A Few Words About the Maori Language

I hadn't meant to learn anything about Maori, but our trip to New Zealand convinced me that it's the perfect language for the serious student or the casual tourist, and here's why.

As noted elsewhere, one of the great things about a New Zealand trip is that the exotic (least to us Americans or Europeans) is always easily accessible, yet the familiar is within reach as well. For the idle visitor, Maori is ubiquitous in place names but is never required for communication, so curiosity is not hampered by anxiety. For someone interested in the way that language works there are features not encountered in the commonly taught languages, several similarly well-documented cognate languages, a resurgence of cultural interest, and a very attractive part of the world in which to do research.


Maori pronunciation is very simple, but it is important not to learn any bad habits early on. Two of the consonants are written as double letters in a way that may confuse an English speaker. "Wh," though Armstrong suggests that it may have originally been an aspirated "w," is now pronounced as an "f;" and in fact the classy way to do it is by blowing through the two lips held slightly apart: "ph." More difficult to remember may be "ng," which does NOT contain a stop: say "ink" slowly but leave off short of the "k." Or say "bring," and, if you are from Long Island, pretend that you are not. Ongaonga (the native nettle) does not have a "g" in it anywhere. There's not really an "n" either: the tip of the tongue stays down behind the lower teeth. The big hazard with "ng" is to read the "n" as ending a syllable and the "g" as starting the next, but in truth every Maori syllable ends with its vowel.

There are only about eight other consonants: p,t,k,h,m,n,r and w. No voiced stops. Hawaiian "l" becomes "r;" Tahitian "f" becomes "wh." Vowels are single, no diphthongs, all five of the vowels as written in English are used, and they are either short or long (actually referring to time). Length is represented by doubling the letter or (better, to avoid confusion with successive similar vowels) writing a bar above it, and length is quite determinative as to meaning: the same word with long or short vowel means two VERY different things (not surprising for a language with few consonants). The name of the language should be written "Maaori," but a few liberties have been taken. Stress is exclusively on the first syllable, except in a few cases where that syllable is a prefix.


Again, a small number of sounds have to convey all the meaning, so word order is important as it is in English. Verbs (if present at all) precede subjects, and confusingly similar particles indicate tense, mood, number, relationships etc. depending strictly on their place in the sentence.

Our notion of "parts of speech" begins to break down here. "Work" can be either a verb or a noun in English; in Maori that's typical of all actions. A word is an adverb or adjective depending not on its form but what it describes.

Grammar is the only place where Maori exhibits any potential difficulty, and the tourist trying to understand greetings and a few place names will scarcely notice.


It is here that the student who has not encountered Polynesian before may become fascinated. Maori is rich in ways of expressing relationships between and among people and things.

Many will not have squarely met a dual number before, although European languages often bear traces of it. Maori has a singular (one person or thing) a dual (two people or things) and a plural (not one or two, but three or more people or things).

Furthermore, there's a very useful mechanism to express whether the listener is included in that group. If I say to my neighbor, "We're going out to dinner tonight," he may briefly think that I mean to treat him to supper, when what I actually mean is that my wife and I will be eating out. The Maori speaker inevitably indicates "you and I" (taaua) or "someone else and I" (maaua); or "some of us including you" (taatou) etc.

The aspect of Maori which is likely to be most striking is its awareness of possession and control. When I say "my hometown" I don't mean that I own it exclusively, but when I say "my toothbrush" I most certainly do. Maori has no verb "to have," but it has prepositions that indicate possession or association, and they make the distinction between "to have with" and "to own." Spectacularly, the latter form varies depending on whether you have authority, control or influence over the person or thing owned, or whether he she or it has authority, control or influence over you. Your father and your son are spoken of with different possessive particles for this reason. Maori goes on to indicate whether possession is permanent or may be temporary.

Maori's Future

As mentioned, you don't really need to know any Maori to enjoy a trip to New Zealand. This is a convenience for the tourist, an interesting fact for the linguist, but perhaps perplexing for the person of Maori ancestry who may greet you there.

In 1950 it was estimated that half or possibly three quarters of Maori children in Maori schools spoke Maori; by 1980 that figure was perhaps five percent. Recently the language has been used less because of attrition but taught more because of a recognition of its historical importance. Knowledge of the language is a strong badge of cultural identity in New Zealand, and its prospects and the feelings surrounding it are best analyzed in terms of the country's politics.

Maori on the Internet

There's plenty of information about Maori in the Web. Here are two good ones: Peter J. Keegan's Maori Language Web Pages; and an official site: te Reo Maaori.

Further Reading

The book the tourist is likely to encounter in the souvenir shops is "Say It In Maori," a slim volume "compiled by" Alan Armstrong and containing two word lists and some striking color photographs. It's published by Seven Seas Publishing, PO Box 152, Paraparaumu, New Zealand.

The standard work on the subject is H.W. Williams' Dictionary of the Maori Language, first published in 1844, but greatly re-edited and published in a Seventh Edition in 1967. GP Publications, Wellington.

The foregoing is a Maori - English dictionary only. If you hope to generate any Maori yourself, you're going to want "The Complete English-Maori Dictionary" by Bruce Biggs (Auckland University Press 1981). All the words in the Williams dictionary are here under their English equivalents, plus loan words and some others.

"He Whakaraarama, A New Course in Maaori," by John Foster; Reed Publishing, Auckland, 1987. A pleasant, thorough, logical introduction to the language. "Whaka," to cause to be, plus "maarama," light, clear, easy to understand, = "an explanation," eh?