Why Is It So Difficult to Pronounce Māori Words Correctly?

Well… it isn’t, technically. Te Reo (the language) is fairly consistent. But many pākehā (non-Māori New Zealanders) are so set in their ways that they refuse to even try.

I’m not having a go. When you’ve grown up hearing something pronounced a certain way, it’s incredibly hard to start saying it a different way. You automatically say it the way you’ve always heard everyone saying it.

I’m genuinely trying, and I only remember to pronounce, for example, the name of the city in which my parents live, Tauranga, correctly about fifty percent of the time.

The irony is when I first moved to New Zealand, as a child, I pronounced Māori place names more correctly than I do now. That’s because I was learning them fresh. My Kiwi friends, though, laughed at me for saying things differently to the way they had grown up saying them. Soon, I grew accustomed to the “pākehā” way of pronouncing Māori place names and thought nothing more of it.

When I was seventeen, my drama class went on a school trip to England. (Yes, it was an expensive school trip.) For the first week, we attended a school in Devon, mingling with the local students. Of course, we talked a lot about the school in New Zealand that we were from, Otumoetai College. We pronounced it ‘oh-too-mow-tie’, or the even lazier ‘oh-da-mow-die’, as we always had.

Then, at the end of the week, our drama teacher stood up to officially thank our host school, and he used the proper pronunciation of Otumoetai: ‘awe-too-moy-tie’. The British kids started laughing – they thought our teacher was saying it wrong!

(Our teacher went on to impress the British kids greatly by making them think he could speak Te Reo Māori. In a serious, speech-making tone, he reeled off a list of Māori place names. “Whakatane, Rotorua, Papakura, Waiuku…” Of course, us New Zealand kids thought it was hilarious.)

Lately, the New Zealand media has been giving a lot of attention to the issues surrounding the pākehā perception of Te Reo. Should it, for example, be the law to teach the Māori language in New Zealand schools?

I’m all for it. Learning another language is good for a child’s development, as is the instilment of a certain cultural appreciation. I also believe in making an effort to pronounce Māori words correctly, which is why I do make the effort. I don’t always succeed.

It’s not just that your brain automatically jumps to the pronunciation you’re used to hearing. It’s that when you do make an effort to say something correctly, and everyone around you isn’t bothered, it makes you feel like a pretentious wanker.

And, of course, what if you do make an effort and get it wrong?

A few times, I’ve gone to say something the correct way and bottled it halfway through, coming out with something that’s half-right; half-inarticulate mumble. Something like ‘awe-too… mow-die’. It’s silly, I know. But I’m going to keep trying.

It’s a matter of principle.

I’ll leave you with a story I heard when I first moved to New Zealand. I don’t know whether it’s an anecdote, a joke, or an urban legend, but here it is:

A couple of well-meaning English tourists were on holiday in New Zealand, and a Kiwi asked them where they were staying.

“Onehunga,” they replied, pronouncing it ‘one’ – as in the number one – ‘hung-a’.

After a moment of confusion, the Kiwi said, “Oh, you mean ‘o-ne-hu-nga’. O-N-E is pronounced ‘o-ne’, not ‘one.’”

“Oh, right,” the tourists said. “In that case would you please direct us to O-ne Tree Hill?”

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One thought on “Why Is It So Difficult to Pronounce Māori Words Correctly?

  1. It’s not all that many years (about seventy, I think) since kids were punished for speaking Te Reo at school. I can believe the “Onehunga” story.

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