Saturday, December 20, 2014

Mike Butler: Where not to drop your aitches

“H” or no “H”, what is the problem? The councillors of Wanganui/Whanganui all good and true on Friday voted 10 to 2 to support the name of their town having the “H”. A referendum in 2006 found that fewer than 3 per cent of residents wanted to change the spelling. Is this a case of yet another council being out of step with its constituents?

A quick look at history shows that settlers asked for the name "Wanganui" to replace the New Zealand Company name of Petre in a petition dated May 3, 1844, noting that the name “Petre” was “universally disliked”. (1)

The name Petre derived from Henry William Petre who first came to New Zealand in 1840 as director of the New Zealand Company of which his father, William Henry Francis Petre, the 11th Baron Petre, had been chairman.

The 1844 petition spelled the name “Wanganui”, although I did notice that my great grandfather who was a court interpreter in Wanganui at that time used both spellings on his letters, although he mostly omitted the “H”.

The word “wanganui/whanganui” means “great harbour". Before the wicked white coloniser came along renaming everything, Port Nicholson at Wellington was known as Te Wanganui/Whanganui a Tara, or The Great Harbour of Tara”.

In a nation less ad hoc than New Zealand, matters of language and culture are decided in a less partisan fashion. For instance France has L’Academie Francaise, a pre-eminent French learned body that rules on matters pertaining to the French language.

New Zealand appears not to take matters pertaining to the English language seriously.

The language is not even legally recognised as official even though it is the defacto language of government and business. Even Prime Minister John Key in his self-deprecating manner has joked that he would benefit from elocution lessons.

The “Wanganui/Whanganui” problem started in May of 2008 with an application by the blandly named Te Runanga O Tupoho, an iwi committee, to the New Zealand Geographic Board for the "H" to be added. (2)

As the national place naming authority, the New Zealand Geographic Board is required by law to consider proposals to assign, alter, approve or discontinue names for geographic features and places, including cities.

But Ken Mair was the spokesman for Te Runanga O Tupoho. Mair was one of the organisers of the 79-day occupation of Moutoa Gardens in Wanganui in 1995 in protest over a Treaty of Waitangi claim, an action which split the town and the nation and garnered significant attention from police.

District Mayor Michael Laws vehemently opposed the move and the “Wanganui/Whanganui” battle lines were drawn.

The New Zealand Geographic Board deliberated for 14 months. A district-wide referendum in May 2009, with more than 19,000 Wanganui residents voting, overwhelmingly rejected adding the H. (3)

After considering 180 submissions in September 2009 New Zealand Geographic Board decided that Wanganui should have an "H" added to its name.

The board opined that “Wanganui, the name given to the town to reflect its position near the mouth of the Whanganui River, was spelt incorrectly and has never been formally gazetted by this board or its predecessors. It is therefore not currently an official New Zealand place name.” (4)

However, a paper by historian Diana Beaglehole, commissioned by the Wanganui District Council, had concluded that Wanganui was the correct version. (5)

In the paper, Beaglehole found that Wanganui first began appearing in written form in the late 1830s. "The Wanganui spelling was a direct consequence of the way the initial sound in the name was pronounced by local iwi," Beaglehole said.

No early diaries or journals had any references to the Whanganui version of the name, she said.

“H” proponents parrot stirrer Mair's line that it was important the spelling be changed to "Whanganui" because "if people continue to spell your name wrong, you would want to rectify the situation". But the increasingly forced change has brought a costly headache for every organisation that must change signs and stationery and created windfall business for sign writers and printers.

It has also brought bizarre pronunciation. If the “H” is included, “Whanganui” needs to be pronounced with an aspirated “wh” as in the word “where” or “why”. What we have is attempts at correctness resulting in “Whanganui” being pronounced “Fonganui”.

An amendment to the Geographic Board Act 2008 passed in December 2012 enabled either “Wanganui” or “Whanganui” to be used in official documentation, no longer both names.

The latest squabble over the “H” coincided with Wanganui/Whanganui being referred to as a zombie town, falling behind the rest of the country in economic factors, and possibly nearing its end.(6)

Stirrer Mair could be rubbing his hands with glee at the mayhem he has caused. Suggestions from him to benefit his town would be more helpful.

One question: If the New Zealand Geographic Board can call for submissions and change the name of a town could it also change the name of New Zealand to "Aotearoa New Zealand" or just "Aotearoa"? Apparently not! A question to the board revealed members were unsure how the name of New Zealand could be changed.

1. Petre, Wanganui, or Whanganui,
2. Laws digs in over putting 'h' in Wanganui,
3. Wanganui to become Whanganui, September 17, 2009.
4. New Zealand Geographic Board to publicly consult on ‘h’ in Wanganui, March 30, 2009. - 5. Wanganui to become Whanganui, September 17, 2009.
6. Talk of zombie towns rejected, July 19, 2014.


david said...

Its very sad. I wouldn't mind so much if people did pronounce wh as an aspirated w. I am sure that was the intention. Instead it will not be long before whanganui joins whangerei and whakatane to have its name garbled by the well meaning but poorly advised. You realise that the Wanganui river was one of the last places where spoken Maori survived. So their pronunciation is more likely to be authentic than the synthetic language promoted by those trying for its reintroduction. I recently noted a Northland woman commenting similarly- her ancestors never lost the language and they prounonced whangerei as it is spelt. She too wondered where the f came from. It is clear to me that at least some of the canoes pronounced wh as w' and that's what the missionaries recorded. Other canoes may have used f. After all, Tonga and Samoa have fale when we have whare, fafine when we have wahine. Another hate is the mountain town of Ohakune - my pronunciation was 'corrected', it should, I'm told, be O -ha kune. But my Maori dictionary gives Owha as an alternate spelling to Oha. And Owha with an aspirated w is the way we always used to pronounce it before the academics got in the act. The most absurd is para para u mu. My Maori teacher called it para parau mu - which rolls much nicer off the tongue (and by the way is much closer to how we used to say it. But I have been told that can't be right because Maoru doesn't have compound vowels. In which case that South Island town where they fatch fales is Kai ko ura maybe? Back to Wanganui, if Ken wants the H to be recognised but doesn't want people to wh.. up the pronunciation, the best suggestion I have heard is W'anganui - for both the town and the river.

Anonymous said...

Zealand , as in New Zealand, is a meaningless name too. It should be ZEELAND -- after the Dutch province whence Abel Tasman came. Either that or SEALAND -- the English translation.

racheal_storm said...

My Mum was born in Wanganui and her birth certificate shows Wanganui.
My parents were married in Wanganui and their marriage certificate shows Wanganui on it.
My Mum went to school in Wanganui.
My Grandfather was a lay preacher in Wanganui and managed the Wanganui Greyhound buses for a time.

I have no problem if Maori wish to show an 'H' in the spelling when they use it but I do have a problem with them dishonouring my families past. Basically they are saying all my history is wrong.

The council are dishonouring my family also. Will the council be going through all their records and changing history to suit a few? At what cost to their ratepayers?

If people say 'Whanganui', I know where they mean and thats fine. Just as they know where I mean when I say 'Wanganui' and I shall continue to use 'Wanganui' as that has meaning to me and my family.
It is wrong to force this change upon all to satisfy a few.

'Whanganui' and 'Wanganui' are English words, not Maori, so they cannot claim it is how it should be spelt.

Ray S said...

Quite right and well put Racheal.
Changing history to suit few is rampant at the moment. Can we change things? not with words I fear.

paul scott said...

Good tidings for new year 2015 Mike, thanks for your articles during this year

Anonymous said...

Your wrong Butler, Given that Pakeha settler is a short history here. Its amazing that note is taken of writings and spelling of Maori words only go back a mere 170 odd years. Historical periodicals and books were often full of miss-pronounced. Thus as happened, a seemingly casual attempt to spell a word many Pakeha could barely pronounce. Wh as in far, not fong.....Whangarei pronounced Far-naah rei as in ray. Whanganui sounds like Far naah nuii. Throughout Pasifika the Wh sound is heard. Note that the Islands spelt by early Europeans with an F pronounced as heard in the English word far. Its a great pity that hard of hearing early settlers didn't do the same for the Maori Reo..... far out ne! as in near not nay.