How Do You Spell That?

Photo by    Toa Heftiba    on    Unsplash

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

(Ordering a coffee in Whanganui-a-tara, Aotearoa)

Can I please have a mochaccino?

Sure, what is your name?


Natalia? Atalia?

No, A-ta-ri-a.

Oh okay... uhh... how do you spell that?


Thanks! Your coffee will be ready soon.

A number of political parties have recently commented on universal te reo Māori in schools, creating a media furore (as per usual when it comes to Māori issues). In my opinion one of the key benefits of te reo in schools would be an improvement in the correct pronunciation of Māori words. In Aotearoa the pronunciation of many Māori words is not a choice; for example names of places and people. 

In 1840 te reo was the primary language used for communication, customs, and culture in Aotearoa. At that time Margaret Mutu estimates that Māori “outnumbered Pākehā by 70,000–90,000 to 2,000” and many settlers were bilingual in both Māori and English. Fast forward 177 years — past the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (including 135 years where the Treaty was conspicuously absent from legislation) — to 2017 where, surprisingly, a large number of people living in Aotearoa cannot speak te reo. 

To make matters worse, many who live in Aotearoa do not even know how or choose not to pronounce Māori words correctly.

To illustrate this point, the Human Rights Commission has a webpage titled “Commonly Mispronounced Te Reo Māori Place Names” featuring Māori land names such as Tauranga and Taupō. Māori place names hold significance both culturally and through whakapapa. Therefore, when they and personal names are pronounced incorrectly (irrespective of the reasons for it), as suggested by Rita Kohli and Daniel Solorzano from Santa Clara University and the University of California, these subtle acts can become “layered insults that intersect with an ‘othering’ of race, language, and culture.”

The realisation for many Māori that their name is on a daily basis pronounced incorrectly in the only place they call home, their tūrangawaewae, is surely an accumulative form of verbal indignity that could send the message that “your language, your culture, and perhaps even you; are not valued here in New Zealand.”

As is stated by Trinity Thompson on her blog Fruit From the Vine: “I wish my friends knew that saying Māori words properly really makes a difference to me. It makes me feel like my culture and language is valued.”

Recently I tutored an introductory Māori Studies paper where there was a high intake of exchange students. Students hailed from countries as far afield as the UK, America, and Canada. All were required to do a presentation where they were marked on their pronunciation of Māori words. The exchange students had overwhelmingly excellent pronunciation.

In my opinion this was largely due to the hard work and perceived importance they put into practising the indigenous language of their host country. I had exchange students meet with me before and after tutorials to help them practise their pronunciation, and even specifically request that we covered pronunciation in the tutorial. It was heartwarming to see this dedication to te reo.  

So why is the correct pronunciation of Māori words and language important? Well firstly I think it is important to acknowledge the existence of, and cumulative effects of, racial microaggressions in everyday life. I also believe that all of us living in Aotearoa have an opportunity to recognise our shared history and to take up the challenge as set  in the 1986 te reo Māori claim (by the Waitangi Tribunal) to:

“put the language, and therefore the culture, onto a pedestal so that our tamariki will see being Māori as something to be proud of, not something to be treated as worthless.”

Together as people who live in Aotearoa, we have a collective responsibility to encourage and support the correct pronunciation of Māori words and names.

This article was also published in Salient