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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 2 (May 1, 1937)

The Wisdom of the Maori — The Names We Read

page 37

The Wisdom of the Maori
The Names We Read

The spelling of the Maori language, which makes the tongue so easy and pleasant to learn, once the vowel values are understood, is a shining example to most of the written forms of the Polynesian languages. The spelling of the tongues of Samoa, Tonga, and Niue is particularly a matter of importance to New Zealanders, for we are constantly reading news items from these places and hearing various names pronounced, or mispronounced. The most notorious example of misspelling in the newspapers is “Pago Pago,” for Pango-pango, the American port on the island of Tutuila. Pangopango is the correct and Maori-like form; it is in fact a Maori name meaning dark, or gloomy, referring to the mountains that tower over the fiord harbour. It is phonetic in form; no one can go astray in its pronunciation. But “Pago Pago” is a travesty of the name, a form ugly as well as misleading. Naturally most people in their excusable ignorance call it “Pay-go-pay-go”; trans-Pacific passengers learn that aboard ship.

We shall be hearing a good deal about Pangopango, now that it is one of the stages on that modern miracle, the Pan-American clipper flight from San Francisco to Auckland. New Zealand would do well to rectify this misuse of a melodious and meaningful name. I was pleased to hear at least one man pronounce it properly; that was the National Broadcast announcer at 2YA. He gave it its rightful form and intonation.

It is strange indeed that this matter of spelling has not been rectified in Samoa and its neighbour countries long ago. The early missionaries blunder in making “g” the arbitrary written form for “nga” could easily be set right. Yet ugly and incorrect spellings like “tagitagi,” and “moega” and “Fagaloa” persist; and the new arrival in Samoa or Tonga cannot but think that the names as spelled look like a barbwire fence. It comes to the stranger as a glad surprise to find that the language is really soft and musical without a suspicion of a sharp “g” in it.

The moment is timely for a change in the official and popular misspelling of the Samoa and Niue tongues. Consistency is called for, throughout Polynesia, seeing that the Maori pronunciation is universal from Tonga to Easter Island. In Rarotonga and other Cook Islands fortunately the correct forms prevail. Imagine “Rarotoga” and “Magaia” and “Aoragi,” on the grotesque principle which gives us “Magiagi” — “Maggie-Aggie!” — in Samoa.

Our Maori Bible.

The pioneer missionaries of North New Zealand who translated the Bible into Maori accomplished a literary task which I admire more and more, as I dip into the pages of the “Paipera Tapu.” Perhaps I should take credit for more than a dip, since reading the Maori version is one of my favourite spare-time occupations, or relaxations. The literary beauty and the poetic glory of the English are in no way lost in the Maori. On the contrary, I hold that many Old Testament passages in Maori read more melodiously than our original English. The Psalms of David and the books of Job and Isaiah in particular captured the Maori heart not only for the spiritual thought, the tangi and the consolation, but for the sheer beauty of their rhythmic phrasing. Read aloud or chanted, they please the ear, the Maori ear, where the harder English often falls harsh and clipped. But the Maori must be read aloud to get the full worth of its broad vowel sounds and the accent beat that always falls on just the right syllable.

Such a line as the Prophet's “Woe to Ariel, to Ariel the city where David dwelt,” loses nothing in the Maori: “Aue te mate mo Ariere, mo Ariere mo te pa i noho ai a Rawiri.” Rather it gains in sonorous roll and fervour when a Maori minister reads it as I have heard it read.

I have often admired, too, the linguistic skill and the poetic feeling that made melody out of the most unpromising looking proper names in the Scriptures. The Hebrew names had to be Maorified. An example of name translation in which the translators grappled nobly with the formidable-looking original is this one, taken at random from the Paipera Tapu: Mahere-harara-ha-paha. It is the Maori form given to “Maher-shalal-hash-baz.” The Maori certainly falls softer on the ear.

We all know the powerful singer who invokes “Jee-roo-salem, Jee-roo-salem!” with the long bellow on the “roo.” The Maori gets a less painful effect with his “Hiruharama,” in which the “ha” is the syllable lengthened and stressed.

The Caverns of the Dead.

Had the late Ruatapu Kenana, the priest and prophet of the Urewera, died a generation earlier, his body would not have been sealed up in a concrete vault, pakeha fashion. The old Maori way of cave burial prevailed in his mountain land until a few years ago. The prophet's mortal remains would have been carried up the steep side of Maungapohatu, the sacred Rocky Mountain, at whose foot he was born, and would have been hidden away in a deep cave. The upper parts of the tapu mountain are pitted with caves and fissures in the limestone, and these have for centuries been the last resting places of the Urewera; and particularly of the section of that tribe known as Nga-Potiki (The Children), to which Rua belonged.

The Tombs of the Arawa.

In the Rotorua thermal country the bones of the dead were often buried in deep natural pits which had once been geyser wells. In the Government Spa grounds, called Oruawhata by the Maoris, the old chief Kiharoa many years ago showed me an ancient burial cave, under a flat ledge of rocks, and also a certain tapu place that I suppose is quite unknown to the present generation.

The Good Old Brandy—


Known to every tongue the World over as

The Best.

page 38