I have become so sick and tired of the saturation of Maori on tv and radio that I’ve decided to make an effort to learn the language or the rudiments of it anyway. Instead of reacting with fury every time I hear a Maori word which makes the phrase unintelligible to me I’ve decided to teach myself.
It’s remarkably simple; when you’re saturated by a language it’s very easy to learn it as you’re exposed to it all the time. I can see now how people become bi-lingual in countries which promote two languages.
Did you know Te Papa was bi – lingual, or rather I should say it is Maori with English translation? On my walks along the waterfront I pop into it now and then and promise myself to learn 20 new words on each visit.
I’ve purchased Maori Made Easy by Scotty Morrison, which I warmly recommend and the Raupo Pocket Dictionary of Maori. The language is simplistic. There are no plurals; to indicate more than one noun you change the definite article, “te,” to “nga.” Of course we have irregular plurals, goose/geese, man/men, tooth/teeth, sheep/sheep and dozens more which have to be learnt by heart. There are, and it is incredible to me, really no tenses. Well, I should say that the verb does not change form. Tense is indicated by a particle attached to the verb; “kei te,” placed before for the present, “ka,” for the future, “I,” for the past and “kua,” for the present perfect. I was absolutely stunned when I discovered it. We have in English the distinction between the present simple and the present continuous, a habit vs something happening now; the past simple and the present perfect, a completed action and one on-going, eg., he went to the shops versus he has gone. We all know that the latter has not come back yet. Of course we have 150 odd irregular verbs in English where the past simple and the present perfect do not follow the -ed rule. Jockeys are notorious for not having mastered this; I don’t know how many times I’ve heard on Trackside TV, “the horse done well.” I don’t know how many exercises I’ve given my students in Germany or elsewhere to master this. Of course German and French have many tenses which do not overlap with ours; French has no present continuous tense which causes confusion to francophones trying to learn our language.
Leafing through the dictionary I’ve found that one size fits all. The preposition “a” means: and, until, of. These link words have very different meanings in English, and if you’ve ever tried to learn German you’ll find out the horror that are prepositions. I taught myself to read German about 25 years ago and studied the grammar, but mastery of prepositions eluded me. Of course the language has case as well as gender which makes it unsupportable for anglophones. English doesn’t have gender for nouns either, like Maori, but it does have gender for the pronoun which Maori does not; the word for he/she/him/her, subject and object pronoun is the same, “ia.”
The vocabulary is just as simple; it is based on compounding. So any institution which is based around a building has got “whare,” in front of it. So, “whare pikitia,” (pictures/cinema), “whare puni,” (camp/dormitory), “whare paku,” (scab/toilet), “whare takaporepore,” (gymnasium), “whare taonga,” (treasure/museum). As you can see we have words for these which come from Latin or Greek (and nearly all of them are the same in Romance languages) as the sources of our language are so much richer we can ring the changes. Of course we do have compound nouns as it is a feature of Germanic languages, of which technically, English is a family member, although a bit of a hybrid. In this context I mention, breakfast, newspaper, birthday, forecast but it is not as omnipresent as in German. If I gave you the word, “mutterscharf,” and asked you to guess the meaning of it without any prior knowledge of German you would probably say, female sheep ie., ewe. English has so many sources that it has taken that from Norse; Maori lived in isolation here for over 800 years which has contributed to the paucity of its language.
My vocabulary is growing because of the simplistic way Maori form words. Even by glancing at the dictionary during the TV adds I can find so many word patterns. For instance I wanted to know what, “reo,” meant in “te reo.” It means language, and in my dictionary underneath it was the word, “reorua,” which means bi-lingual. “Rua,” is the number two but in English we don’t say two lingual. We’ve drawn on another source for this number, Latin, which adds to the diversity of our language. I’m effortlessly learning dozens of new words each week as the components of one word are reproduced in another. Often from the context you can work out the meaning of the word even if it is not a compound, simply by recalling that Maori were a stone age, backward culture and had none of the amenities of civilization. I came across the word, “hoiho,” and guessed horse because it resembled the word but also by remembering that Maoris did not have any of them and so adapted the English word. I did the same mental gymnastics with, “taone,” and yes you’re right, it's our town.
The language is phonetic, unlike English which means that the same sounds are pronounced in the same way wherever they occur in a word. German is the same but not French. I can’t refrain from telling the amusing story of Aotouru who was brought to France from his native Tahiti by the explorer, Antoine de Bougainville during his tour of the world, 1766 – 1769. Aotouru was a trophy, paraded round Parisian society much like Omai was in London. However, the story goes he could not master French, became homesick and asked to be repatriated, despite being feted and petted by the aristocracy. It is almost comical really; one gets the impression that he was constitutionally incapable of reproducing any French sounds, that he could not render any of the words in the francophone arsenal and wanted to leave. It’s delightful to hear that not only Anglophones have insuperable difficulty with French vowels. Years ago when I was learning French I had to engage a tutor to give me private lessons in pronunciation only, because the sounds I made were so appalling.
So Maori is a phonetic language and it is also desperately pretty. The Maori word for Hamilton is Kirikiriroa which actually means bed of gravel, referring to the river which flows through the city. In English the words used sound so ugly that nobody would ever dare name a city after it, but in Maori it is exquisite. It reminds me that when I learnt that the French word for, rags, was, “chiffon,” I felt quite relaxed dressing down to go out when my clothes sounded like that. I’ll give you one more example to show what picturesque sounds this language makes. The word for yellow is, “kowhai.” We all know the tree with the beautiful bell – like flowers. Well, it has given its name to the colour; yellow almost sounds ugly in comparison. I’m making a valiant effort to master the pronunciation of place names which I haven’t respected in the past. So, I’ve mastered Tauranga and Raumati which are notoriously mispronounced, and I have learnt that Maori o is never, ever pronounced like the English one.
Linguists say that for a language to flourish it must have three assets. It must have prestige; French was a language of prestige and English has borrowed from it exhaustively over the centuries. The French linguist, Henriette Walter, who has written 18 books on the adventures of the French language says that 67% of words in English come from Latin or French. She also says that in the linguistic wars over the centuries Latin has won out because it is the bedrock of all Romance languages and has infiltrated others as well. It makes far more sense for New Zealanders to learn French than any other language. The second factor is it must have utility. English is the language of science, technology and business and has a global reach. French business schools teach in English because they know they won’t attract international students otherwise. Finally, and crucially, if a language is to succeed it must be an army on the march. So we have French in West Africa and other places because of the French colonial empire, Portuguese in Brazil, Mozambique and Macau, Spanish in South America because of their imperial past, and English in North America and the old white Commonwealth because of the expansion of Pax Britannica in the 19th century, not to mention countries in northern and western Europe and India where mastery of English is widespread and these speakers have to be included in any tally of the English language diaspora. Maori fails catastrophically on all three criteria; like the kiwi it is in danger of extinction.
So I advocate the studying of French at school not because it will lead to more students speaking it. It won’t because the take – up rate is so small; even for the minority who continue on to university it will never lead to a job. No, the reason why I advocate it is not for the language per se but because it will rebound on your English. When I was at VUW in the 1970’s there was a unit called French Reading Knowledge; I don’t know if it is still taught but it should be taught in schools. We should forget pronunciation because it is impossible but the grammar and vocabulary of French will make your knowledge of English swell. It’s not just finding the crossword clue, when you can’t think of the English word think of the French equivalent but also when you’re writing think of French when the synonym eludes you and you’re looking for, “elegant variation.”
There was a job advertised recently for head of all trade training in New Zealand; the prerequisites stipulated were fluency in TRM and full knowledge of Maori myths. It was absurd of course and we shouldn’t be surprised, but I’m happy to learn them because it will grow my vocabulary, but I wonder if they are of use to anyone else. I’d much rather learn about the gods of Greek and Roman mythology because these stories have spread around the world. I attach a short list I’ve made from my dictionary of Greek and Roman mythology. Achilles/Achilles’ Heel; Adonis (self-explanatory); Aphrodite (aphrodisiac); Atlas (atlas); Cassandra/Cassandra; Dionysus (Dionysiac); Eros (erotic); Hercules (Herculean and cleansing the Augean stables); the Muses; Narcissus (narcissistic); Oedipus (+ his complex); the Olympians (the Olympic Games among others); Pandora (& her box); Penelope (for a faithful consort); Sisyphus (Sisyphean); Tantalus (tantalising); Ceres (cereal); Cupid (cupidity) and hundreds more. The gods and their traits have morphed into words, metaphors and sayings describing their characteristics and appear in all Romance languages, Germanic and I suspect Slav. I often feel that promoting Maori culture at the expense of European is an attack on European civilization which certainly decreases the sum of knowledge in the world. Maori myths have no resonance outside New Zealand whereas those from the Ancient World have echoed around the globe for 2000 years and more after they were first told and written down.
Peter Bacos is a retired teacher living in Wellington, a self-confessed auto-didact with a love of history; he has had lengthy assignments in the UK, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.