Recollections of Travel in New Zealand and Australia
The Maori Language; its Orthography Compared
The Maori Language; its Orthography Compared.
It is a matter for congratulation that whoever reduced the Maori tongue into a written language has avoided the absurd attempt to adapt it to English vowel-sounds, and has adopted the Continental vowel system and pronunciation. The Maori language has, in consequence, assumed a form and appearance of structure and of culture which would have been lost had the English system prevailed, and the result is, that the moment a word in the language is seen, its pronunciation is at once apparent.
If we compare this system with that which was formerly in vogue when English orthography was applied to the names of persons and places in India, native names in Australia, and also in America, we may perceive at a glance the advantages gained by the practice adopted with reference to the Maori language.
In reading most books upon India, it is almost impossible for a person uninitiated in the native tongues to tell the sounds of the native names and designations. Thus we find the two chief tribes of Afghanistan described as the Barukzye page 324and the Suddozye. When spelt Barukzai and Sud-dozai the pronunciation is obvious, but as they stand in the English orthography there is an uncertainty about the sound, inasmuch as the letter y is pronounced in English in several different ways. The name of the kingdom of Oude is almost invariably pronounced wrongly by outsiders, as the spelling and the pronunciation are so inconsistent. One of the most irritating words to my mind in this orthography is the word "Sepoy," which is a barbarous corruption of "Sipahi," a foot-soldier. In the English form the word has a ridiculous appearance.*
* A corrected official orthography for India has been issued, but few seem to use it.
If we turn to Australia, we find the soft and liquid aboriginal names of places entirely distorted and disfigured by a false orthography. The old name of the township at Geelong is spelt in such a way as to convey a totally false impression of the sound. The spelling adopted is "Corio;" in New Zealand we should spell it "Koraio," and the pronunciation would be at once evident. It has surely been a blunder to retain the name of Geelong, or, as we ought to spell it, "Jilong," and to allow the far more beautiful name of Koraio to fall out of use and sink into oblivion.
"Bulli," in New South Wales, is another name suggesting similar difficulties. In New Zealand we should spell it "Bullai" or "Bulai," that is, supposing the language to contain the letters b and l. Bulli, as usually spelt, may be, and is, pronounced in at least three different ways. Then we have such names as "Kut-paw-paw," in Victoria. Surely the name might be spelt so as not to suggest damage to the paws of men or beasts.
On one occasion, on my returning from Taupo, a well-known New Zealand statesman, an M.A. of an English university, in a conversation we had together respecting the interior of the island, insisted upon giving the French sound to the word Taupo, as if au represented the same sound as awe in English. I remonstrated, maintaining that the sound he gave it was wrong. He said, "I pronounce it as spelt, and I object to the foreign spelling of the page 326Maori language." I replied, "How then would you spell Taupo in English fashion?" He said, "Towpo." My reply was, "That would in English make the word sound Topo, although a Scotchman might possibly hit upon the correct pronunciation."
The word Merri, the name of a place or creek near Melbourne, presents the usual difficulties. No one who has not a conventional acquaintance with the name can tell whether it should be pronounced Merry or Merai.
The beautiful native name of a suburb of Sydney has been transmogrified into something perfectly ridiculous. The name "Walamala" appears as "Wooloomooloo."
In Stanley's "How I Found Livingstone," I find the word "Seedy" for "Sidi," the name of a very useful tribe of negroes, many of the race being employed as firemen in the P. and O. Company's steamers. The English spelling gives the impression of dissipation of character, conveying the idea that the tribe gets drunk at night and is "seedy" in the morning.
The other day, in an Indian work of merit, I came across the words qui hye. Now who can possibly tell, excepting conventionally, what to make of this? Pronounce the words to a Maori, and he would at once write down kuai hai, about the sound of which there would be no mistake. "Brandee pawnee low," a sentence frequently heard in India, has a barbarous look about it as spelt. A Maori would put it down as "par-page 327andi," or perhaps "parani paoni* lau." Anglo-Indians visiting New Zealand, and publishing their impressions of the country, make a dreadful mess of the names.
The fact is, that the English-speaking race, by adopting a peculiar orthography, in which the sounds intended to be conveyed have often only a remote connection with the spelling, has become vowel-deaf, and this defect has been still further aggravated by the application of the same want of system to the pronunciation of the classical languages. That this aggravation has been thus produced is evident from the fact that the Scotch and Irish, who retain the usual mode of pronouncing the ancient languages, are only in a slight degree vowel-deaf as compared with the English. I am told that the objection to making a change in the pronunciation of Latin, is a difficulty as to the pronunciation of consonants. This should not stand in the way, as that is a matter of comparatively little consequence. The Romans probably pronounced c soft before e and i, and hard before the other vowels. Thus "Kaisar" would be correct, and "Kikero" wrong.
* I am puzzled how to express the English sound of paw without using the letter w, which I think should be avoided if possible: ao is something near the sound, but I am not satisfied with it.
A vivid illustration of the peculiarities of Anglo-Latin pronunciation may be found in the treatment of the second person singular of the present tense of the verb "to be" in Latin, viz., "Tu es." These words are very short, and it would seem, prima facie, very difficult to make a mess of them. But how do the English treat them? They pronounce them "tiu iz" (using Italian vowels by way of illustration). The u is converted into a diphthong, the s into a z. Can anything be more absurd?
Again, in the pronunciation of German words the English eliminate the ch. Thus "Schwalbach" is called "Swalback;" "Schlangenbad" is called "Slangenbad," and so on. Foreigners do not murder names in this way. They have certain peculiarities, such as the German pronunciation of the French je, and the French of the English th; but these peculiarities are explainable. When at Frankfort-on-the-Maine, I heard a German landlord, who spoke English thoroughly well, talking to some English travellers about the distance to the town of "Keel." I asked him afterwards where this town was, as it evidently was not meant for Kiel on the Baltic. "Oh," he said, page 329"it is Kehl." "Why, then, did you call it Keel?" I said. "Merely to please the English," was the reply. At the time of the Crimean war our ears were shocked by hearing "Scutari" pronounced "Sciuterai;" "Besika," "Bisaika," &c.
In the reduction to writing of the Fiji language, a mistake has been made by giving letters sounds entirely different from that which they usually represent. Thus the King of the Fiji Islands appears to be called "Thakombau," but his name is spelt "Cakobau." Why make c represent th, or ko stand for kom? A similar remark will apply to the Zulu language, why should Ketchwayo be spelt Cetewayo, or Etchowe, Ekowe?
The effect of the English pronunciation of Latin upon that tongue is to eliminate the basso sounds, and the result is similar to that which would be produced in an opera if the basso were converted into tenor sounds and the latter into a squeak. It is also to be regretted that the English have softened their own language by dropping all the strong gutturals, and also by almost extinguishing the sound of the letter r. From the gutturals in Spanish—which I suppose were obtained from the Moors—and also, no doubt, from the bold terminations of the words, that language has retained a force of expression which has departed from the Italian, although the Italians retain the vigorous sound of the letter r wanting in English.
I have a fancy for good strong gutturals in any page 330language, and do not like to see them softened away. What force there is in the sounds of "Achmet," "Hassan," "Bahr," "Mahmoud," as pronounced by an Arab; of "Xeres," "Junta," "Ojos," &c., by a Spaniard; of numerous words in German, and of the ch in broad Scotch! With regard to the sound of the letter r, what must a Roman think when an Englishman calls him a "womeno," with the faintest approach to a roll in the middle of the w? He must instinctively swear by the "Corpo di Bacco," or that of "Caio Mario." An Englishman in a parallel case would deal out his oaths more emphatically. Imagine an Englishman in the days of Lord Palmerston proclaiming himself, in the English fashion, "Saivis womenus sum! "How much of the grandeur of the expression would have evaporated in the feeble and effeminate sound!
Such considerations as these naturally suggest the question whether a reform in the orthography of the English tongue be not possible, so as to reduce it from chaos into order, without destroying the soul of the language. It appears to me that, although difficult, the feat is possible. Probably no Englishman could perform the feat, any more than any military officer or army tailor could be trusted to put the British soldier into proper and efficient costume; but if any one could do it, Max Müller is the man. It is to be feared that, as the English are almost to a man vowel-deaf, and the Americans the same, neither are qualified for the work.page 331
I observe, among other changes in orthography introduced by the latter, the substitution of "night" for "height." Now this is an excellent illustration of a step in the wrong direction, converting a diphthong into a vowel. If "height" were retained, and such words as "might," "right," converted into "meight," "reight," we should be making some advance. The strong gutturals having being dropped in English, the gh in these words are of no use, but, on the other hand, they do no harm, and they indicate where the gutturals once existed. I do not think that the difficulty of dealing with the Teutonic words of the language would be very great, but those derived from Latin would be more puzzling to manage. What would be done with such words as "divide," "invite"? Should the sound or the spelling be altered? If the latter, the words would lose their definitive character.
The Germans have managed to give a correct and consistent orthography to their language; and if they have succeeded, why might not the English? From the number of medial sounds in English an addition would require to be made to the alphabet, or the several vowels be supplied with dots or accents to mark a definite modification of sound. This would not be a difficult affair. It would, however, I think be absolutely necessary to adopt the Continental sound of the present vowels, and make the necessary adaptations from that as a basis. All the phonetic systems proposed in England appear to me to be defective. They would destroy the char-page 332acter of the language, estrange the words from their derivatives, and render all past literature unintelligible to our descendants.
If we consider that the Maori language prevails over an area of perhaps greater extent than that of any language on the surface of the globe, with the exception of the English, and perhaps also of the Spanish, both of which have, however, only spread within the last three centuries, we may see how great an advantage has been gained in that this widely-extended tongue has not been disfigured in its orthography, and thereby reduced to the usual gibberish of double e and double o, with the other barbarisms which have hitherto been perpetrated by the English upon East Indian and other languages.
The longer a reform in the orthography of the English language is delayed, the more difficult will it become. It is a noble language, rich and expressive, and with perhaps the finest literature in the world; and besides this, it is an aggressive language, and threatens to overrun the greater part of the world's area. It is advancing along the whole line. It will soon absorb the whole of North America, and pressing vigorously upon South America, will probably there, to a great extent, displace the Spanish and Portuguese languages. In Africa, the advance from the south will go on with accelerating rapidity. In Australia, New Zealand, and Oceania, the language prevails and will become universal. In Hindustan it will be page 333adopted by the educated classes, and its use is becoming more general in China and throughout Southern Asia. Thus it would seem that the English language promises to become the great spoken tongue of the world, and therefore there is the greater reason that its orthography should be reduced without delay into an intelligible and consistent system.
Unless this work is soon taken in hand we shall have further changes made in a wrong direction by the Americans, and possibly by the English themselves, and the difficulty of correction will become more and more formidable. One manifest advantage of a correct orthography would be the abolition of those dreadful books called "pronouncing dictionaries." I am not aware that these are published in connection with any other language than English. I never saw one in French or German, or any other speech of Europe. The floundering attempts made in them to convey the sound of a word always strike me as being very ludicrous.
Let the reform commence by adopting the usual Continental mode of pronouncing Latin, excluding French, which indulges in conventional sounds. The pupil's ear would thereby be trained, and after a time he would be able to recognise the fact of the extremely chaotic state of the orthography of the vernacular, and, it is to be hoped, would see the necessity for an alteration.
Since I left New Zealand I found, as I went along, fresh illustrations of the above remarks. In crossing page 334America I got into conversation with a German miner who insisted on calling the Sierras "Saierras," thus showing the progress of degradation. Then we find the name of the Khedive of Egypt spelt Tewfik. "Tew" is certainly an odd way to get at a sound which would be rendered in most languages by "Tiu." In South Africa we find maize called "mealies," a decidedly inelegant mode of spelling what could be rendered more correctly by "mili," "milis." Arrived in Scotland, I find in all the guide-books the euphonious name of the Pass of Branda cockneyfied into the Pass of Brander, showing a degradation of a Highland name, to which alteration I have personally a great objection, inasmuch as I have named a pass in New Zealand after the defile. Thus, too, the name of Shir Ali, the late Amir of Afghanistan, is Anglo-Frenchified into Shere Ali, and now we find Shirpur, "the town or fort of Shir Ali," converted by the British compositor into "Sherpur." A man must be very vowel-deaf* indeed who cannot see that this must alter the whole sound of the word.
* The term "vowel-deaf" is not an absolutely correct expression, but is intelligible, and it is difficult to find one more concise which will so well give the meaning. The great majority of Englishmen seem to have no conception that the vowels in their language are in a state of chaos, and in particular that the letters i and u, as pronounced in the English alphabet, are composed of two vowels, viz., ai and iu. This is bad enough in reference to English, but it is much worse when applied to rendering the sound of foreign languages.