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Maori Pronunciation and the Evolution of Written Maori

The Evolution of Written Maori

page 13

The Evolution of Written Maori

The Maori language of the present day is recognized as a most euphonious one, representing the sound of a quietly running stream heard from a distance. Its music is continually commented upon. We can but dream of what its beauty must have been before its contact with the European language, and the entry of inevitable harshness consequent upon the effort to transfer its oral beauty to print in an alphabet supplied from a foreign tongue. A complete representation was of course impossible, but with the experience of years the harshness softened, as much of the liquid and soothing tone was gained in utterance by the scholars who learnt the Maori tongue.

The preponderance of vowel sounds, of course, saved the euphony of the language from complete annihilation. We all appreciate the fact that a foreign tongue cannot be mastered completely owing to the lack of the traditional mother tongue intuition on the part of the student. It is this inherent trait that causes the Irishman to lapse into his brogue in moments of tense excitement. Maori who are brought before the courts of justice although page 14 evidently good English scholars, often ask for a Maori interpreter. This is often scathingly commented upon; but the Maori feels that he can state his case better in his own tongue. We English speaking people know how much easier and safer it is to couch our views in our own language as compared with our efforts in a foreign language.

The language of the present-day Maori, who speaks pure Maori, is an excellent testimonial of the thorough and enthusiastic efforts of those responsible for putting the beautiful Maori language into print. Subsequent efforts to keep the Maori language as pure as possible have been practically negligible. There are signs of awakened interest at present, but not sufficient to arouse any worthwhile degree of optimism. Native school teachers and other departments alike, Europeans and Maori as well, need to show a vastly greater sympathy and interest in the study and preservation of this language, so pleasant to the ear.

In 1807, Dr John Savage, a surgeon, published his book, “Some Account of New Zealand; Particularly the Bay of Islands and Surrounding Country”. He states: “The language of these people, I have reason to believe, is copious, and it is by no means wanting in harmony… I think I am warranted in say- page 15 ing that the language of New Zealand possesses a considerable degree of softness.”

Dr Savage published a vocabulary in his book, hoping that it would enable the navigator or visitor to make himself understood as to the common topics of conversation in his intercourse with the natives. A few examples are appended here:
English WordMaori, thenMaori, now
hair, featheroorooooroohuruhuru
eye, faceconoheekanohi
clear, moonmarrammahmarama
look at, inspectmatuckeetuckeematakitaki
come herehurramyhaere mai
onecotidika tahi
twocadooaka ruapage 16
threecatoodooka toru
fourcawhaka wha
fivecadeemaka rima
sixcahoonooka ono
sevencaheetooka whitu
eightcawhadooka waru
ninecaheewhaka iwa
tenkanghahoodooka ngahuru
elevenkanghahoodoo matihikotahi tekau ma tahi
20cattekowe rua tekau
40cattekow cotihie wha tekau

John Liddiard Nicholas in his “Narrative of a Voyage to New Zealand, Performed in the Years 1814–1815 in Company with the Rev. Samuel Marsden, Vol. II”, published in 1817, comments thus on the Maori language:

“That of New Zealand is soft and harmonious to the ear from the alternation which it employs of the vowels and the consonants, and there are rarely perceptible in it any harsh or discordant sounds.”

The Rev. Wm. Yate in his book “An Account of New Zealand” writes: “The language is peculiarly soft and sweet, and in the longest page 17 speeches not a harsh sound ever strikes the ear… the language of New Zealand is remarkably rich, admits of a very varied phraseology, abounds in terms of peculiar nicety, and is capable of being reduced to the most precise grammatical principles. It abounds with words and with varieties of expression; and the shades of difference in the meaning of words is sometimes so minute as to render it very difficult to give a correct translation; while still that meaning is perfectly understood by a foreigner though unable to render it correctly in his own tongue: at least not without much circumlocution.”

The Europeans who came in contact with the Maori before 1814 wrote Maori words just as they seemed to sound to them. Usually, no other, but the individual who wrote the word, understood what it was all intended to represent. It is appropriate to insert here an extract from “John Rutherford, the White Chief”—Drummond, which puts the case rather pertinently: “The slightest examination of the vocabularies of barbarian tongues which have been collected by voyagers and travellers will convince everyone of the extremely imperfect manner in which the ear catches sounds to which it is unaccustomed, and of the mistakes to which this and other causes give rise in page 18 every attempt which is made to take down the words of a language from the native pronunciation, by a person who does not understand it.”

Thus we read of such words as:
Cowa CowaKawakawa
Kiddy KiddyKeri Keri

Here is another excerpt from Nicholas: “I observed when at New Zealand that the missionaries would not only differ from each other in the spelling of the same words, but likewise in the pronunciation of them; a circumstance which must always happen when a new page 19 language is to be learned with no other standard of instruction than the ear.” This is no doubt the reason for establishing a Translating Committee later.

The letter D is not in the present Maori alphabet, and anyone familiar with the softness of the language, when spoken correctly, will feel that D at any time was an impossible sound for Maori speech. Yet it is clear to those who know the language that its inclusion in the early stages was reasonable, since D was used where the Maori made the R sound. The Maori R sound is half-way between the R and L English sounds and is made with a flick of the tongue.

The S sound is also foreign to the present Maori alphabet; and it is relevant to add here that the almost universal habit of adding S to the word Maori when referring to several Maori is incorrect.

Mr. J. M. Moore in his book “New Zealand for Emigrant, Invalid, and Tourist” writes: “I never heard a Maori pronounce our sibilants, and I was informed by Judge Maning that only one tribe could be taught to utter them. ‘You give me one herring,’ said a Maori to me at the Hot Lakes. For a time I was nonplussed but a colonial interpreted it to me ‘you give me one shilling’.”

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Of course the L was not included in the Maori sounds as far as the Maori was concerned.

With regard to the SH sound in Hongi and Hokianga, as mentioned previously, it was believed that the definite article E preceding another vowel gave the sound SH; thus in early times E ongi was given the sound shongi. Presumably the Maori form was E hongi and the sound caught by the European was Shongi. Here is a specimen of a Maori Prayer to the Wind, 1. in Ancient Maori, and 2. in Modern Maori:


Show nue, show roa,

Show poo keede keede

Keedea wo pai darro

Tee tee parera rera

Kohoia homai te show.


E hau nui, e hau roa

E hau pu kite kite

Kitea a pai raro

Titi parerarera

Kokoia homai te hau.

In 1815 the Rev. Samuel Marsden had interested the Church Missionary Society in the Maori, after much opposition. He had come in contact with several chiefs before this, they having visited his parsonage at Parramatta page 21 when he was senior chaplain at New South Wales. The Rev. Wm. Yate in his book “An Account of New Zealand” 1835, states: “The visit of a few chiefs gave Samuel Marsden a very high idea of the superior character, disposition, and abilities of the New Zealanders. On his first visit here, he found them, as he had anticipated, bold, daring, adventurous, war-like, and in the possession of good sense; presenting a fine field for Christian labours and for the hand of civilization. After much solicitation Mr. Marsden was successful in getting the C.M.S. to send out Messrs. Kendall, Hall, and King, later followed by Mr. Kemp, as missionaries to the Maori.”

Mr. Kendall immediately set to work to compile a book of instruction for the natives in their own tongue. He called it “A Korao no New Zealand”. He apologised for its shortcomings; but it was the beginning of a New Zealand written language, and a very laudable attempt.

Nicholas, in his book “Voyage to New Zealand, Vol. II” has a vocabulary subjoined which he states “was compiled by Mr. Kendall previously to my departure from New South Wales, at which place it has been printed by order of Mr. Marsden who sent several books of it to New Zealand for the instruction of the children page 22 there. The compiler derived considerable assistance from a copious collection of words in the Otaheitan language with which he was furnished by one of the missionaries.”

Some examples from Kendall's Korao are given hereunder:
English WordKendallPresent Maori
youacquoiA koe
JesusJesus ChristIhu Karaiti
onekotahika tahi
twokadooaka rua
threeka toodooka torupage 23
fourka whaka wha
fivekadeemaka rima
sixkahunnooka ono
sevenkawhittooka whitu
eightkawhaddooka waru
nineka hewhaka iwa
tenkanghahoodooka ngahuru: kotahi tekau
twentykatikou manahoodooe rua tekau
fortykadooa tikowe wha tekau
sixtykatoodoo tikowe ono tekau
one hundredkadema tikowkotahi rau
one thousandkadeema rowkotahi mano

Written Maori was now an established fact, and McNab in his book “From Tasman to Marsden” tells what was the sequel three years later: “In 1818 two New Zealanders, Tooi, who had resided at Parramatta for about three years, and Teeteere, who spent nearly eighteen months there, were sent to England by Marsden page 24 ‘to enlarge their ideas and prepare them for great usefulness to their countrymen’. Both were young men of fine temper and natural parts, and excellent representatives of their countrymen. Part of Marsden's scheme was to have a New Zealand vocabulary formed by some celebrated philologists in England; and the visit of these two chiefs was to be taken advantage of to have this done. For the philological work the Rev. Samuel Lee, Professor of Oriental languages at Cambridge, and a man of special knowledge, was selected to fix the spelling, pronunciation, and construction of the new language. Unfortunately, the chiefs had to leave on account of ill health, and the work was left incomplete. Yet, the effort was not in vain.”

In Arthur Thomson's “New Zealand, Vol. II” is found the following account: “Hongi and Waikato went to England with Mr. Kendall, where they remained for three months. They had frequent intercourse with Professor Lee; who afterwards published a grammar and vocabulary. The words kororia for glory, pouaka for box, and hipi for sheep, were coined.”

Thus, in 1820 the first complete grammar of the Maori language was published under the title of “A Grammar and Vocabulary of the page 25 Language of New Zealand” by the Church Missionary Society. In the preface to the Grammar Professor Lee states: “Mr. Kendall, who had for several years resided as a settler in New Zealand under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society, having returned early in the summer of the present year with the two native chiefs to England, it was resolved by the committee that every advantage should be taken of this opportunity for the purpose of settling the orthography, and as far as possible, reducing the language itself of New Zealanders to the rules of Grammar, with a view to the furtherance of the Mission sent to that country.”

Mr. Lee goes on to state that the Grammar was built up from information received from Tui (Tooi) and Tetere (Teeteere), Mr. Kendall's collection while in New Zealand, and assistance from Hongi and Waikato. The particular object of the publication was to make it useful to the Maori, to their teachers, to the missionaries, and to the settlers. Professor Lee further writes: “The first point aimed at was to make the alphabet as simple and comprehensive as possible by giving the vowels and consonants such names and powers as were not likely to be burthensome to the memory, or perplexing to the understanding; and for page 26 this end the division into vowels, diphthongs, and consonants, as well as the names of each as laid down in the Sanscrit grammars, has been preferred; though the scantiness of the New Zealand sounds has made it unpracticable to follow their arrangement in every particular, it was not possible to illustrate every sound by English examples; some are therefore left to be learnt from the mouths of the natives.

That either the Grammar or vocabulary is as perfect as may be wished, no one will take upon himself to affirm, but when the unfavourable circumstances are considered under which the materials have been collected and the work composed, it is hoped that it will be found not to fall short of reasonable expectation, both in extent and accuracy. At all events a foundation has been laid, and we may hope by the blessing of God, hereafter to see a fair superstructure.

As a means of rendering a future edition of this work more perfect, I should recommend to the missionaries to get their copies interleaved, and daily to make such remarks on every part of the Grammar, as well as additions to the vocabulary, as the extent of their information may enable them.”