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The Coming of the Maori

Current Speech

Current Speech

A language increases its vocabulary with the growth of the culture to which it belongs. New words, phrases, and idioms are coined to give vocal expression to new inventions, social elaboration, and more complete religious ritual. When oratory flourishes, richer forms of expression in metaphor, simile, and poetic phrases are composed to please the ears of listening audiences and to add to the orator's reputation as a scholar.

Changes within the culture may result not only in the addition of new words but also in the disuse and subsequent loss of old words. Thus the change in New Zealand from the outrigger canoe to the canoe without an outrigger led to the disuse and loss of the terms denoting the outrigger booms (kiato) and float (ama). When the Matorohanga school attempted page 81to describe the building of their ancestral canoe, Takitimu, new terms were coined for those which had been forgotten but the new words could not accurately describe the details of construction which had also been forgotten.

The Maori dialect has an extensive vocabulary which was adequate to express anything connected with Maori culture at its highest development. However, the impact with western civilization led to the gradual abandonment of many arts and crafts, customs, and rituals. When words ceased to function in current speech they became archaic and their exact meanings were forgotten. Thus archaic words in laments and chants were in current use when they were used in the compositions but their meanings have passed away with the people who used them. Hence the task of even a first-class licensed interpreter is somewhat difficult at times when archaic words dealing with the past are involved.

A Maori chief giving evidence before the Native Land Court described how his ancestor obtained the right to a certain block of land by conquest. His ancestor killed the opposing chief in battle and, continued the chief, "Ka tapahia e ia te upoko, ka pakipakia." The court interpreter translated the statement as "He cut off his head and patted it." The action of patting the decapitated head seemed rather curious but there were enough old men present to explain that pakipaki was also the term applied to the technique of preserving heads by partly cooking them in an earth oven and then smoke drying them. The chief's ancestor had cut off his enemy's head and preserved it as a trophy of his prowess. Elsdon Best fully realized the difficulty of translating many of the archaic words in laments and chants so he recorded the native text and wisely left the translation for further study. Sir Apirana Ngata in his two volumes of Maori songs (57) corrected errors and annotated the text in Maori as a contribution to Maori literature but he left the English translation for such time as he could devote to the more intensive study of obscure parts of the text.

The acceptance of various phases of English culture by the Maori people speeded the process of change and loss, which increased with each generation of contact. English words were adapted to Maori pronunciation to designate new articles which came into native use such as oumu (oven), tikera (tea-kettle), pāta (pot), paraoa (flour), naihi (knife), paoka (fork), pureti (plate) and a host of others. The change in authority appeared in such words as kuini (queen), kingi (king), tiriti (treaty), kawana (governor), kawanatanga (government), tiati (judge), kooti (court), pirihimana (policeman), and the change in religion in paipera (Bible), himene (hymn), minita (minister), pihopa (bishop), and hahi (church, as an organization). The coining of hybrid words was necessitated by English words which had no equivalent in Maori and they page 82were readily adopted in order that the people could express themselves in the current speech of their day.

Change in grammar is illustrated by the incorrect use of the passive verb ending -ngia in place of the variety of correct euphonious endings in -a, -ia, -hia, -kia, -mia, -ngia, -ria, and -tia. However, what was wrong in the classical language of yesterday will become correct through usage in the current speech of tomorrow. The language in everyday use is diverging more and more from the classical speech of pre-European times and it is little wonder that the younger generation finds difficulty in understanding the public orations of their elders. Old Maori like Old English and Anglo-Saxon will become a classical subject for academic study through the printed literature but Modern Maori will continue as the current speech of a racial minority until the Maori homes use English as their common medium of speech.