FAQ about the Māori Language

Q1. Where is Māori spoken?

A1. Mainly in the North Island of New Zealand, in particular in the far North, Central & Eastern areas of the North Island where sizeable populations of Māori are found. There are a number of speakers of Māori in all the main urban centres of New Zealand. All (adult) Māori speakers can also speak English.

Q2. Were other languages spoken in New Zealand prior to European colonisation?

A2. Before the 1800s Māori was the only language spoken throughout the North Island and South Island of New Zealand. However, another separate, yet closely related language, Moriori, was spoken in the Chatham Islands to the east of New Zealand [though the Chatham Islands are now politically part of New Zealand].

Moriori is now extinct and has not had any native speakers since the 1930s (though the language has been recorded reasonably extensively in written form).

Q3. How many people speak Māori?

A3. There are varying estimates. A national census undertaken in 2013 suggests there were approximately 125,000 speakers of Māori (around 21 % of all Māori and around 3 % of all people living in NZ). However, the survery Te Kupenga undertaken by Statistics NZ in 2013 suggests there were approximately 50,000 (11 %) Māori adults who could speak Māori well or very well. Many of the very fluent speakers of Māori were likely to be over 65 years old.

Q4. Is Māori related to any other languages?

A4. Yes. Māori is closely related to the language spoken in the Cook Islands (known as Cook Islands Māori or Rarotongan. Many people use Rarotonga to refer to the dialect spoken on the largest island in the Cook Islands group), Tahitian, and other Polynesian languages spoken in Eastern Polynesia.

Linguists agree that Māori is a member of the East Polynesian branch of the Polynesian Language group. These languages are a small group of the large and widespread Austronesian language family.

Q5. How many dialects of Māori are there?

A5. It is difficult to answer this question. Linguists generally state that there are 3 major dialect divisions: Eastern North Island, Western North Island, and South Island Māori (the latter currently has no native speakers). Within these divisions there is also regional variation, and within regions there is tribal variation. The major differences are in pronunciation of words, vocabulary, and idiom. A fluent speaker of Māori has no problem understanding other dialects of Māori.

Older speakers of Māori are more likely to speak Māori identifiable with a particular dialect or region. My observations are that a considerable amount of dialect mixing is occurring amongst younger speakers, especially those living in urban areas.

Q6. Has Māori influenced the English language spoken in New Zealand?

A6. Yes, there are many words in New Zealand English which have been copied from Māori. Some bird and tree terms are only known in English by their Māori names. Basic Māori greetings and important Māori cultural terms are known and used by speakers of New Zealand English. Some of these are given in my list of Māori words used in English.

Q7. Has English influenced the Māori language?

A7. Yes, there are hundreds words in Māori which derive from English.

Many believe that the Māori currently being used by younger speakers often shows considerable influences from English in terms of pronunciation, grammar (especially word order), and vocabulary usage.

Q8. Have any other languages influenced the Māori language?

A8. Not significantly, although there are a few words in modern Māori which derive from languages other than English, e.g., French, Hebrew, Latin, and Tahitian.

Q9. Is Māori difficult to learn?

A9. Basic conversational structures in Māori are not difficult to learn, though, as with all languages, there are aspects of the structure of the language which require more effort to learn as familiarity with the language increases. But Māori does not have the grammatical complexity that we find in some of the languages further afield in the Pacific to which it is related.

Today thousands of people speak Māori as a second language; these are mainly native speakers of English.

Q10. Is the Māori language taught in schools?

A10. Māori language is taught at pre-school level (ages 0 to 4) in kohanga reo (Māori language nests). According to the Ministry of Education in 2014 there were approximately 9,000 Māori children enrolled in 460 kohanga reo. There are other early childhood centres in New Zealand that operate in the medium of Māori (these are sometimes termed puna reo).

Māori language is taught at school level (ages 5 to 16) as a subject and also through Māori bilingual/immersion education programmes. Such programmes may exist as a separate stream in a school, or in separate schools which teach mainly through the medium of Māori and adhere to Māori values and protocols (these schools are term kura kaupapa Māori).

Māori bilingual/immersion programmes can be considered to be dual-language or two-way immersion programmes as their goal is to produce students who are fluent in both Māori and English.

In 2014 there were approximately 17,713 children (ages 5 to 16) were enrolled in Māori bilingual/immersion education programmes of over 50 percent instruction in the medium of Māori. As at 1 July 2014 there were 72 official kura kaupapa Māori and and 210 others schools offering Māori bilingual/immersion education.

All parents in New Zealand can send their children either to an English-medium school or a Māori bilingual/immersion programme, including a kura kaupapa Māori. Unfortunately, many parents do not have access to Māori-medium programmes.

Most of the major universities and technical institutes in New Zealand teach Māori.

Q11. Does Māori lack words for abstractions or for modern technology?

A11. Certainly not. Like other languages, Māori has plenty of words for abstract concepts of all kinds, and it has word-forming devices for creating new abstract words at will. Until recently, Māori did indeed lack a vocabulary for talking about things like physics, economics, and linguistics, simply because nobody had ever wanted to talk or write about these things in Māori. Today people do want to talk and write about these things in Māori, and so thousands of new words have been introduced into the language to make this possible. Most of the new and technical words in Māori have either created or collated by New Zealand's Māori language commission, Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori. Modern Māori can be used to speak or write about anything at all. For example, computer science has been taught at Waikato University through the medium of Māori, since 1993.

Q12. Is Māori an official language?

A12. Yes. Māori is an official language of New Zealand (New Zealand Sign Language is the other official language, English exists as a lingua franca). New Zealand citizens can request to be addressed in Māori in a court of law, and the court is expected to provide a translator (oddly, the proceedings will only be recorded in English). Most public services are available only in English. Some government departments will provide translations or Māori-speaking public servants on request. Key government documents, such as the national census and other documents of concern to Māori are usually translated into Māori.

Q13. Is Māori gaining or losing ground today?

A13. This is a difficult question to answer. There has been a continual increase in Māori language revitalization efforts since the 1960s. Many people have learnt Māori as a second language through universities, polytechnics, and other organisations.

There are no reliable data on the Māori language competency of graduates of Māori bilingual/immersion programmes and second language learners. It is unknown how many graduates of such programmes are continuing to speak Māori amongst themselves, to other speakers of Māori, and to their children.

Q14. How is the Māori language written?

A14. Māori is always written in a Roman script. Two digraphs are used, "ng" represents a velar nasal, and "wh" which is nowadays mostly pronounced like an English /f/. Vowel length in Māori is phonemic, i.e., vowels are either pronounced short or long. Early writing in Māori did not distinguish vowel length. Some (such as the late Bruce Biggs) advocated that the double vowel orthography be used to distinguish vowel length. The Māori Language Commission (Te Taura Whiri) prefer that a macron be used to designate a long vowel. Macron use is now wide spread in modern Māori writings.

Computer fonts with macrons (for both PCs and Macs) are widely used in New Zealand and readily available on the Internet. Unicode is becoming the preferred option for displaying macrons on web sites with Māori language text.

Q15. What literature exists in Māori?

A15. The first book written in Māori appeared in 1815. The first Māori language newspaper Te Karere o Niu Tireni appeared in 1842. Following this there were approximately 39 Māori language newspapers. Some were Māori owned and operated. Most had a very brief life. Missionaries began translating the Bible into Māori in 1814. The Māori Bible, known as the Paipera Tapu has been revised a number of times right up to the 1950s. There are also sizable numbers of 19th century Māori language manuscripts held throughout the libraries of New Zealand.

Since the 1960s there has a concerted effort to publish more Māori language materials. The publication of Māori language materials has accelerated in the 1990s due to the demand from students in Māori-medium education, and those learning Māori as a second language.

The only recent works of fiction in Māori have been short stories. Several novels by Māori authors (who write in English) have been translated into Māori. Alice in Wonderland is the only international novel that has been translated into Māori. The late Katerina Mataira is the only Māori author that has written novels in Māori, Makorea (2002) and Nga Waituhi o Rehua (2012).

There are some Māori language children's stories available as IPad (iOS) apps. More materials are likely to available for tablets and smartphones in the near future, along with online versions.

Q16. How do the Māori refer to themselves, their language, and their country?

A16. The Māori call their language either te reo Māori (the Māori language) or simply Māori . The word Māori means common or ordinary. It had been suggested that last century when foreigners asked Māori who they were they replied tangata maori which means ordinary people. The word Māori is now used to refer to both the Māori people and their language. There is no single word in Māori for a Māori speaking person or a non-Māori speaking person.

Before European colonisation Māori used several different words for the main islands of New Zealand. One word for the North Island is Aotearoa. The Treaty of Waitangi used the borrowing Nu Tirani for New Zealand, however this rarely heard in modern Māori. In recent times Aotearoa is generally used to refer to the whole of New Zealand. Some people in New Zealand would like the name New Zealand to be changed to Aotearoa. The terms Aotearoa/New Zealand and New Zealand/Aotearoa are sometimes used in New Zealand writing.

Q17. How is the plural of the word Māori written?

A17. Some people simply do not add a plural suffix -s when the word Māori is used in a plural context in written English, i.e., they use the word according to rules of Māori language. It is interesting to see this usage appearing in New Zealand government publications and it may be become a feature of New Zealand English. Others follow style guides or publishing house rules which insist that the plural suffix -s be added when the word Māori is used in plural context.

Last modified: 5 June 2018.

This page is Copyright © Peter J Keegan PhD, 2003-2018. All rights reserved.