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About Maori Language

Māori or te reo Māori (pronounced [ˈmaːoɾi, te ˈɾeo ˈmaːoɾi]) commonly te reo ("the language"), is the language of the indigenous population of New Zealand, the Māori, where it has the status of an official language. Linguists classify it within the Eastern Polynesian languages as being closely related to Cook Islands Māori, Tuamotuan and Tahitian; somewhat less closely to Hawaiian and Marquesan; and more distantly to the languages of Western Polynesia, including Samoan, Tokelauan, Niuean and Tongan.

Official status

New Zealand has three official languages — Māori, English and New Zealand Sign Language. Māori gained this status with the passing of the Māori Language Act in 1987. Most government departments and agencies have bilingual names, for example, the Department of Internal Affairs Te Tari Taiwhenua, and places such as local government offices and public libraries display bilingual signs and use bilingual stationery. New Zealand Post recognises Māori place-names in postal addresses. Dealings with government agencies may be conducted in Māori, but in practice this almost always requires interpreters, restricting its everyday use to the limited geographical areas of high Māori fluency, and to more formal occasions, such as during public consultation.

An interpreter is on hand at sessions of Parliament, in case a Member wishes to speak in Māori. In 2008, Opposition parties held a filibuster against a local government Bill, and those who could recorded their voice votes in Māori, all faithfully interpreted.

A 1994 ruling by the Privy Council[3] in the United Kingdom held the New Zealand Government responsible under the Treaty of Waitangi (1840) for the preservation of the language. Accordingly since March 2004, the state has funded Māori Television, broadcast partly in Māori. On 28 March 2008 Māori Television launched its second channel, Te Reo, broadcast entirely in the Māori language, with no advertising or subtitles. In 2008 Land Information New Zealand published the first list of official place names with macrons, which indicate long vowels. Previous place name lists were derived from systems (usually mapping and GIS systems) that could not handle macrons.


According to legend, Māori came to New Zealand from the mythical Hawaiki. Current anthropological thinking places their origin in tropical Eastern Polynesia, mostly likely from the Southern Cook or Society Islands region, and that they arrived by deliberate voyages in seagoing canoes — possibly double-hulled and probably sail-rigged. These settlers probably arrived by about AD 1280 (see Māori origins). Their language and its dialects developed in isolation until the 19th century.

Since about 1800 the Māori language has had a tumultuous history. It started this period as the predominant language of New Zealand. In the 1860s it became a minority language in the shadow of the English spoken by settlers, missionaries, gold seekers, and traders from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. In the late 19th century the colonial governments of New Zealand and its provinces introduced an English-style school system for all New Zealanders, and from the 1880s the authorities forbade the use of Māori in schools (possibly at the request of Māori leaders, who appreciated the value to their young people of fluent English — see Native Schools). Increasing numbers of Māori people learned English.

Until World War II (1939–1945) most Māori people spoke Māori as their first language. Worship took place in Māori; it functioned as the language of Māori homes; Māori politicians conducted political meetings in Māori; and some literature and many newspapers appeared in Māori.

As late as the 1930s, some Māori parliamentarians suffered disadvantage because Parliament's proceedings took place in English. From this period the number of speakers of Māori began to decline rapidly. By the 1980s fewer than 20% of Māori spoke the language well enough to be classed as native speakers. Even many of those people no longer spoke Māori in the home. As a result, many Māori children failed to learn their ancestral language, and generations of non-Māori-speaking Māori emerged.

By the 1980s Māori leaders began to recognize the dangers of the loss of their language and initiated Māori-language recovery-programs such as the Kōhanga Reo movement, which from 1982 immersed infants in Māori from infancy to school age. There followed in the later 1980s the founding of the Kura Kaupapa Māori, a primary-school programme in Māori.

Linguistic classification

Comparative linguists classify Māori as a Polynesian language; specifically as an Eastern Polynesian language belonging to the Tahitic subgroup, which includes Rarotongan, spoken in the southern Cook Islands, and Tahitian, spoken in Tahiti and the Society Islands. Other major Eastern Polynesian languages include Hawaiian, Marquesan (languages in the Marquesic subgroup), and the Rapa Nui language of Easter Island. While the preceding are all distinct languages, they remain similar enough that Tupaia, a Tahitian travelling with Captain James Cook in 1769-1770, communicated effectively with Māori. Speakers of modern Māori generally report that they find the languages of the Cook Islands, including Rarotongan, the easiest other Polynesian languages to understand and converse in. See also Austronesian languages.

Geographic distribution

Nearly all speakers are ethnic Māori resident in New Zealand. Estimates of the number of speakers vary: the 1996 census reported 160,000, while other estimates have reported as few as 50,000. According to the 2006 census, 131,613 Māori (23.7%) "could [at least] hold a conversation about everyday things in te reo Māori". In the same census, Māori speakers were 4.2% of the New Zealand population.

The level of competence of self-professed Māori speakers varies from minimal to total. Statistics have not been gathered for the prevalence of different levels of competence. Only a minority of self-professed speakers use Māori as their main language in the home. The rest use only a few words or phrases (passive bilingualism).

Māori still is a community language in some predominantly-Māori settlements in the Northland, Urewera and East Cape areas. Kohanga reo Māori-immersion kindergartens throughout New Zealand use Māori exclusively. Increasing numbers of Māori raise their children bilingually.

Urbanisation after the Second World War led to widespread language shift from Māori predominance (with Māori the primary language of the rural whānau) to English predominance (English serving as the primary language in the Pākehā cities). Therefore Māori-speakers almost always communicate bilingually, with New Zealand English as either their first or second language.

The percentage prevalence of the Māori language in the Māori diaspora is far lower than in New Zealand. Census data from Australia show it as the home language of 5,504 people in 2001, or 7.5% of the Māori community in Australia. This represents an increase of 32.5% since 1996.


The modern Māori alphabet has 20 letters, two of which are digraphs: A Ā E Ē H I Ī K M N O Ō P R T U Ū W NG and WH. Attempts to write Māori words using the Roman alphabet began with Captain James Cook and other early explorers, with varying degrees of success. From 1814, missionaries tried to capture the sounds of the language. William Kendall published a book in 1815 entitled He Korao no New Zealand, which in modern orthography and usage would be He Kōrero nō Aotearoa. Professor Samuel Lee, working with chief Hongi Hika and Hongi's junior relative Waikato at Cambridge University, established a definitive orthography based on Northern usage in 1820. Professor Lee's orthography continues in use, with only two major changes: the addition of wh to distinguish the bilabial voiceless fricative phoneme from the labio-velar phoneme /w/; and the consistent marking of long vowels. The macron has become the generally accepted device for marking long vowels (hāngi), but at times the device of double vowel letters was used (haangi).

The Māori embraced literacy enthusiastically, and missionaries reported in the 1820s that Māori all over the country taught each other to read and write, using sometimes quite innovative materials in the absence of paper, such as leaves and charcoal, carved wood, and hides.


Biggs proposed that historically there were two major dialect groups, North Island and South Island. South Island Māori is extinct[18] Biggs has analysed North Island Māori as comprising a western group and an eastern group with the boundary between them running pretty much along the island's north-south axis.

Within these broad divisions regional variations occur, and individual regions show tribal variations. The major differences occur in the pronunciation of words, variation of vocabulary, and idiom. A fluent speaker of Māori has no problem understanding dialects other than their own.

There is no significant variation in grammar between dialects. Vocabulary and pronunciation vary to a greater extent, but this does not pose barriers to communication.


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