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A Dictionary of the Maori Language

Preface to Fifth Edition

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Preface to Fifth Edition


Omitting the short lists of words given by Cook, Parkinson, Savage, and Nicholas, the first step towards a dictionary of the Maori language was the vocabulary of 100 pages published by the Church Missionary Society with the Grammar in 1820.* The material was supplied by the missionary Kendall, but it is to Samuel Lee, Professor of Arabic in the University of Cambridge, that the credit is due of laying the foundations of a satisfactory orthography, the only matter for regret being that he did not adopt single symbols for the letters now denoted by ng and wh respectively. The vocabulary is, naturally, very faulty in many respects, but has a real value for the student of the language.

Dr Evans, of the New Zealand Company, contemplated the publication of a grammar and vocabulary, which was announced as forthcoming in an advertisement on the back of Ward's Information Relative to New Zealand (Parker, London, 1839), but apparently never saw the light. It seems not improbable that the material collected by Evans was made use of by Dieffenbach in the second volume of his Travels in New Zealand (London, 1843), Part II of that volume being an essay on the language, with examples and translations, and Part III a grammar and dictionary. The latter, which occupies forty-four pages, gives no examples of the use of words, but includes a number of words not found in the earlier work.

In 1844 the Mission Press at Paihia issued the first edition of Williams's Dictionary, which had been ready for the press six years before. The actual dictionary consisted of 185 pages, many of the words being followed by illustrative examples. The second edition, which was printed in London, followed in 1852. This contained a large amount of new matter, including valuable contributions from Dr Maunsell, whose projected dictionary was abandoned owing to the loss by fire of his papers in 1843. There was also added an English–Maori vocabulary. The third edition, in 1871, by Archdeacon W. L. Williams, which was published in London, was printed at Jena. This made considerable additions to the vocabulary, and introduced a more scientific arrangement of the words, which has been followed in subsequent works. The fourth edition, printed in New Zealand, appeared in 1892, and differed from the previous edition only in the inclusion of additional words.§

* A Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language of New Zealand, London, 1820.

A Grammar and Vocabulary of the New Zealand Language, with a Collection of Dialogues and Songs. By George Samuel Evans, of Lincoln's Inn, Esq., D.C.L.

A Dictionary of the New Zealand Language, and a Concise Grammar; to which are added a Selection of Colloquial Sentences. By William Williams, B.A., Archdeacon of Waiapu. Paihia: Printed at the Press of the C.M. Society. 1844.

§ A reprint of the Maori–English portion appeared in 1915.

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The United States Exploring Expedition under Commodore Wilkes visited the Bay of Islands in 1840, and the volume of the report dealing with ethnology and philology was published by Horatio Hale, philologist to the expedition, in 1846. The author presents a Polynesian vocabulary showing a large number of words from many Polynesian dialects, including Maori. In dealing with the latter he uses many words not recorded in the first edition of Williams's Dictionary, which it may be assumed he had not seen, as he omits a number of words given in it which would have filled gaps' in his collection. It is said that only 500 copies of this work were printed, which may account for its comparative rarity. A reprint of the portion of the volume dealing with Polynesian linguistics would be a great boon to students, as Hale contributes, in addition to the vocabulary, some very illuminating chapters on Polynesian grammar, many of his observations showing a surprising grip of the subject.

In 1848 the Rev. R. Taylor brought out A Leaf from the Natural History of New Zealand.* This consists of lists of words under such headings as Animals, Birds, Fish, Tribes, Time, Houses, Diseases, etc., arranged in five parts, of which Part II is not indicated. The arrangement of the lists is somewhat promiscuous, and the matter contained in them in many cases unreliable, typographical and transcriptional errors being of very frequent occurrence. The plan of the work was undoubtedly good, and it has unfortunately exercised a sort of fascination over many students of the language, who have included in their lists of words strange forms which are due solely to the vagaries of this insidiously attractive little book.

Tregear's dictionary was published in 1891. It aimed at supplying the deficiencies of previous dictionaries, and at giving a complete conspectus of Polynesian words for comparison. It represents an immense amount of patient labour on the part of the compiler, who was handicapped by many serious difficulties, but is overburdened with a vast amount of material which is of little practical use to the average student of the language.

In 1865 the late Mr Colenso was engaged by the Government to compile a dictionary the aim of which was “to contain every known word in the Maori tongue, with clear unquestionable examples of pure Maori usage”. Mr Colenso had collected a considerable amount of material, and at once took up the work; but in 1870 the Government cancelled the engagement. A specimen portion containing the words under the letter A was brought out in 1898; and a careful study of this specimen shows that, in spite of his intimate acquaintance with the language, the author lacked many of the qualities requisite for success as a lexicographer.

While the subject of a Maori lexicon was before the House Mr A. S. Atkinson, a keen student of the language, addressed to the Native Minister a letter containing many valuable suggestions on the subject. Nothing seems to have been done towards giving effect to these suggestions. In the

* In 1870 a “new and enlarged edition” was brought out under the more ambitious title of A Maori and English Dictionary, This, while removing few of the defects of the original, introduced others hardly less serious.

page X meantime, however, Mr Atkinson worked systematically in collecting Maori words, and encouraged others to do the same, with a view to the material thus obtained being ultimately incorporated in a later edition of the existing dictionary.

On Mr Atkinson's death in 1902 his Maori papers were, at the suggestion of Mr Percy Smith, placed in my hands, with a request that I should use them for the Dictionary, and the following year the Government made a grant of £200 towards the expenses of an edition to be prepared under the auspices of the Polynesian Society. Since that date the Dictionary has made the first demand upon my spare time, but pressure of regular work made progress very slow, and the completion of the work would have been long postponed had not Sir Francis Bell, when Minister of Internal Affairs, proposed that I should be relieved of my ordinary duties for twelve months in order to devote myself entirely to the Dictionary. Under this arrangement a start was made with the printing early in 1915, and the whole of the copy was in the printer's hands in January 1916.


It is hardly necessary to say that the present edition contains a large amount of material which has hitherto not been available. Of the first importance were Mr Atkinson's papers already mentioned, which represent the results of many years of patient research by a master of the language.

The Cabinet placed at my disposal the manuscript of Mr Colenso's dictionary. This is still absolutely in the rough, its chief value being that it contains a large number of examples illustrating the use of words of all kinds, with references attached. The memoranda obtained from some of his Maori correspondents are also in many instances very helpful. But Mr Colenso's personal contributions are meagre and disappointing.

A stay in Cape Town early in 1906 gave me access to the unique collection of Maori books and manuscripts made by Sir George Grey which he had deposited in the South African Public Library.* The value of this material, which includes much supplied to Grey by the late Archdeacon Maunsell, is much enhanced by the fact that it was collected before his departure from New Zealand in 1854.

The most important contribution, in volume and in character, is that made by Mr Elsdon Best, whose intimate acquaintance with the Maori, coupled with the scientific method of his enquiries, gives to the results of his work a value quite unique. He not only supplied a very large number of words, new meanings, and examples, collected at first hand, but has also throughout the progress of the work constantly rendered invaluable assistance by advice and the prosecution of enquiries. In addition to the matter supplied directly for the Dictionary, free use has been made of his many

* A full account of these papers is given in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. xv, p. 175.

page XI articles in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, and other scientific journals, his opinion on the esoteric knowledge of the Maori being of the greatest weight.

The Rev. Father Becker, of Hokianga, sent a large and helpful list of words, collected chiefly in the northern part of the North Island. These words were often of the greatest assistance in elucidating difficulties.

Mr S. Percy Smith, though fully occupied with the work of the Polynesian Society, has, besides contributing lists of words, always been ready with encouragement and advice.

The late Dr Hocken kindly let me Dr Shortland's manuscript Maori papers, from which a great deal of valuable information was obtained.

Two other Maori scholars, also since deceased, Mr C. E. Nelson and Mr G. H. Davies, supplied long lists of words and useful information.

Mr A. H. Turnbull allowed me free use of books and manuscript matter in his valuable library.

Mr E. Tregear kindly placed at my disposal his dictionary and additional matter which he had collected since its publication.

In addition to the above, I have received contributions, less in volume, but often of the highest value, from a large number of correspondents, who will, I hope, not measure my gratitude by this very inadequate acknowledgment.

During the progress of the work I have had the advantage of the cooperation — in collection, investigation, and discussion* — of my father, whose knowledge and experience have frequently guided me to a sound conclusion. At the same time, in fairness to him, I must place on record that he has left in every case the final decision of a question in my hands, and where the result is at fault the responsibility is mine.


The problem of assimilating the material obtained from the various sources mentioned above has not always been a simple one. Forms and meanings of words had to be weighed carefully. The value of the authorities available was by no means equal. Many lists of words dealt with were deficient in illustrative examples; and in some cases, where these were supplied, the meanings proposed were not supported by the examples given. These defects have, in the absence of corroborative evidence, often necessitated the rejection of a word or meaning contributed by a correspondent.

There are various methods of ascertaining the meaning of a Maori word, any one of which used singly may leave an element of doubt, satisfactory results being obtainable only when it is possible to check one process by another. The most natural procedure is to enquire from an intelligent

* He also read many of the proofs.

page XII Maori of the older generation, or preferably from several such. But this course, now unfortunately seldom available, is not always free from the risk of error. Few Maoris can resist the temptation to oblige an enquirer rather than admit ignorance; and occasionally a Maori may, in all honesty, have been habitually misusing a word in his own tongue. Moreover, local usage in respect of words is frequently very curious and perplexing.

Another method is to make a careful study of similar words in Maori and in cognate Polynesian languages. A very limited experience of this method will force the conclusion that satisfactory results can be hoped for in only a comparatively limited number of cases.

A third way, of even more restricted applicability, is that of deducing a meaning from a comparison of a number of examples of the use of the word.

Finally, there is the plausible guess, which is frequently used by the translator, but should be rigorously excluded from a dictionary.

A considerable amount of work has been entailed by the necessity of ascertaining the primary or general meaning of a word, as distinguished from secondary or particular meanings suited only to certain contexts. There is still room for much further investigation on these lines.

The particles and prepositions have received careful consideration, and in many cases the articles dealing with them have been entirely rewritten.

The frequent use of metaphor in songs, proverbs, and even in prose has caused some words to acquire a figurative use, which has in some cases been noted; but to do so in every case is beyond the scope of a dictionary.

In a number of cases meanings are noted which have been evolved since the advent of Europeans; these sometimes illustrate the essence of the original meaning.

A number of words have been recorded for which no satisfactory meaning has been found. These are given, with examples of their use, in the hope that future students may perhaps find a meaning. The number of such words might have been further augmented; but in the case of poetry, and sometimes also of prose, there is often serious doubt as to the form of the word, and this doubt is materially increased when the example is taken from printed matter.

In a few cases it has seemed advisable to refer to forms which are undoubtedly misprints.

It was found necessary to draw an arbitrary line between what should and what should not be admitted into the Dictionary, and it may be well to indicate some of the classes of words affected. Proper names are not included; but instances occur of a natural object or phenomenon which is sometimes personified under its own name. The names of a large number of figures of what (string games) have been omitted, as in most cases the name simply indicates what the figure is supposed to represent. The names of stars and constellations as well as of months and of days of the moon have been admitted, as in many instances they afford interesting comparisons with cognate dialects. With regard to the days of the moon it will be page XIII found that there are some slight variations in different districts which may place any particular name a little farther up or down in the list. Consistency has unfortunately not been achieved in the treatment of the names of karakia and religious rites. It may be thought that too much space has been allowed to the names of varieties of flax, kumara, and potato; but a large number of these already had a place in the Dictionary, and it was not thought worth while to remove them. Many of these words are purely fanciful, or of limited local use: at the same time some are interesting, and, in the case of the potato, afford examples of the habits practised by the Maori in giving names, apparently of Polynesian form, to introduced objects.

In ancient songs, particularly in karakia, there are a number of words which it is now quite impossible to elucidate. It must be supposed that these words were formerly current in the language, but, used in later times by those who were unacquainted with them, they became mere abracadabra. Some were probably proper names, others distortions, unintentional or deliberate, of ordinary words, while in a great number of cases there is now doubt as to the correct form. Such forms have not usually been recorded unless some definite information bearing on the word has been obtained.

Arrangement and Typography

In view of the fact that all users of the Dictionary will be familiar with the order of the alphabet in English, that order has been continued. The dictionaries of some of the Polynesian languages place the vowels first, an arrangement which, while possibly more scientific, causes serious inconvenience to those who consult them occasionally.

Long vowels have been marked in the key words, and also, to avoid confusion, in a few examples. Unmarked vowels may be assumed to be short, or comparatively so, though with some of the vowels three or even more grades of prolongation may be detected in speech. In some words the quantity of a vowel may vary in different districts, and strange vagaries are practised in this respect in songs. There are in the Dictionary many words obtained from written matter, of which the true pronunciation has not been ascertained; in many of these the absence of a long mark is obviously no indication of the length of its vowels. Accents have not been marked; but it may be noted that the disyllabic character of the language tends to cause in utterance a stress on the first syllable of each normal disyllabic element of a word. This stress gives way to a strong accent on the first syllable of a trisyllabic word, but survives as a secondary accent in polysyllabic words. The causative prefix whaka is unaccented, and so also are the articles he, te, nga, the prepositions, the verbal particles, and the particle ko. The nominal particle, a, is ordinarily unaccented, but if used with one of the pronouns au, koe, ia, mea, wai, following a preposition, it carries the accent which disappears from the pronoun.

page XIV

Except in a few minor details the arrangement of words introduced in the third edition of the Dictionary has been adhered to. Of words similar in form but differing in the length of a vowel the longer form has been placed first. Each distinct main word is printed with a capital, words of the same form which appear to have sprung from different roots being differentiated by a roman numeral following the word.* Derived forms are printed with a small letter under their respective main words in the following order: first those formed by the reduplication of the first syllable of a disyllabic root, then those formed by disyllabic reduplication. In order to assist the student, derived words of the first form — e.g. papaku, from paku — have been printed in their alphabetical positions, with cross references to their respective main words. For the sake of uniformity this has been done even in cases where the simple disyllabic root form is not now found in use. Inflexional derivatives formed by prefixing the causative whaka or agent kai or by suffixing the termination of the verbal noun, are placed after the proximate forms from which they are derived. It must be stated, however, that it has not been deemed advisable to cumber the Dictionary with all the possible reduplicated or inflexional derivatives, the meanings of the majority of such forms being obvious from those of the parent words.

Variant forms of a word are usually given in their alphabetical positions, with cross references to the usual form, where the meaning will be found; in some cases the meaning has been given with the variant form as well. No attempt has been made to put on record all the variants due to the use of n for ng by Ngati Awa and Tuhoe, the substitution of k for ng by Ngaitahu, or the omission of the aspirate in Taranaki and Whanganui.

It is a matter for regret that it was not found possible to attain completeness in the indication of dialectic differences, a few only of the more important local peculiarities being recorded. Intercommunication between the different tribes, by obliterating niceties of dialect, has made the investigation of such niceties a matter of extreme difficulty.

Different meanings are dealt with in numbered paragraphs, the meanings being arranged according to their respective parts of speech. Meanings, whether of words or examples, are printed in italics, descriptive and explanatory matter being in roman type.

The genius of the language admits of the free combination of words in phrases which approximate to compound words, and it is difficult to formulate a rule for determining whether such a combination should be regarded as a single word or not, and whether or not the use of hyphens is desirable. The sense of such a combination is usually obvious from that of the component parts, but where a phrase has acquired a special meaning it is dealt with under one of its components in the paragraph which treats of the meaning most closely allied to that of the compound.

* It is by no means easy to ascertain the original root of a word, and it is not claimed that the divisions under this head are exact or final. In some cases different roots have probably been included under one word, and in others words derived from the same root may have been divided.

page XV

In previous editions a certain number of words were included which had been adopted from non-Polynesian sources, their foreign origin being indicated by the use of different type. It has been thought better to omit all of these. A number of the more important of these recent adoptions is given in an appendix, but no claim is made for the completeness of this list.* Completeness is, in fact, impossible; for, while we deplore the readiness with which the young Maori abandons a genuine word in his native tongue for some barbarous transliteration of its English equivalent, we realise that linguistic needs continue to arise, and must be met. At the same time the fact must be recognised that the occurrence of these words cannot be regarded as a symptom of linguistic decay. On the contrary, the power of enriching the language by the assimilation of exotic material is evidence of continued vitality. It is only when a language is dead that its vocabulary becomes absolutely fixed. The neglect of native idiom and grammatical form is a symptom of a far more alarming character. The study of words adopted spontaneously by the Maori is very interesting, such words often assuming forms which differ widely from such rigid transliterations as would be made by a European. It is by no means always an easy matter to recognise such a word and trace it to its origin. As examples we may mention matere, lookout at sea, from mast-head; kaihe, ass, from jackass; and taika, parti-coloured, from Tiger, the name of a piebald stallion presented by Waka Nene to Waka Perohuka, of Poverty Bay, in return for the famous canoe, Te-toki-a-Tapiri, now in the Auckland Museum.


An endeavour has been made to illustrate the use of words by examples drawn exclusively from genuine Maori use — legends, songs, proverbs, letters or other writings, and conversations. The adoption of this principle is not intended to cast a slur upon the many excellent translations into Maori which exist, but merely recognises the fact that the best of these, after all, only represent the usage of able European scholars. As a general rule the examples have been inserted without change, which accounts for the fact that in many cases words will be found in them which are recent adoptions of foreign origin. Where a choice has had to be made preference has, as a rule, been given to examples culled from printed works, as the reference will enable the student to consult the context. In the use of such examples the punctuation of the original has been freely disregarded, obvious misprints and errors of Maori orthography have been corrected, and in some cases a comparison with other versions in manuscript or print has suggested an emendation of the text — the latter most frequently in the case of songs.

In this connection it may be well to anticipate a question which is certain to arise, as to why more ample use has not been made of the voluminous

* My thanks are due to Mr W. Prentice for assistance in this division of the work.

page XVI works of the late John White. At first sight the six volumes of his Ancient History of the Maori might be regarded as a veritable mine of wealth for such a purpose as this, but a closer scrutiny necessitates a serious revaluation. In the first place, the Maori portion of the work bristles with misprints, many of which admit only of conjectural emendation. Another factor is the obliteration, in most cases, of accurate indications of the origin of his material. Where these indications are given, a comparison with the original will almost invariably disclose an unpardonable recklessness on the part of the editor.* This being his method of dealing with works previously published, small reliance can be placed on his fidelity in presenting matter which has come into his hands in manuscript. And as a translator he is, unfortunately, hardly more satisfactory. Even if we might concede the privilege, which some translators claim, of making a meaning for a word or passage when they cannot find one, we cannot recognise the right to a rendering unsupported by, or at variance with, the text a translator is professing to follow. His indulgence in these practices robs White's works of their value, and makes it impossible to accept his unsupported authority for the form or meaning of a Maori word.

Sir George Grey's published works, while open to some criticism, have proved invaluable, and have provided a number of examples out of all proportion to their volume. References are given to the first edition of his Polynesian Mythology, as the text is sounder than that of the second edition, which is also out of print. In dealing with songs from his Moteatea it has not been found possible to adhere in every case to his division of words.

Mr J. McGregor's Popular Maori Songs, with its supplements, has also been drawn upon for a number of examples, in citing which full use has been made of a list of corrections kindly provided by Mr McGregor himself.

The hope has been expressed that a translation would be given of all examples cited in the Dictionary, but, even if it had been possible to do so, it was felt that the benefit conferred would not warrant the great addition to the bulk of the volume. The translation has, accordingly, been given only in a few cases in which such a course afforded a further elucidation of the meaning of the word….

* As an example we give a passage selected at haphazard, which is stated in the preface to have been derived from Sir George Grey's Polynesian Mythology. Words omitted from Grey are given in italics, and words inserted by White in heavy-faced type. “Po iho ano, ao ake ano te ra, kua ka whakatika a Taranga, a kua ngaro whakarere ano ia i te whare i o ana tamariki, oho rawa ake nga tama, tirotiro kau ana, ka a kua mohio nga matamua, a ka pouri tonu taua tamaiti muringa, a Maui-potiki, e i hua ana e ngaro nei, kei te mahi kai pea, kaore, kei te tahuti noa atu. Po , a po iho ano, ka puta mai ano to ratou whaea, a kei te haka ano nga tama, ka mutu kau ano te haka, kua ka mea mai ano ki tana muringa, atu a Maui-potiki i tana whaea, “Haere mai ano taua ki konei moe ai, .” A a moe tahi ana a Maui-potiki i tana whaea, a ao rawa ake, kua ngaro ano tana whaea, ka tahi ia a Maui-potiki ka tupato ki te mahi maminga tonu a taua wahine, tana whaea ki a ratou, i ia po, i ia po, a ka tae noa ki tetehi atu tetahi po, ka moe tahi ano raua ko tona a Maui-potiki i tana whaea, me te tokomaha tokowha ano hoki a ratou e moe tahi ana ano i taua whare. Tangohanga Ka tangohia e te tama, Maui e hara kua riro te tu, me te maro-whaiapu o tana whaea, e hara kua ka huna e ia ka ngaro aua mea, tangohanga atu e Maui, kei te purupuru i te nga matapihi, i me te whatitoka, kei puta mai hoki atu te haeata o te awatea ki roto i ki te whare, kei hohoro te whakatika o taua wahine tana whaea i te pouritanga o te po, no na reira aia i tupatu ai tona ngakau ki te mahi i aua mahi nei."—(W. ii, 86; T. 12.) Further comment is unnecessary.

page XVII


In addition to the acknowledgments made above, I must express my indebtedness to my many Maori friends, particularly to the Rev. Mohi Turi, of Waiapu, who up to the time of his death was always ready to give patient and thoughtful answers to my innumerable questions….


In conclusion, the fact should be emphasised that much work remains to be done, notably up the Whanganui River and in the Waikato; while the more familiar fields are not yet fully exhausted. There must be many hundreds of genuine Maori words still unrecorded, and much further light may yet be thrown upon many of those already treated….

Herbert W. Williams.

Naurea, Gisborne,
16 June 1917.