When I was a wee boy, and that’s many years ago, radio broadcasting in New Zealand was dominated by the state. The announcers were required to speak with ‘received pronunciation’, which is an accent endemic to parts of southern England. It was how educated, cultured people were supposed to speak. Too bad if you spoke with your New Zealand accent. Announcing was not for you. That barrier to freedom has been largely, but not completely, overcome and I think we are prouder and happier for it.
However, that cultural domination is being replaced by another, this time based on ethnicity, not perceived social class. I refer to the pronunciation of Maori place names.
The ‘received pronunciation’ of today is the purportedly correct way of pronouncing the names. So, when was this decided and by whom? Te reo Maori became an official language of New Zealand in 1987 and it is likely that the new received pronunciation was developed after that event by the Maori Language Commission, a Crown entity.
When words are transformed from one language to another they can be as a direct translation where ‘new’, for example, is translated to ‘xin’ in Chinese and ‘nouveau’ in French. ‘New’ has meaning in all languages. Another mechanism is transliteration, where the adopted word assumes a suitable phonetic equivalent. Thus the vegetable ‘roquette’ in French has become ‘rocket’ in English. ‘Treaty’ has become ‘tiriti’ in te reo, and ‘John’ becomes ‘Hone’. So how does this affect pronunciation of Maori place names?
Although te reo meanings and pronunciation varied widely throughout New Zealand prior to the early 20th century, the now received pronunciation of, for example, ‘Taupo’ is as expressed daily on national television and radio. When Europeans came to Taupo, the default name in English became a transliteration of how the original place name, Taupō-nui-a-Tia or more likely Taupō, sounded to them at the time. Thus the English language name became the transliteration ‘Taupo’ rather than “Great cloak of Tia", the translation.
Thus we speak and write a local version of English language that is peppered with transliterations from te reo Maori, and vice versa. The sad fact now is that when the English language word for a Maori place name is spoken, this is often construed as being disrespectful of Maori. An alternative opinion is that my language and my pronunciation are being disrespected. When I speak English I pronounce the words, transliterated or otherwise, in my way, in my accent developed from childhood. If I were speaking te reo, especially to a Maori audience, I would make an effort to use the new received pronunciation. But I am not speaking te reo. I am speaking New Zealand English.
The current received pronunciation of Maori place names mixed with English in New Zealand broadcasting is no doubt dictated for noble reasons, but the cynic could say that during the recent Maori Language Week, this phenomenon has become an orgy of virtue signalling. We are being exhorted to speak with the new received pronunciation.
Where to from here? I think we all should reject cultural cringe. If you want to speak with your accent, then speak it, whether it’s reo Maori or New Zealand English. Relax and be proud of who you are and how you speak.
Owen Young is an academic at AUT University