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The Early Journals of Henry Williams


InHenry Williams's journal, as in all the journals of the early missionaries, there are considerable variations in the spelling of Maori words. This, of course, was to be expected, since Maori was not a written language, and the missionaries had to learn it by listening to it. None of them was trained in the art of listening, and some had more natural ability than others. It would have been surprising indeed if there had been no variants as they endeavoured to set down accurately the sounds which they heard. In fact, the securing of an alphabet which gave reasonably accurate phonetic representations of the sounds heard in Maori speech was a long and slow process, and in the first years of Henry Williams's journals there is evidence of that process, e.g., in the use of the letters r and d, n and ng, and of the dipthongs ow and au.

Much work on the language prior to 1823 had solved some of the problems. Thomas Kendall made the first attempt in a book of 54 pages, published in Sydney in 1815: A Korau no New Zealand; or, the New Zealander's First Book. It was a courageous attempt, but Kendall did not have the technical knowledge to enable him to reach any real success. In 1820 he was sent to England in company with Hongi and Waikato, and with them spent two months with Professor Samuel Lee of Cambridge University, who from the material supplied to him compiled A Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language of New Zealand which was published by the Church Missionary Society in the same year. It contained a hundred pages of vocabulary, and, by means of the English alphabet, attempted with considerable success to represent the sounds of the Maori language. It laid a firm foundation for progress, and, although further study made some changes necessary, much is owed to the work of Professor Lee. The sound now represented by the letter r was given two symbols, r and d; and the sound now represented by wh was included in the symbol w. Lee's vocabulary included some forty words beginning with d, and many others where d is medial. The English alphabet can, of course, give merely a rough and ready phonetic representation of the Maori tongue, and remains a trap for the unwary. Nevertheless, it is useful and practicable.

The achievement of Professor Lee found its testing in the work of recording and understanding the Maori language after 1820. The Church Missionary Society's missionaries gave very close attention to this task, and, although most of the credit of their achievements has been given to the Rev. William Williams and to the Rev. R. Maunsell— both scholars of the highest rank—it should not be overlooked that all page 481 the C.M.S. missionaries, especially in the 1820s, were involved in the task of recording and translating. William Williams and Maunsell were the undoubted scholars, but their success was largely due to the cooperation of the other missionaries and catechists.

By 1827 more of the difficulties had been solved. The phonetic symbol d had been dropped as an initial consonant, although it was still used medially. There were indeed two sounds represented by r, but d as a symbol did not represent the difference. In Henry Williams's journal there is evidence of the development of the conviction that r was the best symbol. For example, at first he spells Kedi kedi, later it becomes Ken Kedi, and later still Keri Keri; at first he spells Waikadi, and later it becomes Waikari.

He never uses the wh symbol, but uses w in all cases, e.g., wakawa for whakawa; wakaaro for whakaaro. There was, in fact, some considerable discussion over the use of the symbol wh, and finality did not come until much later. Maunsell, in his Grammar of the New Zealand Language, published in 1842, treats wh as merely a variant of w, “which has two sounds, one simple, as that in wind, &c.; wai, water, waka, a canoe, ware, a plebeian. 2. An aspirated w, as in when, where, &c.: whai, follow, whare, a house, &c.” But this does not satisfy him, for he adds a footnote: “The reader will observe that the author has deviated from the established usage, and occasionally introduced the wh into his pages. The fact is, he had not proceeded far when he found the simple w very inconvenient. There are multitudes of words in the language very diverse in meaning, spelt in the same way, and yet distinguished in speaking by the aspirated w. In some of the Polynesian islands to the northward, this sound is denoted by f, and such a practice is well worthy of attention. As for the remark that the simple w is desirable for simplicity, the author would observe, that, if by simplicity, be meant jumbling together things that are totally different, then Maori has to acknowledge its obligations to such a plan, for not only poverty, but simplicity. In a language so contracted in the range of its consonants as Maori, our object should not, the author conceives, be to abridge, but enlarge. Indeed, as the organs of speech, as well as knowledge, of the aborigines improve, there is little doubt but that an addition to our present characters will be necessary.”

It was thus becoming clear that there were two separate and distinct sounds covered by the one symbol w in Lee's phonetic scheme. The difficulty was to find a symbol which would adequately represent the second sound. Colenso favoured the symbol v; Maunsell, as noted above, inclined to f; Williams's Dictionary of the New Zealand Language in its first edition [Paihia, 1844] gave for this special sound the symbol 'w, i.e., an aspirated w, the prefixed comma presumably being copied from the symbol for the “smooth breathing” sound in the Greek alphabet. This symbol 'w was meant to signify a sound approaching that of hw in English. In the second edition of the Dictionary [1852] the wh symbol is accepted, but all the words beginning with it were listed under page 482 w; and in the next edition [1871] wh is listed as a separate symbol. It should be made clear that the symbol wh in Maori is not equivalent to the wh in English, nor, as is often claimed, to the English f. In forming the Maori sound there is no puckering of the lips as in the English wh, but it is created by making the lower lip approach, but never touch, the upper lip. It is thus nearer to the f than to any other sound in the English speech.

Some explanation is necessary of the use made in the journal of the high comma before the initial h; e.g. 'Hongi, 'Hokianga, &c., and occasionally before medial h; e.g., ha'hunga. This also reflects a stage in the orthography of the language. It is really a symbol of a variant of the Ngapuhi dialect, which can still be heard. It is a very similar sound to the shewa in the Hebrew language, which in English transliteration can be seen in the word qetal, where the vowel e is very, very short and the accent is on the last syllable. So the Maori sound can be represented by Hihongi for the normal Hongi. Early writers on New Zealand, endeavouring to reproduce this sound, almost invariably used the symbol sh, e.g., Shukeanga, for Hokianga, Shungi for Hongi. Professor Lee's Grammar takes note of this sound: “There is one peculiarity in the pronunciation of the New Zealand language which should here be noticed, and which could not be marked in the Alphabet. When two vowels concur, the combined sound becomes that of the English sh; ex. gr. E ongi, a salute, is pronounced Shongi, and so of every combination, in which the indefinite article e precedes a vowel.” The C.M.S. missionaries soon discovered that the sound was not a sibilant, and made various attempts to capture it in an adequate symbol. Hence it appears, first as, e.g., E'Okianga, later as 'Hokianga, and finally as Hokianga.

The consonantal sound now symbolised by ng caused early orthographers considerable trouble, and the sound still creates problems for English speakers learning to speak Maori. It should not do so, for the sound is used in words like singer. In Henry Williams's journal this difficulty is seen in his spelling of Napuhi for Ngapuhi, Natehine for Ngatihine, &c., although in other words he seems to experience no difficulty, e.g., ngakau, heart. It should be noted that the Maori ng is one letter only, pronounced as in singer. Europeans have two difficulties with this symbol. When it is used initially as in ngakau, they tend to pronounce it as nakau; when it is used medially, they incline to pronounce it as two separate letters, as in finger. For instance, they pronounce Kaitangata as Kai-tang-gata, whereas the correct syllabification is Kai-ta-nga-ta.

Vowel symbols also show variation in the journal, but most of these are due to an untrained ear. In the rapid speech of a Maori speaker, it is not easy for the pakeha ear to catch the difference between the short vowels e and i, or even o and u, and early attempts to catch the sound of au in the symbol ow are understandable. These and other page 483 variants from what are now accepted as accurate spellings are evidence of the growing-pains of the orthography of the Maori language.

In Maori orthography as in other matters, New Zealand owes a great debt to the C.M.S. missionaries from the time of Kendall on to William Williams and R. Maunsell. The thoroughness and the painstaking nature of their study of the Maori language laid foundations which have stood the test of time and much subsequent critical scholarship. From the praiseworthy achievement of Professor Lee's Grammar in 1820 to the Dictionary of William Williams in 1844 there was a remarkable advance in scholarship and in the understanding of the language. Nor did it end there. Much is owed to the work of Bishop William Williams, who published the first two editions of the justly famed Maori Dictionary, then of his son, Bishop William Leonard Williams, who published the third and fourth editions, and then of the latter's son, Bishop Herbert William Williams, who published a fifth edition. Finally, a sixth edition was published in 1957 by a committee of Maori scholars under the auspices of the Polynesian Society. Maori is still a living language, and there are learned men who continue to study its intricacies even as they appreciate its beauty of sound and expression.