I have a most interesting book entitled Richard Taylor: Missionary Tramper, published by A.H. and A.W. Reed, written in 1966 by A.D. Mead who also wrote Wanganui River (1957). I quote from his introduction, “One source of variation was due to dialect; in particular the aspirate h, whether by itself or in the combination wh, was fully sounded only among the Ngapuhis of North Auckland; further south it was either lightly sounded or almost suppressed…”
I see four reasons not to change “Wanganui” to “Whanganui”.
- As seen in this quote the pronunciation varied from place to place.
- The translators at the time were generally learned men, skilled in language acquisition and in translation. They wrote the language as they heard it. It would be an affront to their ancestors to now state that these expert linguists “heard it wrong”. The reason they wrote the word “Maori”, for example, one would logically assume was because that’s how they heard it.
- Anyone can say almost anything any way they want to, within reason. It’s generally a free world in that sense. It just works better when there is a standard pronunciation. But it can’t be legislated because language changes - we all play around with it. If some people want to say (phonetically) “fakatane” for Whakatane then that’s fine, let them say it. I prefer the “lightly sounded” version, and I think from what Mead states it’s probably more authentic, assuming we all want to be authentic. I am used to “fitianga” as pronunciation of Whitianga because that’s what I grew up with, but it’s probably not authentic, the “lightly sounded” one being more so. Again, a standard pronunciation makes sense because it makes understanding easier. And if there were variations when it was first written, it should be no problem to have variations now in our pronunciation, but stay with the original spelling, because it was most likely the closest rendition? If we do not legislate for English spelling then why for Maori?
- My fourth point is that Europeans brought with them the means of writing a language, i.e. an alphabet. In a sense they “hold the patent”. Maori didn’t see the need for a written language and thus never developed one. Europeans came along and gave them one. Perhaps an argument could be made that the Europeans should therefore have the first choice on the spelling! If there is a radical error somewhere then that could be corrected but I suspect that 99.9% of the time any “errors” are insignificant. Several consonants are of course not in the European repertoire of sounds, the harder “r” and the “ng” at the start of a word being examples. It’s totally appropriate that people try to get the sound correct in a word such as “Ngatea”. But as a teacher of language I am aware that there is always a reasonably significant section of the population who will always struggle with a sound that is not part of their native language, or not bother to struggle with it at all, opting for the closest or easiest sound (such as the above becoming simply “Natea”) and it is by no means limited to only non-Maori.
Guy Steward is a teacher, a freelance writer and a beginner on the bagpipes.