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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

This Loss of Sounds has by Assimilation brought — Incongruous Meanings under the Same Words

This Loss of Sounds has by Assimilation brought
Incongruous Meanings under the Same Words

(15) A striking contrast to this primitive phonological scheme is the fulness of the vocabulary, which runs into tens of thousands of words, where that of most primitive and even half-cultured peoples runs only into thousands. And yet there are no abstract words for qualities of things or persons, such as are found in all languages that have reached the stage of introspection or self-reflection. The only approach to these consists of the personified names of the cosmology and the mythology, like Kore, "The Void"; Ao, "The Upper World"; Po, "The Lower World," and Whaitua, "Space," which indicate that the Polynesian mind had entered on the road that leads to abstraction and philosophy. But it went no further during the centuries of the Pacific, and instead rather tended to fall back on the particular and the individual, the mark of an uncultured people.

(16) The Maori substitute for the abstract is the use of the metaphorical or analogical. No barbarous or semi-cultured race ever indulged to such an extent in figures of speech. If figurative language constitutes poetry, an opinion not uncommon amongst critics as well as the unthinking, then there never was a people so poetical; they are a race of poets by nature; in their myths and incantations, songs and oratory, they revel in the figurative till it is difficult for the European mind to follow them. Like Hudibras, the Maori orator no sooner opes his mouth than "out there flies a trope."

(17) The result is that in the Maori dictionary there is an astounding number of synonyms for everything that the page 90people are familiar with, and there is as astonishing a development of meanings for every second or third word. But in the classification and study of these there is a great source of ambiguity and difficulty. A large proportion of the words have applications that it is impossible for the European mind to find the connection or analogy between. Take as an example the word "rere"; one set of meanings is easily put together; to run like water, fly, sail, leap, move to and fro in speechifying, rise or set like the stars; but the others are difficult to connect or classify; to be born, to be rejected, to hang, suddenly, a waterfall, a swarm, an exclamation demanding attention; in order to find the relationship here we have to strain analogy to the breaking point.

(18) The source of this phenomenon is the coalescence of different forms by assimilation; we see in English that when two words have grown like in sound they tend to become one in form, especially if they come from different linguistic origins. This occurred most in the centuries immediately after the Norman Conquest, when the native Saxons and the Norman aristocracy, with their followers, had not fully amalgamated; each moulded the words of the other into the forms that were familiar to him. The same occurs in the history of the Maori language. And what increased the confusion here was the reduction of the elaborate phonology of the immigrants to the simple phonology of the aboriginals, and especially the reduction of the gutturals to k, the dentals to t, and the labials to p. We can imagine the vast museum of meanings under single forms in English, if either the Saxons or the Normans had been unable to differentiate p from b, and b from f, or d from t, and t from th. Yet this is what has happened in Maori. The result is an amazing collection of meanings under the same sound-form in hundreds, if not thousands, of cases. And the complication is increased by the inordinate love of figurative speech in the Maori race, page 91The difficulty of the philologist in disentangling the roots is enhanced tenfold by these two tendencies,

(19) One thing, however, comes out with great clearness; it is that the Maori language is the descendant of several languages and not of one. In short, there are as manifest signs of stratification in the Polynesian phonology as in the Polynesian people and manners and customs. The character of these seems to indicate that there have been at least two immigrations into the Pacific islands.

(20) The grammar points to an Aryan-speaking race as the source of one of the elements, if not more, for it shows traces of inflection, both internal and external, both prefixed and affixed, as all Aryan languages have done, and it has developed with ease on the same lines as modern European tongues. It has thrown off almost all the formal elements that speech can dispense with, and it has attained an absence of inflection and a simplicity of system that few tongues in the world but English have reached.