The uniqueness of the Maori/Kiwi language

I rubbed my ‘puku’. “That” ‘kai’ looks ‘ka pai’, Nana. ‘Ai ne?’ she smiled “your Pop Pop knows how to cook up a good ‘hangi'”. It was’ tumeke’ all right and everyone in the ‘whanau’ agreed that it was the finest grub in the ‘whenua’. Just then a ‘rapiti’ popped its head up from out of the tall grass. Perhaps, sensing the lingering scent of pit roasted flesh floating in the air, the terrified rabbit’s eyes dilated and it began to ‘uma’ for its furry life. Not, that I was the biggest carny (carnivore) in the long history of our ‘whakapapa’. It was the trays of ‘kumara’ which I was really waiting to tackle whenever they were due to arrive in the ‘marae’. Then I’d really tuck in and pig out. It was a ‘choice’ get together and everyone in the ‘iwi’ felt ‘sweet as’. But it was always like that whenever the ‘tribe’ got together. The ‘waka’ boys, even brought us some ‘mint’ ‘tuna’ to smoke. ‘Bloody mean as’ ‘eh!’.

You might be forgiven for having fallen like Alice down a rabbit hole finding yourself in a weirdly warped linguistic Wonderland. As mysteriously enchanting as the preceding account appears this is just one of the many florid and vibrant kinds of Antipodean evolutions of the greatest bastardised tongues on the planet ‘the English language’.

Yet, this passage caused my friend an inestimable amount of grief when he turned it in to his English teacher back in the Dark Old Days of the, wait for it… early 1980s. His master was utterly mortified and he wanted the world to be awoken toward his state of disbelief. This time stalled archaic fussy boots used every trick in the academic book to use this playful piece of code switching prose as if he were instigating a witch hunt. The in class torment would have been enough to morally cripple the resolute and sturdier of souls for infinity. However, far from paganising the boy the Old Man was really making the young man a memorable martyr.

For eons, we have shunned away from the potential to enthusiastically crow about something that is distinctively ‘home harvested’. Surely, in this period of cultural infusing nothing identifies us more closely with a sense of being or belonging to a land or a race more than the way we speak. My case in point with the prior passage which could only have blossomed in our verbally fecund and fertile shores. Words have taken on such powerful associations that we have become rather well adapted to sensing or at the least hazarding a guess of their origins.

Why is it that in most British settled lands that most conquered peoples are collectively labelled by the generic titles of Indians, aboriginals of that most derogatory form of them all native/indigene? And yet, savage as they may have on first inspection appeared, our Maori retained some sense of ‘mana’ (pride) and even were considered competent enough to collaborate upon a nation forming “tiriti’ (treaty/declaration of the state)? At our national inception the Maori retained a romantic essence which other first nation peoples failed to charm the British with.

We admired their seamanship navigating all the way from Hawaiiki to their new world, their tribal elite and the immaculate negotiation skills. At the same time the Maori took quite a shine to Pakeha (British) ways and as one historian stated once to me that they might just have been the indigenous equal to a Japan of the South Seas if they had succeeded in repelling the Anglo saxon invaders for long enough. Even when their Imperial fate was a certitude they insisted on multiple accounts of embarrassing the world’s greatest force in several humiliating defeats. This surely brought a wry smile from Britain’s other main adversaries who soon realised that subduing the Maori was not going to be a walk in the park.

And as the exchange deepened so did the verbal floodgates burst the lingual river banks. We settlers quickly comprehended the actions of the ‘haka’ (war dance) and swiftly accepted that the Maori were adamant when it came to being in control of their ‘tino rangatiratanga’ (sovereignty) and ‘taonga’. They built mighty ‘pa’ (forts) and were the inspiring agents behind the concept of trench warfare (something Europeans and the rest of us learned unpleasantly about much later in the World Wars). They believed in the protection of one’s ‘hapu’ (communal family) and the importance of the ‘tapu’ (reverence towards the sacred/ancestors) from where our word ‘taboo’ is derived.

White men had never encountered the magical flora and fauna prior to stepping forth upon our shores. They knew not of a kiwi, a kea, a takahe, a pukeko or a kakapo until the Maori informed them of their tribal names. Of course, the Grecification and Latinisation of ornithological species would later arrive but how many of your average Kiwi children I ask you would know the ‘moa’ by anything other than its Maori name. Or what about that other great institution of the meal where so many English words have found their way into out garden from foreign roots.

Yes, come the spring we could say we’re going to the beach to pick up cockleshells but we’ll just tell you we really call them ‘pipis’. When we tuck into a good old packet of ‘greasies/shark n tatties/fritters n fish’ (fish and chips) you’ll know we’ll be having fish when we tell you that this is awesome ‘hoki’, ‘tarakihi’, ‘hoke’, ‘hake’ or my personal favourite thick juicy fillets of beautifully beer battered ‘warehou’.

In the Beautiful South (South Island) we may like to cling on tightly to our English ancestry through the names of historic figures such as Blenheim and Nelson but we too are an ocean of ‘Maoritanga’ (sacred Maori treasures). From the ocean jewels of Kaikoura and Akaroa to the West Coast treasure of Hokitika these were places where Maori interactions amongst themselves and with us forged a number of significant nation building events.

To shun the Maori side of our history would be the equivalent to saying that only the perspective of men matters over women, that only the opinions of the rich matter than those of the poor, that the values of the sound bodied mean more than those of the infirm that the ideas and notions of white men matter more than those of the darker complexioned. How could anyone wish to do such a disservice to their cultural and historical sense of national being and worth? When we greet each other on the daily with those friendly phrases of kia ora oe haere mai. When we ‘hongi’ (rub noses to greet) after a sports game or in the club house or that warming ‘powhiri’ (accepting of a greeting) we must embrace we enter onto a ‘marae’ (Maori hall/communal house).

The wealth of Maori expressions flood our bland Anglaisse giving it richness and depth like the pure velvety texture of a smooth creamy gravy or a fragrantly flavoursome textual stew. Why would any civilised and rational bicultural embracing Kiwi feel shame towards such lingual lavishings of excitable originality? Why would we ever contemplate the horrible idea to abolish such exquisite cultural uniqueness?

We can clearly be so anti-elitist when it comes to ‘renounced pronunciation’ (RP) or BBC Queens talk English and yet we snigger in abhorrence at the bumpkin way we talk. As in the case of our gentle jibing towards the rhotic “rrrrrr-ing” in our Deep South, why do we continue to hold on towards such a fervent cultural cringe towards the Maori ‘korero’ (speech) and Maori-fied English?

A Catalan friend of mine from my college days was very interested in the position of Maori here in God’s Zone. Years ago when I honestly shared with him our position which had denied Maori the right to speak their lingua franca since colonial annexation he nodded and comprehended with complete and utter compassion and understand.

However the story of the Spanish and British Crown’s view towards forbidding linguistic diversity are not the only cases of linguistic repression. There is also the case of the Greek hostility towards Macedonian in the north along with the long enforced Scottish and Irish elitist position of following the British fiddler and enforce English through reason or force.

Try as they may like those fretful French Academy purists sobbing away soaked in cognac in jollie Paris the Maori avalanche of words and expressions entering our speech and writing can no longer be plugged. And this is something to get excited about for these words along with those that grew within the Australasian Corridor of The Tasman Sea are what separate us from an Ocker (Australian). In an age where our accents are constantly confused, our flags are so similar and the fact that we intermingle so closely with them Maori words are often the big hit that we are not a ‘fair dinkum Aussie’.

As a teenager, it became fashionable to wear shirts around the world when we travelled which said things such as “No I’m not a convict” or “Baa.. Sheep joke cooking. Yep I’m a Kiwi” and others such as “I support two teams. NZ and anyone who plays Australia”. While playful tongue and cheek humour must we resort to such perplexing self-placarding to make our point? When a simple Maori word may stem the cultural confusion? It saddens me how close we came to losing “te reo Maorisl” (the Maori language).

The story of the last Alaskan woman passing away in the 90s comes to my mind when I think of the rapid extinction of native tongues swiftly being extinguished from our English Fits All global culture. Taking those last Indian words to her final resting place, Marie Smith Jones of the ancient Eyak people serves as a stark and dark reminder of how the globalisation of the European Languages Wave is washing out all other small players that stand in her path. Why may I ask would we ever want the same scenario to be the case with our own priceless Maori culture?

While other nations are taking a stand to make up for devastation which they had inflicted upon minor cultures, such as the Japanese towards the Ainu of Hokkaido and the governments of Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands towards their enormous linguistic scope and diversity, we continue to sit on the fence of complacency when it comes to be fully integrated in saving our ONE and only unique tongue.

How can we be so ignorantly indifferent and lack the volition to assimilate something which is undeniably OURS? Why do we search to be different while avoiding the obvious element which distinguishes us from other European states and settlements?

While those other two Big Fish of the Pacific, the Aussies and the Yanks largely disregard the issue of language we could be a triumphant model for our Pacific brothers and sisters. If we made Maori compulsory we would not only be valuing our culture but showing our resolve against a world which says why do we need linguists when Google Translate is becoming so much more efficient? Haven’t we thought, seen and talked about the world in the European languages for long enough?

I often get shivers of excitement when I think of the rise of new economic titans whose national languages aren’t European ones. Will we have to learn Hindi one day or Tagalog? Kiwis shudder I breathe in relief.

Recently I have been highly impressed by the effort which Oriental students have made when arriving to study in NZ, many electing to take on Maori papers along with their ESOL ones. When I questioned one diligent boy why he felt compelled to he gave a reply which I hope one day every keen Kiwi will deliver. Addressing me very politely, “Mr King, I would feel as if I hadn’t received a truly uniquely Kiwi experience if I didn’t do so (take the course on Maori). Besides my father deals with many Maori in his fishing business.”

Those enterprising Maoris had once again succeeded in making a monkey out of another Chaucer lapping, Shakespeare sipping, Keats and Byron breathing colonial crafted Old World boy who for years was taught to see England as home. The common sense of this Chinese boy was like a gently self-praising slap to our slipping sensibilities.

Language needs to be seen as more than just a tool. In my humble view the power of languages is that they can enrich us. Why should we learn Maori? Because it is our most defining asset and is an identity which exists nowhere else on Earth. While we were born to play footy (rugby), tame yachts and make blockbuster films our Maori culture and language, unlike our land, is something that makes us recognisable to the world.

In one humorous incident one friend recollected how while trekking through Chile he had encountered a bashful bunch of Chilean guys. However, upon declaring his birth place they were brought to life and enacted out an outstandingly acted out rendition of the “haka” followed by other tags such as Lomu, Kiwi and generously referred to our All Blacks rugby team as “Champions of the World” rather than the more grammatically and time appropriate reference of being the (current) world champions (it’s clear that embedded in every reserved Chilean citizen a secret hidden poet is just itching to spring out from its epidermal cage whilst passionately yearning to astound us with his or her insightful creative genius). It’s true our team has had considerable international success. But, for those non sport crazed out there it was probably the dance which helps to make our team so well known. A dance which no Englishman in his right mind would do but which our English descendants have freely accepted and embraced.

As a final note, I headed an English literally class while my friend was unwell one day. It was in a low decile area filled with many Maori and Pacifika students. As I read from the assigned text a sheepish but brave round eyed Maori boy asked me in front of his peers “Sir, what’s that prom-promlenday word mean?” I looked up stunned by his remark. “You mean, PROMENADE”. “Yeah eh”. “Well” I answered “it comes from French and Latin. In this case it means to walk with deliberation” He looked at me blanked face. I thought for a minute and then said “He was doing a ‘hikoi'” (walk/march)”. The boy’s face beamed. “Why didn’t he just say that Sir?” To which I remarked, “Probably because they haven’t learnt Kiwese, yet.”

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