The Māori language (commonly: te reo) is cherished by the indigenous people of New Zealand, the Māori, as a treasure (taonga) and many Pākehā (New Zealanders of "European" descent) are now trying to learn it. Although it is an official language of New Zealand, along with English and New Zealand Sign Language, few New Zealanders (and only a minority of Māori) can conduct a conversation in the Māori language. All indigenous Māori speakers are bilingual and converse in English at least equally competently.
A number of Māori words have been adopted into everyday New Zealand conversation, even while speaking English, and many place names are of Māori origin. Being able to correctly pronounce Māori words is a valued skill since incorrectly pronounced Māori sounds like fingernails scratching on a blackboard and will immediately identify you as a visitor to the country (or a culturally ignorant local). Many New Zealanders have trouble with some Māori place names. Even a tolerable and halting attempt at the correct pronunciation is better than a poor guess – your effort to get it right will be appreciated and accepted.
As you might expect, one hundred and fifty years ago accents, vocabularies and word constructions were as variegated as the differences between Glaswegian and Cockney Englishes are today. With many people now having lost their localisations as well as their fluency, new learners are learning less localised and more homogeneous versions.
An exception to this process is the native language of the Cook Islands, a completely self governing, tropical outlier of the Realm of New Zealand. Here the language is almost as different from the registers spoken in the North and South islands of New Zealand as Chaucerian English is from Californian. That said, Cook Islanders seem to find it easier to understand "mainland" Te Reo Māori than the other way around.
The New Zealand Māori language (Maori: Te Reo Māori) is relatively simple to pronounce.
Each of the vowels has a long and short form:
- short a
- a as u in strut
- long a
- ā as a in palm
- short e
- e as e in dress
- long e
- ē as ea in pear
- short i
- i as y in happy
- long i
- ī as ee in feet
- short o
- o as o in north
- long o
- ō as ou in thought
- short u
- a shorter version of the long u sound, like the u in put
- long u
- ū as oo in goose. Never yoo as in many English words.
There are several vowel blends: ae, ai (as ie in pie), ao (as ou in mouth), au (as oa in goat), ei (as a in face), oi (as oi in choice), oe, and ou
In written Māori, the long vowels are often denoted by macrons (bars over the letters) or whatever similar characters were available to the typesetter. Sometimes you will see words where a vowel letter is repeated, e.g. the Maori name for Inland Revenue is Te Tari Taake (you can probably guess why they don't spell it Te Tari Tāke). This may indicate that the vowel is pronounced "long", but modern usage is to use the macron when possible.
Thus Māori, Maaori and Maori would all represent the same word; although you will rarely see it spelled "Maaori". You may occasionally see long vowels with a diaeresis ("Mäori") instead of a macron; either because the person typing the document can't find the macron letter (it's right after ÿ), or because the document was written on a pre-2001 computer.
Macrons have tended not to be written when a Māori word has been a commonly used word by people speaking English (including with the word Māori), and macrons have generally not appeared on direction signs or maps; however, as more people become aware of the correct pronunciation of various Māori words and place names, and of the instructive guidance that macrons provide by indicating how words should be pronounced, the use of macrons is increasing in New Zealand society, including in official documents. Some road direction signs for Taupō (both the town and the lake) are now written as Taupō; whereas, prior to 2008, the macron was always missing.
There are ten consonants in te reo Māori: h, k, m, n, p, r, t, w, wh and ng. The first eight are pronounced as in English, although the r is said with a flap, like the beginning of a roll. It's not a long roll like the 'r's in Spanish. If you imagine a roll is like a machine gun burst, then the flap is like a single shot from the same firearm. It starts like a roll does, but quickly moves on to the rest of the word.
ng is pronounced as the ng in sing; it does not contain a hard g sound.
In most parts of the country, wh is pronounced like an English f (as in feel or font or fin); however, there are dialectical differences. For some words, the Whanganui Iwi (tribe) pronounce wh (as you would for whale or where, with minimal breath expelled, so almost like the same sound as a w). The f sound is the usual pronunciation in most regions of the country, so stick with that unless you're told otherwise.
Māori words are broken into syllables which end with a vowel. Place names often consist of morphemes, or words which are combined to give a larger word, e.g. wai (water) and roa (long) are combined to give Wairoa. Try to recognise these morphemes (see the list of geographic expressions below) and pronounce the name by breaking it into its components.
- is said A ka ta ra wa
- is said Maao-ri (Remember to have your tongue forward when you say the r, so that you make the flap sound).
- is said Pa-ra-pa-rau-mu (commonly mispronounced Pa-ra-pa-ra-u-mu)
- is said Fa nga rei (Fa nga ray)
Māori word root combinations tend to have a major root subject followed by qualifier suffixes. This means a literal translation from Māori to English produces a lot of transposed word combinations.
- Rotorua → roto ⇒ lake and rua ⇒ two = two lakes (or perhaps second lake, as Ihenga discovered Rotoiti first).
- Kaimoana → kai ⇒ food and moana ⇒ sea = seafood.
An ordinary traveller will not need to resort to speaking Māori to make themselves understood. However an understanding of Māori words and their meanings will lead to an appreciation of the culture and enhance the travel experience.
Māori take meetings and greetings seriously. Visitors and honoured guests will often be welcomed in a formal ceremony known as a pōwhiri. While such ceremonies generally take place on a marae, it has become accepted practice that such ceremonies may also take place at conferences, important meetings, and similar ceremonial occasions. On such formal occasions, protocol will normally mean that a representative or adviser who can speak Māori will be assigned to the visitors' party to assist and explain what is happening and may formally speak (whaikorero) to introduce the visitors.
- Hello (informal or answering the telephone)
- Kia ora (KEE aw-rah)
- Hello (to one person)
- Tēnā koe (Teh-NAH kweh)
- Hello (to two people)
- Tēnā kōrua (Teh-NAH KAW-roo-ah)
- Hello (to a group of three or more)
- Tēnā koutou (Teh-NAH koh-toh)
- Haere mai (is literally, an invitation to: Come towards the speaker) (HIGH-reh MIGH)
- How are you?
- Kei te pēhea koe?
- I'm good
- Kei te pai ahau
- I'm great
- Ka nui te ora (Literally Life's great)
- What is your name?
- Ko wai tō ingoa? (i ngo a)
- My name is ______
- Ko ______ tōku ingoa
- What is his/her name?
- Ko wai tana ingoa?
- His/her name is ______
- Ko ______ tana ingoa
- Good-bye (to the person staying)
- E noho rā (Eh naw-haw RAH)
- Good-bye (to the person going)
- Haere rā (HIGH-reh RAH)
- koa (Homai koa he kaputi = Give me a cup of tea, please )
- Thank you
- kia ora (is pronounced kee-a o-ra) (Literally, be well.)
Hello is tēnā koe (to one person, see above) or more informally kia ora (literally be well) Kia ora is also used for thank you
- Tahi (tah-hee)
- Rua (roo-ah)
- Toru (taw-roo)
- Whā (fah)
- Rima (ree-ma)
- Ono (o-naw)
- Whitu (fih-too)
- Waru (wah-roo)
- Iwa (ee-wah)
- Tekau (teh-koh)
To say numbers higher than then you must say Tekau ma *number*
- Tekau ma tahi
- Tekau ma rua
- Tekau ma toru
- Tekau ma whā
- Tekau ma rima
- Tekau ma ono
- Tekau ma whitu
- Tekau ma waru
- Tekau ma iwa
To say 20,30,40,50 - 90 you must say *number* tekau E.G. 20 is rua tekau and 30 is toru tekau
If you want to say any numbers in between you must say *number* Tekau ma *number*
- Rua tekau ma tahi
- Toru tekau ma rua
- Whā tekau ma toru
And so on....
Most New Zealanders remember them from a popular kindergarten song: Mā is white, whero is red, kākāriki green...
- Pango / mangu
Glossary of Māori geographical terms translated into English
Knowing a little about these terms will help you to both pronounce the name and understand what it means.
- of (e.g. Taupōnui-a-Tia: the full name for Taupo = great cloak of Tia)
- river, channel
- stream (e.g. Mangawhio: in South Taranaki = blue duck stream)
- sea, large lake (e.g. Waikaremoana: in the western Hawke's Bay region = sea of rippling water)
- the (plural form)
- big, great
- beach, sand, soil
- hill (e.g. Te Puke: in the Bay of Plenty region = the hill)
- north (e.g. Maungaraki: a suburb of Lower Hutt = northern mountain)
- sky, heavens
- lake (e.g. Rotoiti: in the Bay of Plenty region = small lake)
- tide, sea
- peak, ray of sunshine
- the (singular form)
- west (e.g. Waiōuru: in the Central North Island = water of the west')
- water (e.g. Wairoa: in Taranaki = long water)
- burning, burnt
- bay, harbour (e.g. Whanganui = big harbour)
Many place names have been made tautological by Europeans adding a word which is already contained in the Māori name (example: Mount Maunganui = "Mount big mountain"). However, in recent years, there has been a trend for New Zealand English speakers to drop the English geographic qualifier and refer to many geographic features by their Māori names alone. Thus, Mount Ruapehu is often referred to simply as Ruapehu. In some cases, there has been a reversion to Māori names and outdated travel information may only use the old name. For example, Mount Egmont is now almost universally called Taranaki or Mount Taranaki and Mount Cook is now officially called Aoraki/Mount Cook; these are the original Māori names. In other cases the Māori name is followed by a pluralising s where the omitted English geographic term was plural. So the Rimutakas is used in place of the Rimutaka ranges. In conversation you may hear phrases like the Waikato or the Manawatu. In these cases the speaker is talking about either the river of that name or a district or region. For example, the Waikato will refer to either the the Waikato river or the Waikato region, while Waikato (without the) would probably refer to the region, though this may need to be inferred from the context.
Maori is taught in many places around New Zealand, often as a night class. Ask at the local information centre or citizens advice bureau. The Maori Language Commission also has a list of course providers.