FAQ about the Maori Language
A1. Mainly in the North Island of New Zealand, in particular in the far North, Central & Eastern areas of the North Island where sizable populations of Maori are found. There are a number of speakers of Maori in all the main urban centres of New Zealand. All (adult) Maori speakers can also speak English.
A2. Before the 1800s Maori 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).
A3. There are varying estimates. A national census undertaken in 2006 suggests there were approximately 157,000 speakers of Maori (around 4 % of all those living in NZ). However, the Survey on the Health of the Maori Language 2001 suggests there were approximately 29,000 (9 %) Maori adults who were very fluent speakers of Maori. Many of the very fluent speakers of Maori were likely to be over 50 years old.
A4. Yes. Maori is closely related to the language spoken in the Cook Islands (known as Cook Islands Maori or Rarotonga. 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 Maori is a member of the East Polynesian branch of the Polynesian Language group (see Jeff Marck's map of the Polynesian language group, in PDF format). These languages are a small section of the rather large and widespread Austronesian language family.
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 Maori (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 Maori has no problem understanding other dialects of Maori.
Older speakers of Maori are more likely to speak Maori 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.
Regional variation is a more accurate term to describe the current differences in Maori. I don't think the variation is sufficient enough to warrant the use of term 'dialect'.
A6. Yes, there are many words in New Zealand English which have been copied from Maori. Some bird and tree terms are only known in English by their Maori names. Basic Maori greetings and important Maori cultural terms are known and used by speakers of New Zealand English. Some of these are given in my list of Maori words used in English.
A7. Yes, there are hundreds words in Maori which derive from English.
Many believe that the Maori currently being used by younger speakers often shows considerable influences from English in terms of pronunciation, grammar (especially word order), and vocabulary usage.
A8. Not significantly, although there are a few words in modern Maori which derive from languages other than English, e.g. French, Hebrew, Latin, and Tahitian.
A9. Basic conversational structures in Maori 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 Maori 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 Maori as a second language; these are mainly native speakers of English.
A10. Maori language is taught at pre-school level (ages 0 to 4) in kohanga reo (Maori language nests). According to the Ministry of Education in 2006 there were approximately 9,493 Maori children enrolled in a kohanga reo.
Maori language is taught at school level (ages 5 to 16) as a subject and also through Maori 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 Maori and adhere to Maori values and protocols (these schools are term kura kaupapa Maori).
Maori 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 Maori and English.
In 2007 there are approximately 27,529 children (ages 5 to 16) were enrolled in some form of Maori bilingual/immersion education programme. As at 1 July 2006 there were 66 official kura kaupapa Maori with a total of 5952 students.
All parents in New Zealand can send their children either to an English-medium school or a Maori bilingual/immersion programme, including a kura kaupapa Maori. Unfortunately, many parents do not have access to Maori-medium programmes.
Most of the major universities and technical institutes in New Zealand teach Maori.
A11. Certainly not. Like other languages, Maori 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, Maori 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 Maori. Today people do want to talk and write about these things in Maori, and so thousands of new words have been introduced into the language to make this possible. Most of the new and technical words in Maori have either created or collated by New Zealand's Maori language commission, Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori. Modern Maori 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 Maori, since 1993.
A12. Yes. Maori 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 Maori 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 Maori-speaking public servants on request. Key government documents, such as the census and other documents of concern to Maori are usually translated into Maori.
A13. This is a difficult question to answer. There has been a continual increase in Maori language revitalization efforts since the 1960s. Many people have learnt Maori as a second language through universities, polytechnics, and other organisations.
There are no reliable data on the Maori language competency of graduates of Maori bilingual/immersion programmes and second language learners. It is unknown whether graduates of such programmes will continue to speak Maori amongst themselves, to other speakers of Maori, and whether or not they will speak Maori to their children.
A14. Maori 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 Maori is phonemic, i.e., vowels are either pronounced short or long. Early writing in Maori 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 Maori Language Commission (Te Taura Whiri) prefer that a macron be used to designate a long vowel. Macron use is now wide spread in modern Maori 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 Maori language text.
A15. The first book written in Maori appeared in 1815. The first Maori language newspaper Te Karere o Niu Tireni appeared in 1842. Following this there were approximately 39 Maori language newspapers. Some were Maori owned and operated. Most had a very brief life. Missionaries began translating the Bible into Maori in 1814. The Maori 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 Maori language manuscripts held throughout the libraries of New Zealand.
Since the 1960s there has a concerted effort to publish more Maori language materials. The publication of Maori language materials has accelerated in the 1990s due to the demand from students in Maori-medium education, and those learning Maori as a second language.
The only recent works of fiction in Maori have been short stories. Several novels by Maori authors (who write in English) have been translated into Maori. No international novel has ever been translated into Maori. Katerina Mataira is the only Maori author reported to have written a novel in Maori.
A16. The Maori call their language either te reo Maori (the Maori language) or simply Maori . The word Maori means common or ordinary. It is said that last century when foreigners asked Maori who they were they replied tangata maori which means ordinary people. The word Maori is now used to refer to both the Maori people and their language. There is no single word in Maori for a Maori speaking person or a non-Maori speaking person.
Before European colonization Maori 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 Maori. 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.
A17. Some people simply do notadd a plural suffix -s when the word Maori is used in a plural context in written English, i.e., they use the word according to rules of Maori 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 Maori is used in plural context.
Last modified: 22 October 2007.
This page is Copyright © Peter J Keegan, PhD, 2012.