by upwards of 100,000 people, nearly all of them of Maori 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 Maori speakers is unknown. The number of Maori-only speakers is likely to be very small indeed, counted in dozens, but of those who spoke Maori before they learnt English will be higher, because Maori persists as a community language in isolated settlements in the Northland, Urewera and East Cape areas. The Maori language effectively ceased to be a living community language in the post war years when there was a period of rapid urbanisation of the Maori 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.