Pronunciation of Maori Names – a lesson from 1898

Pronunciation of Maori Names – a lesson from 1898

At last meeting of the Hawera branch of the Teachers’ Institute Mr Clapham, of Mangatoki, read an interesting paper urging that Maori pronunciation should be systematically taught in public schools.

He said it was not generally known that there existed a complete phonetic system contained in a simple table which enables the Maori to spell with accuracy and ease every articulate utterance in his language, and to read and pronounce in like manner every word in his vocabulary.

He thought everyone would recognise the importance of that which reduces to a state of simplicity what is otherwise most difficult, that which renders easily intelligible what is utterly meaningless, that which causes to become beautifully euphonious what is repulsively harsh, and lastly the preservation through the instrumentality of spoken language a system of pronunciation which, though neglected in the present day, will he held as invaluable by the more esthetic generations of the future.

As to the trouble experienced by the children in pronouncing Maori geographical names, it is well known that it is only with difficulty that the native names are remembered by them, as compared with others of English origin. Teachers, too, who do not know the Maori system, are incapable of arriving at the correct pronunciation even of the places in their immediate vicinity, and they are compelled to accept the style in currency; this the teacher has good cause to know (in regard to English even, not to mention Maori) is often incorrect and never reliable.

As a consequence pronunciation throughout the country is alarmingly inconsistent, and people moving from one part to another are often exposed to ridicule.

He then pointed out at length the time that was lost by both teachers and pupils through want of proper system in this respect, and also the destruction of the natural harmony of the language which has been supplanted by a pronunciation utterly devoid of melody.

He concludes, “Despite the unpoetical, practical, character of the British colonist he has instinctively preserved the original names and therefore to a wonderful degree the history of the race, which his energetic, aggressive nature compelled him to conquer. …And if to future generations the pronunciation be irretrievably lost, upon whom will their feelings of sorrow and regret of lasting mortification be vented? On the memory of the teachers of the present generation whose duty it is to preserve with jealous care the Maori pronunciation of the Maori name.”

Mr Clapham no doubt has brought into prominence a matter that is neglected to a very large extent.

It is indeed a strange anomaly that pupils in New Zealand schools should be taught to correctly pronounce the geographical names of every country except their own.

But in view of the already overloaded syllabus, adding the Maori language could not be at all seriously thought of. Nor is it in some respects desirable for the specific purpose indicated. There are many names, the free translation of which, for obvious reasons, it is much better young children should remain in ignorance. However, that does not affect the main question at issue, and if, as Mr Clapham points out, a key to correct pronunciation lies in a nut shell and is easily mastered there is no reason why teachers should not be armed with the requisite knowledge. We might go so far as to suggest that knowledge of the elementary rules of pronunciation should be taken into account in the teachers’ examinations.

Whether required by Boards or not, a knowledge of the language however slight should be the aim of every teacher, with the aid of which the study of New Zealand geography would be far more interesting.


Source: “Pronunciation of Maori Names” Hawera & Normanby Star, Volume XXXV, Issue 4006, 8 August 1898, Page 2.

Image: Classroom of school children. Making New Zealand :Negatives and prints from the Making New Zealand Centennial collection. Ref: MNZ-2816-1/4-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.


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