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Book & Print in New Zealand : A Guide to Print Culture in Aotearoa

Conventions and authorities for writing and print

Conventions and authorities for writing and print

There are two kinds of first writing of Māori, one unsystematic but with human interest in the grappling with transcription of foreign sounds, and the other systematic, a serious, scientific conversion of Māori to written symbols. The first kind can be found in journals and travel narratives by late 18th-century and early 19th-century explorers, visitors and settlers such as Cook, Dieffenbach, Nicholas. Patrick Smyth refers to sources of such transcriptions in Maori Pronunciation and the Evolution of Written Maori (1946). Those writers, however, were simply collecting information and were neither sufficiently motivated nor informed to organise a spelling system. Purpose in the translation and dissemination of Christian doctrine and access to expertise enabled the missionary community to create an orthography. In an appendix to Judith Binney's life of Thomas Kendall, The Legacy of Guilt (1968), there is a detailed account of his initiation of a writing system. Kendall was a lay-teacher for the Church Missionary Society in the Bay of Islands, and his A Korao no New Zealand (1815) contained the first printed Māori, and an alphabet. In 1820 Kendall went to England and improved his alphabet by working together with a scholar of oriental languages, Professor āpuhi speakers Samuel Lee of Cambridge University, and NgHongi Hika and Hōhaia Parata Waikato, and by reference to a vocabulary compiled by other northern speakers Tuai (referred to in some sources as 'Tui') and Titere on a visit to England in 1818. In the course of the missionaries' translations it was modified to the current, economical form for printers, of five vowels and ten consonants.

There are only brief histories of this remarkable innovation. William Colenso worries over errors in transcription and printing of names in 'On nomenclature' (1883); Johannes Andersen's 'Maori alphabet' (1940) recounts problems with representation of sounds; Peter Lineham in Mission and Moko (1992) and Bible and Society (1996) reports translators', typographers' and readers' difficulties with spelling in the Bible; D.F. McKenzie puts a spare, elegant account of progress to an orthography in Oral Culture, Literacy & Print in Early New Zealand: The Treaty of Waitangi (1985). There are remarks about the adequacy of the orthography in publications about the language, particularly in translations of 19th-century manuscripts. These offer excellent sources for investigation of whether the spelling system accurately replicated the sounds of Māori, whether the missionaries' concerns as translators and printers influenced the choice of letters, and how the alphabet affected language use.

Linguists have drawn attention to the effect of the orthography on dialect, Ray Harlow surveying historical records and contemporary use in 'Regional variation in Maori' (1979). The alphabet assigned fixed values to sounds. Missionary translators would have appreciated this but it precluded representation of phonological differences. Translators and publishers, modelling other literature, possibly corrected local usage before printing—Lineham (1992) mentions Bible translators' disagreements over dialect. The first printed Scriptures (widely circulated) were mainly of the similar dialects of Ngāpuhi and Waikato; this language has often been asserted as classical Māori and has consequently influenced speech and writing. Writing and particularly print therefore accentuated a uniform rather than diverse language. Speech, however, can also cause change in dialect, while writing may have the value of preserving it. For the Chatham Island people's Moriori language (which differs from Māori in pronunciation of some vowels and consonants), writing came too late. Written records from the late 18th and early 19th centuries are examined by Ross Clark in 'Moriori and the Maori: the linguistic evidence' (1994). The greatest part of the extant record was written down some 30 years after the 1835 invasion and subjugation of the Moriori by the Taranaki people whose own dialect modified the Moriori language.

The standardised spelling created some difficulty in comprehension, as is suggested by a rare printed example of South Island Māori, very likely produced by the Wesleyan Rev. James Watkin from his Waikouaiti parish, and published in 1841. Watkin had found that the Scriptures supplied from the northern mission were not understood by people in his locality, and he adjusted the alphabet to express their sounds. Harlow includes a facsimile of Watkin's work in Otago's First Book (1994), and a discussion of his spelling system and South Island vocabulary in A Word-list of South Island Maori (1985).

The orthography represented the language sufficiently, however, for missionary translations and teaching of literacy. Māori evidently found it satisfactory for they used it effectively from the late 1830s, but their writing suggests that a more accurate alphabet might have resulted had the missionaries worked with them in refining it. Nineteenth- and 20th-century writing shows adjustment to the orthography, a claim to accuracy and pride in dialect. In a transcription and translation of Te Kāhui Kararehe's late 19th-century writing (1993), Ailsa Smith notes that he resisted convention and wrote in the characteristic sounds of his Taranaki speech. Evidence that much writing was done last century is suggested by (little used) attempts to abbreviate it to a shorthand, as described in Hicks's Maori Shorthand (1894) and H.W. Williams's A System of Shorthand for Maori (1896).

Summarising the history of Māori in 'The Maori language past and present' (1968), Bruce Biggs points out that the alphabet was deficient until vowel quantity was marked, for length of vowel sound can distinguish meaning. He remarks elsewhere that Māori introduced the double vowel to signify length as it occurs, although not consistently, in their 19th-century manuscripts. This is the one unresolved problem in what is otherwise a conveniently phonetic writing system. Nineteenth- and early 20th-century grammars and dictionaries experimented with different accents for long vowels, but in the 20th century the lack of accepted practice led to controversy as to whether vowel length should be marked at all, or by a double vowel or macron. As the language has come to be printed outside academia (where the double vowel was in vogue) the macron has been preferred. This has caused some typographical problems since not all fonts allow for it, and unsightly alternative diacritics have been used in some publications. It seems likely that in future the macron will be looked for in correct spelling of Māori.

Although accomplished readers of the symbols of art and landscape, Māori had had no form of alphabetic script and the transition of the oral language to a written form (in conjunction with the arrival of foreigners and colonisation) brought far-reaching changes to the content and traditions of language use which have yet to be fully documented. Two examples of change are neologisms and public access to traditional knowledge. Writing out the oral vocabulary did not alter meaning, but contact with Pākehā brought other words into it—either additional meanings were attributed to old words to signify new concepts and objects, or English words were transliterated to Māori sounds. Such additions, which may have originated orally, were reinforced in the literature. Another extraordinary result of writing was that traditional knowledge could be disseminated far beyond the reaches of a tribal audience. Access to oral or written texts may be circumscribed, by selection of an audience, by limited print runs. But it was a feature of Māori oral traditions to be closely controlled by the tribal group; with writing they could be communicated well outside its boundaries. Place names provide a case in point. Personal to and resonant of tribal life, they came to be spelled out on signposts, buildings, maps—the spelling and pronunciation of them becoming an issue of national debate in the 20th century. In recent times some tribes have refrained from published documentation of names which indicate sacred sites or resources.

Conventions associated with writing, and especially print, came with the orthography. For instance, consistency in spelling and punctuation, correctness in grammar, precision in word meaning, the layout of a written text—titles, chapters, paragraphing. In addition there were numbers, symbols and systems relating to money, weight, and time. Some of these had been specified in pamphlets and workbooks printed for missionary teaching and were apparent in published literature. But standards were made explicit, and served tuition in literacy and the progress of a literature, by grammars and dictionaries. These too were new to Māori, for the oral traditions did not record definitions of words or description of language components and structure. Both grammars and dictionaries could usefully be studied for their influence on usage, each providing evidence of its time, and bearing an authority which is often, though not always correctly, associated with print.

Clergy compiled the first published grammars and dictionaries; Māori were sometimes advisers. The first was Kendall and Lee's Grammar and Vocabulary (1820), the next the Rev. Robert Maunsell's insightful Grammar (1842). The Williams family's contribution to publishing the lexicon and grammar is remarkable: William Williams's 1844 Dictionary of the New Zealand Language and a Concise Grammar; several editions of W.L. Williams's important First Lessons in the Maori Language (1862); seven editions from the 1844 dictionary to H.W. Williams's Dictionary of the Maori Language (1971) which remains unequalled.

Dictionaries are also testimony to how the language has been used: most have been Māori-English, none all in Māori. The English-Māori lexicon was properly established with Biggs's 1981 Complete English-Maori Dictionary, and enlarged by H.M. Ngata's English-Maori Dictionary (1993)—the first compiled by a Māori and which records, without explicit intention, his Ngāti Porou dialect. This and other contemporary dictionaries emphasise the spoken language; new words appear in them many of which have long been used in speech, but print has not yet fully captured colloquial usage, transliterations, neologisms, and dialect.

The first Māori to produce a grammar was H.M. Stowell with the Maori-English Tutor and Vade Mecum (1913). In the 20th century, linguist Bruce Biggs produced the influential Let's Learn Maori (1969), which became the first grammar in Māori when translated by Cleve Barlow (1990). It is a sign of language loss rather than of use of literacy that there is no other grammar in Māori. In the 20th century Māori published grammars with the aim of assisting language learning. Māori had declined as a first language as a result of colonisation's impact—government policy from 1867 that teaching be in English; the move since the 1950s by Māori away from their tribal communities where the language and oral traditions were habitual, to towns where English and literacy predominated. Print, which at least by association with colonisation had contributed to the decline of Māori, was paradoxically used as an essential medium of instruction to revive it. Indeed it might be argued that a recurring, sometimes sole, reason for Māori using print has been for survival—linguistic, political and cultural survival. Māori compilers of 20th-century language tutors added a new dimension in recording dialect (previously incidental in grammars) simply by using their own language, as in Hoani Waititi's Te Rangatahi series (1970) and Tīmoti Kāretu's Te Reo Rangatira (1974) for Ngāti Porou and Tūhoe.

The reduction in use of spoken and written Māori over a long period is indicated by the purposeful creation in the late 20th century of a vocabulary for inventions, technological, scientific, and legal terms. The Māori Language Commission (established by statute in 1987 to promote use of the language) created some 5,500 words by attribution of new meanings to old words and transliterated borrowing from English, published in Te Matatiki (1996). Despite common use in 19th-century writing, where possible the Commission avoided transliterations. Other registers of vocabulary are concordances, of the Bible by Barlow (1990), and of two classics of Māori oral literature by Harlow, A Name and Word Index to 'Nga Mahi a nga Tupuna' (1990) and, together with A.H.F. Thornton, A Name and Word Index to 'Nga Moteatea' (1986). These, a very studied use of print, will serve scholars and, like the grammars and dictionaries, may help the language survive, at worst only in print.