Kia ora, how are you?: The Curious Case of New Zealand English

This week is Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori, or Māori Language Week, in New Zealand and around the world. As one of New Zealand’s official languages (alongside English and New Zealand Sign Language), Māori holds an important position and efforts to revitalise the language are proving successful. But what are the consequences of having two spoken languages in such close contact with one another?

English is notorious for having borrowed words from other languages. Tea, beef, coffee… Around 80% of all vocabulary in English is borrowed from other languages and while this is mostly from Latin, it turns out Māori ranks pretty highly (fourteenth!) on the list of languages influencing English.

Of course, one of the most obvious loanwords from Māori is the word ‘kiwi’—though New Zealanders do not actually use this term to refer to the fruit. In the early 1900s, it was called a ‘Chinese gooseberry’ in New Zealand; now, they use the word ‘kiwifruit’ (yes, all one word).

The kiwi bird got its name in Māori because ‘kiwi’ is the onomatopoeia of the bird’s call. Until the First World War, the kiwi only represented the country, not the people who lived there, but by 1917, New Zealanders were being called ‘kiwi’ too, and the nickname has gone on to stick. It is perhaps the one Māori loanword used around the world with speakers having little-to-no idea of its origins, which shows just how widely languages can spread.

So, why does English borrow words from Māori?

Well, most of the time when two languages come into contact, the more dominant language—i.e., the one spoken by a higher number of native speakers—tends to be the one that generally retains its original form. Words are usually borrowed to identify new concepts and finer distinctions of meaning, and with the role that more dominant languages have in technology, government institutions, and public life in general, this means that words are borrowed from the dominant language into the minority one.

However, because of the way that Europeans, especially European missionaries, first came into contact with the Māori people, things have evolved a little differently in New Zealand. When Pāhekā (this term refers to New Zealanders of European descent) missionaries first arrived, the Māori were the dominant population on the island. For the most part, the Māori people and Pāhekā missionaries worked side-by-side, with the Māori providing much-needed help with farming and the Pāhekā missionaries developing a way of writing the Māori language down.

In the 1830s, more and more Māori began to turn to Christianity and, with the development of a language and written standard for Māori, literacy began to increase. It is believed that, at this time, there were more literate Māori than non-Māori.

However, the introduction of new diseases to the island meant that the Māori population began to decline drastically and by 1858, non-Māori settlers outnumbered the indigenous Māori population. These numbers have not recovered—people of Māori descent make up 15% of New Zealand’s population today.

This population decrease—as well as pressures for Māori people to not speak te reo (the language)—also led to a downward turn in the use of the Māori language and by the 1970s, it was in danger of disappearing completely. However, initiatives such as kōhanga reo (Māori-language pre-schools), kura (schools), and wānanga (universities) have been set up to revive the language, which, while still endangered, has seen an upswing in use in recent years.

Since the Māori were the dominant population on the island when the Pāhekā first arrived, it meant that many Māori words for the indigenous plants and animals were borrowed into English, rather than the Pāhekā coming up with new ones. 

This means, for example, all varieties of English have the following words:

  • huhu – a type of large beetle
  • kea – the world’s only alpine parrot
  • ponga/punga – a silver fern, often used as a symbol for New Zealand

It makes sense, of course, that words which already exist would be borrowed into another language (another example would be moose, which was borrowed into English from a Northeastern Algonquian language, which is likely why it does not change forms when it is in the plural, as opposed to goose—geese); this has also been the case, however, where there is already an English term, suggesting that some adoption of Māori terms has a cultural aspect behind it.

For example:

  • kai – food
  • puku – abdomen
  • wai – water

In fact, as Katie Levendis, a postgraduate student from the University of Waikato, found, the number of loan words used in newspapers on New Zealand’s North Island has increased dramatically since the turn of the century. Between 2001 and 2006, an average of six Māori loanwords could be found in every 1,000 words published in a newspaper. In the past ten years, that has increased to thirty-five per 1,000.

What does this mean for Māori language revitalisation?

If Pāhekā are being introduced to more Māori words in their everyday life, then it makes sense that these would stick in their vocabulary, especially in cases where the Māori word is ‘easier’ to use than its English counterpart. An example of this would be ‘reo’ instead of ‘language,’ which is longer; ‘hōhonu’ is the Māori word for ‘deep’ but is heard much less often, likely because it does not make the speaker’s communication more efficient.

Another aspect that has led to increased borrowing in more recent years is the fact that the status of Māori is changing and is being used by younger people. This, again, relates to culture—if there are films and music and TV in Māori, then why wouldn’t words cross from one language to another? Eventually, this change in prestige and accessibility should also lead to more New Zealanders—Māori and Pāhekā alike—having more proficiency in te reo, hopefully leading to the language’s revival.

With any luck, the changing attitudes towards te reo will lead to more and more proficient speakers in the future. The key way to save an endangered language is to increase its number of speakers (while also being mindful of the culture behind it), which is why we are trying hard to add more and more endangered languages to our app, to try and make them available to as many people as possible.

If you’d like to try and learn a little bit of Māori, you can get started with us here or even with some resources from Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, the organisation that runs Māori language week every September. Once you’ve learnt a few words, come share them with us on Facebook or Twitter—we’d love to see how you’re doing!

Kia kaha! (Be strong/Good luck!)

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