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Grammar of the New Zealand Language

Of the Dipthongs

Of the Dipthongs.

This portion of Maori literture has been as yet but little explored; and as each person's notions will very with the acuteness of his ear, and the extent to which his judgment has been exercised, we may be prepared to expect a considerable discrepancy of opinion.

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We shall therefore proceed with caution, and offer only what may be most useful, and most necessary for the student.

The field of discussion may be much limited if we first define what we mean by the word “dipthong.”

The best definition we can find, and the one most suited to the nature of the dipthong, is, we think, that of Mr Smith, in Walker. “A dipthong,” he says, “I would define to be two simple vocal sounds uttered by one and the same emission of breath, and joined in such a manner that each loses a portion of its natural length; but from the junction produceth a compound sound equal in the time of pronouncing to either of them taken separately, and so making still but one syllable.”

Following this definition, three tests for a dipthong suggest themselves.


The emission of the two sounds by the same breath.


Their amalgamation, or more correctly, their coalescing; for each vowel in the Maori dipthong is distinctly heard.


The abbreviation of the natural length of each simple sound.

In applying these rules to the dipthongs, it will be perhaps most prudent to divide them, under the present imperfect state of our knowledge, into two classes. 1. The certain, or those of the dipthongal character of which there can be but little question. 2. The doubtful, or those upon which inquirers may be likely to entertain different opinions.

The dipthongs which we consider certain, are as follows:

aa, ae, ai, ao, au, ee, ei, ii, oo, ou, uu.

On, these we will offer a few remarks.

Those dipthongs which are formed by a double letter, such as ea, are distinguished by a stronger and fuller sound; as in Wakaaro, rapuutu. &c.

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Is a sound for which it is difficult to find a parallel in English, and which most speakers confound with at in such words as waewae, waeroa, paewae, &c.

The English aye comes perhaps closer to it. It must be pronounced broad and open, and care must be taken to keep out the squeezed sound of the i.


May be well represented by the i in shine.


Has no representative in English that we are aware of. In pronouncing it, the speaker must be careful to let the o be distinctly, but not too prominently, heard; and considerable care will be required to keep it distinct from au in the following words, as otawhao, whawhao, tao, hao, &c.: neither again must the speaker divide the dipthong into two syllables, as some speakers do in otaota, &c.


May be pronounced like ou in drought, trout, pound, &c.


May be represented by the ai in hail, pail, &c. Care must be taken not to suppress altogether the i, as is sometimes done in such words as tenei, penei, &c.


Is a sound of some difficulty. There is no sound that we are aware of in the English language that exactly corresponds to it. Low, sow, mow, &c., may be made to resemble it, by pronouncing them slowly, and letting the sound die away into u.

Most foreigners are apt to pronounce it as a simple o. The first syllable of koutou is one of very difficult pronunciation. page 7 Without great care it will be variously pronounced, as if koitou kotou, or kutu.

By not attending to these distinctions the speaker will often lose the benefit of a good thought. A speaker, guarding his hearers against spiritual temptations, borrowed his illustration from a poukaka (the perch for the parrot by which it is caught,) telling them that Satan often presents ponkakas to attract them to ruin; unfortunately, however, instead of poukaka he used pokaka, a squall of wind and rain, and only expressed his point by exciting their risibility.

The doubtful class of dipthongs are mau, (as in mau, for thee, tau, thy,) ai, (as in maia, brave) ea, eo, eu, io, iu,

On these we do not wish at present to make many observations. We believe that there is a considerable difference amongst Maori speakers respecting them. Our own idea is, that there may be a few occasions on which some might be considered dipthongs; and that those occasions are, the position of the syllable, whether at the end of the word, or elsewhere, as also whether it come under the influence of the accent.

We cannot dismiss this subject without mentioning two particulars, very necessary to be remembered by all who wish to attain to an accurate pronunciation of Maori. First, as it is in English, every sentence is to be pronounced as if one word. 2. Homogeneous vowels will, when they meet almost always run into a dipthong.

The following sentence, koia i whiriwhiria ai e ia to ratou uri, would be thus pronounced by a native, koiai-whiri-whiriai-eia-to-ratouri. Koia ia i riri ai would run, koiai-aiririai.

This subject of homogeneous vowels coalescing into dipthongs. is one which has not received the attention it merits.