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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays


In 'The Totara Tree' it is not always clear whether the characters are speaking in English or translated Maori: one would expect Uncle Tuna to use his own language. In other modern stories the Maoris speak in their own English. This is a difficult thing for a writer to reproduce, unless he has a good ear. It is too easy to slip into a preconceived illiterate English, full of 'py korrys' and 'e hoa'. And the Maori use of English is changing all the time.

Maori English has always presented a problem to the Pakeha writer, though it is increasingly less likely to. Baucke solved the problem by having his character in 'A Quaint Friendship'48 speak Maori and translating it page 61 into a sort of imitation Biblical English, which is nevertheless dignified and stands out against the stale poetry with which his own pretentious journalese is sprigged. Grace's Hone Tiki, Fussell's Henare Tikitanu and Lawlor's Horis all speak an illiterate English, which no doubt had some of its origin in actuality but had the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the impression that they were half-wits. Dick Harris in a preface to Lawlor's Maori Tales makes an apology that only half meets the objection:

Accurately to reproduce the phonetics of unlettered Hori endeavouring to express himself in English would be of no value save, perhaps, to the philologist, and would be a confusion to the many. How incomprehensible to the general reader such conscientious rendering would be is indicated by that distinguished authority on all matters pertaining to the Maori, Mr Elsdon Best. Mr Best, asked to give, as nearly as our alphabet will permit, the actual sounds that would be uttered by Hori in making such a simple statement as: 'I killed a sheep last night if you want to have it', gives this as his phonetic rendering: 'Ai kiri hipi rahe naiti e whiu ana hawhe'.49

I will quote one successful attempt to record a more modern Maori English. It is by Magdalene Giles in a story which appeared in a Canterbury students' publication in 1947.50 A fourteen-year-old Maori girl is talking about school:

Then one of the girls scream! Rick's after her, cause he finish his fight. He run slow, long, slow steps, cause he's very big—he's six feet two now, and he's only sixteen yet. There he's running after this girl, I know he won't stop, never stop, till he caught her, give her a real good hiding. So I sing out to Edna and Fanny and Annie Riwhi, we go after him. We soon catch him, manhandle him good oh, then we let him go, tell him that's what he get when he bully the girls. He clear off home up the hill.

A. P. Gaskell is also successful in reproducing Maori idiom in 'The Picture in the Paper',51 though one should realise that Sammy, the Maori who is speaking in this case, is also unintelligent:

Then one day it rain pretty hard. Plenty more rain next day too, so the flood in the river, eh? Muddy too and the water pretty swift. After school young Tuki he take his horse over the ford. All the kids say, 'Don't you go over that ford Tuki'. And he say: 'Too right I go over the ford'. They tell him to go over the swingbridge and leave his horse behind for tomorrow. So me and Miss in school doing sums and all the kids run in and yell, 'Tuki gone over the ford'.

This is a story of a Maori who, pleased that his picture was in the paper when he rescued the teacher from a flooded river, is just as pleased when his picture is in Truth after he has converted a car and smashed it. It is page 62 not much more than a more subtle picture of the comic ill-adapted Maori, and it would seem to be, for the writer, mainly an exercise in using Maori English.

48 William Baucke 1905.

49 Pat Lawlor 1926, p. 9.

50 Giles, Magdalene, 'School', Canterbury Lambs 2, 1947.

51 Gaskell, A.P., 'The Picture in the Paper', New Zealand New Writing, 1. Reprinted in Gaskell, The Big Game and Other Stories, the Caxton Press, Christchurch 1947.