Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

A Dictionary of the Maori Language


page break


Parts of Speech

Parts of speech are defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “each of the grammatical categories or classes of words, as determined by the kind of notion or relation which they express in the sentence.” The popular conception which is drawn from, if not necessarily involved in, such a definition is that certain words are nouns, certain others adjectives, another group verbs, and so on. It is hardly necessary to labour the point that many words find a place in two or more of these groups. Many examples of this may be found in English, while in Maori, which, is almost devoid of grammatical inflexions, most words may be used in more than one of the classes of parts of speech.

As grammatical relations exist in Maori which have no exact counterpart in English grammar, terms have had to be adopted to express these relations. Certain words have accordingly been termed participles. These participles are closely allied to the adjectives, and denote state or condition, but differ from adjectives in that they are never used epithetically (‖ F.L. § 66). The term local noun was applied in the second edition of First Lessons in Maori to a class of nouns which are never used with an article, adjective, or pronoun. In a list given (F.L. § 8), all the examples have a local significance, but in the Dictionary the term has been extended to include a number of words denoting time relations, which, being similarly used, come within the same grammatical category.

Word Formation

The majority of words in Maori are formed from one or more roots, consisting normally of two short syllables. These roots may be modified by reduplication, by the addition of prefixes and suffixes, which may be monosyllabic or disyllabic, and occasionally by the lengthening of a vowel.

With the apparent exception of uo, every possible combination of two vowels may occur in such a disyllabic root element; but it is not correct to speak of these vowel combinations as diphthongs, each vowel forming strictly a separate syllable, however close the coalescence may appear to be in speech. It follows from this that in analysis every long vowel should be regarded as equivalent to two short vowels of the same phonetic value, and as a matter of fact some writers, English and Maori, have been in the habit of so writing them, but this is now seldom done.*

* In some instances adherence to this practice would preserve traces of the etymology of the word; thus to, drag, appears in cognate Polynesian dialects as toso, and kē, different, as kese.

page XIX

Reduplication may be either partial, affecting the first syllable alone of the root (as papaki, from paki), or complete (as pakipaki). In the latter case a prefixed short syllable will invariably be lengthened, as ngahere, ngāherehere; mania, māniania; pakē, pākēkē. When the two syllables of the root are identical, as pepe, complete reduplication may be in the form pēpepe or pepepepe. In a few cases alternative reduplication occurs, as tihoihoi and tihotihoi, from tihoi; this would appear to indicate that consciousness of the structural history of the word has been lost.

Reduplication generally modifies the meaning of a word. With adjectives complete reduplication has the effect of diminishing the intensity of the meaning, as mate, sick, matemate, sickly; wera, hot, werawera, rather hot, warm; mārō, stiff, mārōro, somewhat stiff. The effect of partial reduplication is in some cases similarly to diminish the intensity of the meaning, as pango, black, papango, somewhat black, dark; whero, red, whewhero, reddish; while in a few cases it forms a plural, as he rakau pai, a good tree, he rakau papai, good trees. It must be observed, however, in the latter case that the simple form may be used for either singular or plural, but the reduplicated form for the plural only.

In the case of verbs the effect of the two kinds of reduplication is somewhat different. Partial reduplication denotes either prolongation or continuance of the action with increased intensity, or reciprocal action.* Complete reduplication gives a verb frequentative force with, sometimes, diminished intensity; occasionally the frequentative becomes a simple plural, indicating merely that a number of objects are involved in the action of the verb. From kimo, wink or blink, is formed kikimo, denoting that the eyes are closed and kept closed, and kimokimo, blink frequently; so, too, paki, pat, papaki, clap together, pakipaki, pat frequently.


The number of prefixes in Maori is exceptionally large. In the absence of clearer light upon the subject the vast majority of them must be classed as formatives of which the force has, in most cases, not yet been ascertained.

A few only are generally recognised as inflexional. Kai prefixed to a transitive verb forms a noun connoting the agent; thus, hanga, make; kaihanga, maker.

Whaka and its apparent equivalent whā may be prefixed to verbs (except such as are strictly transitive), adjectives, and nouns, and form in each case a causative verb: whakanoho, cause to sit; whakamohio, cause to know; whakapai, make or pronounce good; wharite, make like; whakatangata, make into, or treat, as a man. Nouns and some adjectives having the prefix whaka, or wha, form verbs which are often used intransitively, when they have a reflex signification, it being assumed that, where no object is expressed, the agent is himself the object of his own action. Thus whakatika,

* It should be noted here that the passive of a verb formed by partial reduplication is made direct from the simple root, and cannot be distinguished from that of the parent verb.

page XX straighten, is commonly used, without an object expressed, to signify straighten oneself, or stand up; whakatamariki, act the part of a child; whakatane, play the man.

Taki, having a distributive force, may be prefixed to numerals, as takiwhitu, by sevens, It is also used with adjectives, participles, and verbs to denote that the word applies to each and all, or one by one, of the things spoken of. Three prefixes are used with the numerals from one to nine: hoko, denoting multiples of twenty, as hokoono, one hundred and twenty; tua, forming ordinals, as tuarima, fifth (used also with the interrogative hia — tuahia, which in order); toko, which is used also with hia and adjectives of number, such as maha, etc., indicating that persons are being spoken of.

Tau prefixed to a reduplicated root has frequently a reciprocal force. Ma as a prefix will often form an adjective. is sometimes used as a causative prefix. Roko and maki, or ngaki, have a recognised force. But none of these is used with the same regularity as kai, whaka, and the numerical prefixes.


The number of suffixes in Maori does not appear to be so great as that of the prefixes, and only two having inflexional force are in general use, but each of these appears in a variety of forms.

The simplest form of the passive termination is a, but it frequently takes one of the forms ia, hia, kia, mia, ngia, ria, tia, whia, na, ina, hina, kina, rina, whina, nga, hanga.* Thus:
poroforms poroa.
ki" kiia.
waru" waruhia.
moto" motokia.
aru" arumia.
rere" rerengia.
mau" mauria.
awhi" awhitia.
tiki" tikina.
whawhaoforms whaowhia and whaowhina.
aroha" arohaina.
roko" rokohina and rokohanga.
tāta" tātākina.
whakaatu" whakaaturi and whakaaturina.
hapai" hapainga.

Of these terminations, nga appears to be used only with verbs ending in ai, mia with those ending in o and u, ina with those ending in a; but in all cases other terminations also are used. For the rest it is questionable whether any rule can be formulated. Usage varies so much in different parts of the country that it appears to be mere matter of custom, some regard being had to euphony.

Intransitive as well as transitive verbs are used in the passive, requiring in translation the addition of a preposition to make the sense complete.

* The occurrence of the forms heuea and keuea hardly warrants the recognition of ea as a passive termination. ‖ footnote on p. xxi.

page XXI

Thus, haere, go, travel, haerea, be travelled over; noho, sit, nohoia, be sat upon. Ko te wahi tenei e tapepea nei, This is the place on which one has slipped. Kotahi te wahi i tapekatia, There was one place to which they turned aside.

A passive termination (generally, if not invariably, tia) will be used with an adverb or adjective used adverbially when the verb with which it is connected is in the passive. Tokowha ona hoa i kainga katoatia e ia, There were four of his companions who were devoured entirely by him.

A noun, adjective, or participle may be used with a passive termination to express a change to the thing or condition which the simple word signifies. Thus, Kua korouatia koe, You have become an old man; Aua e taparurutia te haere, Do not let the rate of travelling become slow.

Occasionally a phrase which it is impossible to consider as a compound word may be treated like a verb and be given the passive termination. For instance, ma te matapihi, through the window, might be treated in this way: Ma-te-matapihi-tia mai, Let it be passed here through the window.

There is another passive termination, tanga, which is sometimes added to a verb, or to an adverb qualifying a passive verb, and apparently indicates a rapid sequence of events. Hiko tonu ia ki nga ngarehu, apuatanga, He immediately snatched up the burning coals and crammed them into his mouth. Apitiria tonutanga atu ko te pa, ka horo, The pa was attacked forthwith, and fell.

A noun denoting the fact, circumstance, time, or place of the action of a verb may be formed by adding one of the suffixes nga, anga, hanga, kanga, manga, ranga, tanga, inga,* the choice of the termination being, as in the case of the passives, somewhat arbitrary. Thus:

mahi makes mahmga.
noho " nohoanga.
titiro " tirohanga.
tomo " tomokanga.
ngaro " ngaromanga.
whakaatu " whakaaturanga.
pupuri " puritanga.
ka " kainga.

The force of such a verbal noun may be either active or passive, according to the context. For example: Tana patunga i a au, The circumstance of his striking me; Tona patunga e au, The circumstance of his being struck by me.

Similar nouns may be formed from nouns, adjectives, or participles, and denote the fact, etc., of being, or of becoming, the thing or of the quality or condition indicated by the original word.

There are a few surviving indications of an ancient suffix, written variously i, hi, ki, and possibly other forms, the function of which was to form transitive verbs. So, arahi, from ara; tapahi, from tapa; rumaki, turaki, from roots no longer in use. In many of these cases the verbal noun is formed direct from the root, as arahanga, tapahanga, rumakanga, turakanga.

* The forms heuenga and keuenga also appear; but ‖ footnote on p. xx.

This subject has been dealt with at some length by the Rev. W. G. Ivens, Proc. Roy. Soc. of Victoria, vol. xvii (n.s.), p. 305.

page XXII

Transformed Words

The form of words is sometimes materially altered by (a) the transposition of letters or syllables, as rango to ngaro, the change sometimes involving a further slight alteration in one of the letters, as ngawhariki to whanariki; (b) the substitution of one letter for another, as in taina for teina, tipuna for tupuna, ngongi for momi, etc., it not being always possible to state which is the original form, or whether both forms may not be independent derivatives from the same root,* (c) the omission of a letter, as in tou for tonu; (d) the insertion of a letter, as in teneki for tenei. Some of these changes are due to peculiarities of dialect; but not infrequently two forms of the same word will be used in the same district, or even by the same person. A further source of change was the fact that some ordinary word might enter into the name of a chief, when its use would be avoided, and a substitute sought, for fear of causing offence and affording pretext for a quarrel. Many instances of this are noticed in the Dictionary, but one may be used as an illustration. Ngongi had at one time been thus substituted for wai, and not only did service for water and the interrogative who, but gave rise also to Ngongikato and ngongirua for Waikato and wairua respectively.

* The subject of the interchange of letters cannot be adequately dealt with in a single paragraph. Some writers give lists which are bewilering in their variety. But it seems probable that many instances which are quoted should be regarded as examples of varying prefixes rather than of interchanging letters. Thus powhatu and kowhatu probably illustrate prefixes po and ko without implying any reciprocity between the letters p and k.