Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Owen Young: The new ‘received pronunciation’

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


Anonymous said...

Good to see an academic from AUT speaking out. One thing that concerns me is the way we are being told everyone (but for you) is madly studying te reo. False feed back from the state.

Kiwi Sapper said...

"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."

SOOOOOOOOOOOOO true and a view I have held for many years. It seems to me that "Maori" are the New Gods and can do no wrong whilst we poor fallible non Maori are the cause of ever fault in this world.

Unknown said...

Dear Sir, thanks for your thoughts on this topic, I have had this debate with a number of my friends. I take issue because we have three accepted languages in this country and I speak New Zealand English as a proud New Zealander. I have no issue with anyone who wishes to pronounce place names as they see fit. I am proud of my heritage and only wish New Zealanders were acknowledged in the same way we acknowledge every other race. I am tired of being referred to as a European or Pakeha both of which are offensive to my heritage as a New Zealander. So yes I will continue to be proud of my language and am pleased that you have given considered thought to the subject.

Anonymous said...

It's virtue signalling and yet another facet of the Control/Left fascism. I have to wonder - since the FIRST to actually write this primitive language, the early settlers and missionaries, were recording the pronunciation of the time whether their version is more 'correct' than that which the commissars are trying to impose. In any case, surely it is most unlikely that all Maori(part or full blooded)throughout N and S islands pronounce words the same.
Aunty Podes.

Peter Maxwell said...

The pronunciation of Maori may be problematical, but the real cringe comes when we listen to our senior politicians.

Our Prime Minister believes it, ‘..vidal to address child poverdee.”… while the Leader of the Opposition says, “O’m not shore aboud thet.”

The language is being massacred by politicians and news broadcasters alike. If we don’t turn this around we’ll end up with worse accents than the Aussies, currently the laughing stock of the English-speaking world.
We need to resolve this - it’s impordind!

Empathic said...

One could say that it's disrespectful to the English language for Maori to make up words in Maori, often in a degraded English, for things that did not exist pre-Europeans. For example, 'pukapuka' for book, 'wira' for wheel, 'kuini' for queen and 'motoka' for car. Same for the way that many Maori pronounce English words, such as 'pronounciation' instead of pronunciation, 'youse' instead of you all and 'aks' instead of ask. But who cares? We speak using the sounds we learned during critical periods in early childhood and in accordance with our own cultural norms. One has some sympathy for Maori concern to protect some claimed integrity of te reo in the country it's from, but perhaps that's for them to practise and model rather than to criticize and demand. Mutual tolerance is as important as mutual effort.

Rochelle said...

Peter Maxwell is so right/correct.
I find it difficult to listen to many politicians and announcers: proply, Februry, twenny, twenny-one etc. It is painful. T's, D's cann be enunciated at other times or places within words. It is so very uncaring and lazy. It is sad that the best spoken English is from those for whom it is a second language, [especially from Africa].
I am, happy to pronounce "received" Maori when I use it. I try to speak French, German, Greek, Italian, Russian as it is spoken by educated citizens of those countries [I learned French and German etc at school, Greek by myself and the others frorm Opera, some reading, Latin etc] .. it is a courtesy, and makes my hearing of my word-sound more pleasurable.