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The Coming of the Maori

6 — Maori Speech

page 74

Maori Speech

Maori speech is a dialect of the language spokern throughout Polynesia and hence conveniently called the Polynesian language. The language, however, spreads beyond the geographical bounds of Polynesia for it is spoken in a number of islands along the outskirts of Melanesia which are inhabited by a lighter-skinned people who do not have the woolly hair of their darker-skinned Melanesian neighbours. The language appears again in distant Nukuoro and Kapinga-marangi, south of the Carolines, where the people are of taller stature than the neighbouring Micronesians.

Polynesian has been included with Micronesian, Melanesian, and Indonesian to form the Malayo-Polynesian group of languages. Some linguistic authorities have extended the grouping to include the language spoken by peoples ranging from the Himalayas, through Further India, Indonesia, Australia and out into the Pacific under the term of the Austric family of speech. In spite of comparisons that have been made between selected words from Polynesian and the speech of some American groups, the linguistic evidence points to the spread of the Polynesian language from the direction of Asia and not from America.

The Alphabet

The unwritten Polynesian language was reduced to writing by early missionaries in various island groups in the first half of the nineteenth century, with the Polynesian sounds represented by English letters. The vowels were readily identified as five and written as a, e, i, o, and u to represent the Polynesian sounds of ah, eh, ee, awe, and oo. The correct determination of the consonants proved a more difficult task. In New Zealand, the difficulties were satisfactorily overcome, for the wh sound as distinct from f was represented by the double letter wh and the ng sound by the other double letter ng. In French Oceania and western page 75Polynesia, the ng sound was represented by the single letter g to free the letter n for its own use and to utilize an otherwise useless g. In those early days, the type founts were limited, and the missionary printers are to be excused for trying to make their meagre stock go as far as possible. This economic device, however, has resulted in mistakes in pronunciation by those who do not know the arbitrary use of the letter g. Thus the naval station of Pago Pago in American Samoa has been pronounced as Pay-go-pay-go, Pag-go-pag-go, or anything except Pangopango.

In Hawaii, the missionary committee set up to draft the Hawaiian alphabet found difficulty in deciding between three pairs of consonant sounds; l and r, w and v, and k and t. Unconsciously perhaps, the committee attempted to reduce the sounds to as few symbols as possible. Finally l, w, and k were voted into the alphabet and r, v, and t, in spite of their claims to inclusion, were arbitrarily rejected. As the Hawaiians came from the Society Islands where r, v, and t are present, it is possible that the wrong members were elected by the vote. The difficulty in distinguishing between l and r, and w and v was probably due to the Polynesian sounds being intermediate between the pairs represented by the English letters. Hence to the Polynesian, the letters represent the sounds which he makes in speaking, whereas to the foreigner, they represent the sounds which he thinks he should hear.


The pronunciation of Maori words is easy as compared with English. The vowels offer no difficulty once it is understood that the letter i represents the ee sound of English and the letter e has the eh sound as in French. The main difficulty is to know whether they are long or short and the use of diacritical marks involves too much expense in printing to become a routine procedure in recording native texts. The consonants offer some initial difficulty in mastering the double consonants wh and ng. Thus wh is distinct from the Polynesian f which is like the English f in touching the lower lip with the front teeth. It is pronounced like wh in what and where. The use of the English f sound for wh such as fafai for whawhai (to fight) is a post-European development adopted by some tribes. The ng sound is usually pronounced erroneously as n by foreigners. In pronouncing n both in Maori and in English, the tongue touches the roof of the mouth but in the Maori ng the tongue must be kept down. The Maori t is slightly different to the English t in which the tongue touches the palate back from the teeth whereas in the Maori t, the tongue goes forward to touch the back of the front teeth.

Each consonant must be followed by a vowel to form a syllable and hence no syllable or word can end on a consonant nor can two consonants come together except of course wh and ng which represent single con-page 76sonants. A common error in English attempts to pronounce Maori words is to end a syllable on an intermediate consonant and so divorce it from the following vowel as tam-a instead of ta-ma. Errors of pronunciation are particularly noticeable in words with the consonant ng which is often split into ng and g, the ng ending the preceding syllable and g starting off the next syllable. Thus the place name Whangaehu is correctly split into four syllables as Wha-nga-e-hu. By following the rule such atrocities as Wong-gae(gy)-hoo would be avoided.

The Glottal Closure

In compiling the alphabets, a serious omission was made through the failure to realize the importance of what has been termed the glottal closure. The glottal closure, which is present in most dialects, is a slight catch in the spoken word and represents a consonant sound which has been dropped. Again, the early compilers may be excused, because the fact that the glottal closure represented definite consonants in each dialect was not ascertained until material for comparative study had been made available. The process of finding out what consonant a glottal closure represents may be illustrated by comparing the words for canoe in different dialects. The written word for canoe in Maori is waka; in Rarotongan, vaka; in Hawaiian, waa; and in Samoan, vaa. In the spoken word, however, Hawaiian and Samoan have the glottal closure between the two vowels. As Maori and Rarotongan have no glottal closure in waka and vaka, it is obvious that, for this particular word, the glottal closure in Hawaiian and Samoan represents a dropped k. Further comparisons prove that the k in all Maori and Rarotongan words is invariably represented by the glottal closure in Hawaiian and Samoan speech and, furthermore, that the glottal closure in these two dialects is not used for any other consonant In Tahitian, as representative of the Society Islands dialect, the position is more complicated. The name for canoe is vaa with a glottal closure between the vowels, hence it represents a dropped k, as in Hawaiian and Samoan. However, the Tahitian word rai (sky) with a glottal between the two vowels corresponds to the Maori and Rarotongan word rangi (sky). On testing further with Maori and Rarotongan words containing the ng sound, the corresponding words in Tahitian are found to have the glottal closure instead of the ng sound. Thus the Tahitian glottal closure represents the two dropped consonants k and ng, but, as there is no difference in the sound of the glottal closure, the distinction between k and ng can be determined only by comparison with similar words in dialects in which the k and ng are retained. Whether the glottal represents a k or an ng does not bother the Tahitian but linguistic students experience more difficulty when the glottal represents more than one consonant. The dialect of the Austral Islands is still page 77more curious because it followed the Society Islands in using the glottal closure for k and ng and the Cook Islands in using it for h.

The consonants represented by the glottal closure in various areas are as follows:

k: Society Islands, Australs, Hawaii, and Samoa.
ng: Society Islands, Australs.
h: Cook Islands, Australs, Mangareva, and some Maori tribes of the west coast.
r: Marquesas (some islands).

It is evident that the Polynesian dialects cannot be adequately written without some symbol to represent the glottal closure. Instead of restoring the symbols of the consonants which are not sounded in speech, the linguists adopted the inverted comma superior to the position in the written word that would have been occupied by the consonant it represents. Thus the written word for canoe in Hawaiian and Samoan would be wa'a and va'a instead of waa and vaa. This symbol is termed the hamza. The need for the hamza is illustrated by the Cook Islands word ua, which as written represents four different words that cannot be distinguished from each other without the use of the hamza.

As written With hamza With h inserted Meaning
ua ua ua rain, neck
ua 'ua hua fruit, egg
ua u'a uha female (of animal)
ua 'u'a huha thigh

Letter Changes

The letter changes in the different dialects are constant and thus form a kind of Grimm's Law. The consonants of nine leading dialects are shown in the table below. The first column gives all the possible consonants in the language. In the other columns, the letters established in the dialects are shown in capitals, and the letters used to represent letters not in the alphabet are shown in lower case. The hamza is shown in its proper place as a consonant, but when it is used to represent letters not present, it is placed in brackets. The French missionaries included the letter h in the Mangarevan alphabet, but in the table I have represented it more correctly by the hamza for comparative purposes. The five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) are not included because they are the same in all dialects. Though the Hawaiian K has taken the place of t, it is pronounced as k. It must also be considered that there may be subdialectal changes in districts or islands within the same group.

page 78

The table can be used to convert the words of one dialect into any other dialect.

Table of Consonants in Different Dialects
All consonants New Zealand Cook Is. Society Is. Marquesas Mangareva Easter Is. Hawaii Samoa Tonga
H H ' H H ' H H (s or f) H
K K K ' K K K ' ' K
L r r r (') r r L L L
R R R R ' R R l l l
Ng Ng Ng ' G G Ng n G G
S h (') h h h h h S h S
v w V V V V V w V V
Wh Wh (') f f (') h h f f
F wh (') F F (') h h F F
14 10 8 8 9 8 9 8 9 10

The dialectal changes in the consonants are illustrated by the following list of selected words:

Locality Canoe House Sky Bowl Below
New Zealand waka whare rangi kumete raro
Cook Islands vaka 'are rangi kumete raro
Society Islands va'a fare ra'i 'umete raro
Marquesas vaka fare ragi kumete 'a'o
Mangareva vaka 'are ragi kumete raro
Hawaii wa'a hale lani 'umeke lalo
Samoa va'a fale lagi 'umete lalo
Tonga vaka fale lagi kumete lalo

The total number of consonants for all dialects is 14 but in the interchangeable two pairs, l, r, and v, w, each dialect has been restricted by the alphabet compilers to one of each pair, though some dialects originally page 79may have had some words that inclined towards l and v and other words that inclined towards r and w. The Maori wh and the f of other dialects, though distinct, also form a pair of which any one dialect could have but one. The true S sound in Samoan is evidently a late transition in that dialect from h and thus the full number of consonants for any one dialect is ten. Some linguists, however, maintain that s was originally present in Indonesia and that a change from s to h took place in Polynesia. Maori and Tongan lead with the complement of ten written consonants because they have no glottal closures.

The written g in Mangareva, Samoa, and Tonga is pronounced as the ng sound. Tonga though having affinity with Samoa does not have the glottal for k.


A few letter changes occur among Maori tribes, who are usually descended from the same ancestral canoes, and tribal differences may be regarded as forming subdialects. The Bay of Plenty tribes descended from the Matatua canoe use the current n instead of ng as rani for rangi (sky). The Ngaitahu tribe of the South Island also have no ng but use the current k instead, as in kaika for kainga (village). The Rarawa tribe of North Auckland has a peculiar usage, inserting the vowel e after h before the following vowel, as Heongi for Hongi. Their pronunciation gives a somewhat sibilant sound to the h and may have been responsible for some of the early European writers referring to the celebrated northern chief, Hongi, as Shunghie. The tribes of the west coast of the North Island, claiming descent from the Tokomaru, Aotea, and Kurahaupo canoes, have the glottal closure for h, like the Cook Islanders and Mangarevans. The glottal closure even affects the h in the double consonant wh, leading early European writers to write ware for whare (house).

Tribal differences are recognized in the vocative form of address. The general term in Maori is E hoa (Oh friend or Oh Sir) but the east coast tribes say E hika, the northern tribes use E mora, and the Waikato people greet with E kare. Many of these tribal differences have been rounded off into a more standardized common speech and the late Bishop H. W. Williams held that it was too late to collect subdialectal differences of sufficient value to form a guide to affinities with islands in Polynesia.


The subject of grammar is too lengthy for discussion here. There is one point, however, that is often overlooked by Europeans who use a smattering of Maori to their own satisfaction. Maori and all the Polynesian dialects have three numbers for the pronouns; singular, dual, and plural. The usual Maori greeting of Tena hoe applies to one person, Tena korua page 80applies to two, and Tena koutou to more than two. Hence, it is just as ungrammatical to apply the plural Tena koutou to two persons as it is to one.

Language Affinities

Elsdon Best (14, pp. 437, 438) collected 11 words that were attributed by Maori traditions to the pre-Toi people, but he recognized the fact that any distinctive sounds would naturally be "Maorified" and any significance as to Melanesian relationship would be destroyed. Williams (107, p. 420) could locate only one of these Maruiwi words, with a slight modification of meaning, in the Moriori dialect.

As the Moriori traditionally were held to have left New Zealand for the Chatham Islands before the settlers from Hawaiki arrived in 1350, a study of their speech offered another avenue of search for Melanesian relationship. Williams (107) after a study of the vocabulary collected by Shand, concluded that Moriori could not be described correctly as a subdialect of Maori but that "It has as much right to be considered independent as any of the known dialects of the Polynesian language." He disposed of the sibilant sound in the dialect by showing that it was by tongue and breath control over vowels following the established consonants h, k, and t and that it was not a true s or ch sound. As similar developments have occurred in other Polynesian dialects, these sounds may be disregarded as evidence of Melanesian relationship. Though Williams enunciated no theory of Moriori origin, his study showed that the Moriori dialect has more affinity with the dialects of eastern Polynesia than with the west of recorded tradition. With regard to the Maori dialect, my own practical experience in the field is that it has greater affinity with the dialects of Manihiki-Rakahanga, the Tuamotu, and Mangareva than with those of the Cook and Society Islands and that it has still less affinity with Samoan and Tongan.

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.