The Maori Language. How Names Should be Pronounced

  • Source: “The Maori Language”. Marlborough Express, Volume XXXVII, Issue 198, 22 August 1903, Page 2. PapersPast

Mr. W. H. S. Roberts

Source: The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Otago & Southland Provincial Districts], 1905.

By W. H. S. Roberts, Oamaru.

When I arrived in New Zealand, in 1856, the Europeans were thrown much more in-contact with the aborigines than they are now. The Maori language was then spoken by the Natives in its pristine purity, which is more than can be said of it at the present day, when so many English words have been Maorified, and in some cases so changed by the transition as to cause a doubt as to whether the words are real Maori or transmogrified English, some of them having been acquired from the early whalers, who spoke to the Natives in a mixture of both languages, a kind of “pidgin” English. Naturally, there are different dialects in the Maori language. Words used in parts of the North Island are not known in Otago, and vice versa. Maori is a difficult language to learn perfectly, unless acquired when young, or by direct intercourse with the Natives, when the learner will be able to catch the correct intonation and accent, which is almost impossible to acquire from books. It is not spoken, like English, with the tip of the tongue, but is rolled out from the root of the tongue, without either drawling or clipping, every letter being clearly pronounced. The Maori says of a pakeha who cannot give the words their proper expression, that he eats the words. The word “Maori” should be pronounced as three syllables, Ma-o-ri (like Mah-oh-ree), with a slight accent on the “a” The word means “native,” indigenous, “fresh,” and, in some cases “mortal.” Before the Maori words were reduced to written forms, they were only spoken sounds, and the letters used by English-speaking people were selected to give them the truest representation possible, but it is difficult to adapt the English pronouciation to the muffled, rolling sound usual among old Maoris. Edward Shortland, in his “Southern Districts of New Zealand,” page 155, says:-—”At the suggestion, I believe, of the Celebrated French navigator, D’Urville, the vowel sounds in the New Zealand language were first represented in writing by the same characters as the corresponding sounds in Spanish and Italian. By this means, the perplexing difficulties in regard to orthography, met with by foreigners in learning English, French, etc., are avoided, the language being written, in all cases, as it is pronounced.” So much is this the case, that a smart scholar who does not know one word of Maori can write it correctly from the dictation of a Maori who does not know English.

With the exception of the nasal sound, “ng,” the language is remarkably soft and euphonious, being composed mainly of five vowels, the pronounciation represented by them having the sound generally given them by the Scotch or Continental nations, the “a” as in “far,” or “ah,” but occasionally when followed by a consonant, it is soft, as in “way.” I think, however, that the soft “a” is an error of the first writers in placing “a” instead of “e” in spelling the word, for people in the early days sometimes made that mistake with all the words, no knowing, or forgetting, that the Continental pronounciation had been accorded to the vowels, therefore spelling words phonetically with the English sound. “E” has the sound of “a” in fate; “i” as “ee” in feet; “o” as in pole; “u” as “oo” in boot. The difficulty with the vowels is the distinction between long and short, for the long and short tone are very important in Maori, and, if correctly used, alter the meaning of the word. The Rev W. Colenso always doubled the vowel when it was to be pronounced long, but this also had its objection, as some words have the same vowel at the end of one syllable and the commencement of the next in the same word, as mata-ati (first procured). Certainly such words are generally complex. It would be better to use the short horizontal stroke over the long vowel, as in Latin.

The Maoris had no written language, but their paintings and carvings frequently took the form of hierogliphics, which the learned tohungas could read, and with which they used to refresh their memories. Professor Lee, of Cambridge, assisted by the Maori chiefs Hongi Hika and Waikato, who went from the Bay of Islands to England in 1820 with the missionary Mr Kendal, decided that only fourteen of the Roman letters were necessary, namely, A, E, H, I, K, M, N, O, P, R, T, U, W, NG, five vowels, eight single consonants and a double consonant, for “G” is never used without “N” before it. The letters “Wh” are also used as a double consonant.

I think it would have been better had they added “d” and “1,” because “r” and “t” have now to do duty for these letters, as well as for themselves. Indeed “r” has scarcely an equivalent in English, its nearest sound, when followed by the vowels, “a,” “e,” “o,” being as in rope, but before “u” it is something like “d” in den, and before “i” as a semiliquid approaching “1” in “la,” “ringa” being nearly “linga”,” the sound of the “r” and “1” becoming mixed. The Nga-ti-mamoe and Nga-i-tahu tribes pronounced the “r” so like “1,” that the Europeans have spelt Akaroa “Akaloa,” and Waihora “Waihola.” In no case is “r” sounded as the rough “r” of an Irishman, who pronounces it by jarring the tip of the tongue against the roof of his mouth near the fore teeth. “N” and “R” are dentopalatal; “K” palatal;- “P” “M” labial; “T” dental, sounded generally something like between the sound of “t” in two, and “th”, though it frequently sounds more like “d.” “H” is aspirate, and called “ha,” as in hand, but some Maoris pronounce it more like “sh”; sometimes it is simply an aspirate, and occasionally it is made by a jerk of the voice. The Whanganui tribe used often to drop the “h” like our Cockneys, which is the reason why the name is now spelt Wanganui. In pronouncing “Wh,” care must be taken not to sound it as though “ou” prefixed the “wh,” as is such a common fault among colonials. “K” is sounded as in “king,” but is also used for “g” and “c” hard, because the letters “c” and “g” (by itself) have no place in the Maori alphabet, “g” being used only in conjunction with “n.” “Ng” is sounded as in ring; it is often pronounced as “n” only, or changed into “k,” especially by the southern tribes, but that does not imply that every “k” or “n” is a substitute for “ng.” The other double consonant, “wh,” was often pronounced as “f” by the Nga-i tahu; “m” as in mind, “n” as in noun, “p” as in pan, “w” as in water, something like “oo.”

All vowels are pronounced separately, no matter how many may follow each other; sometimes every vowel forming a syllable. Diphthongs hardly ever occur. When speaking quickly, two vowels may appear to be sounded as a diphthong, but when pronounced properly and lowly, the sound of each vowel is clearly heard. For example, take ko e-a e (the name of a fish), or the common word wa-i (water), the usual pronouciation “wy” being wrong. Many letters are interchangeable. With the exception of the two double consonants “ng “and “wh” two consonants cannot possibly come together, every consonant being qualified by a following vowel, and every syllable and every word must end with a vowel, which at once shows how to divide the words into syllables and pronounce them. Few syllables have more than two letters. A syllable may consist of one vowel only. The terminal vowel is frequently prolonged in speaking, and more so in singing, but never clipped or omitted. As the language has a dissyllabic root, and is phonetic, it is never ponderous or difficult. Words having more than two syllables are com pound, and may be broken up into their original parts, care being taken to end each with a vowel, one of the vowels may have been accidentally omitted, as Pitone, which should be Pito-one, meaning “the end of the beach”; and Wakari, the “Snowy Mountain,” Dunedin, which ought to be spelt Whaka-ari.

In Maori, when a substantive and an adjective come together the rule is that the adjective follows the noun. The adjective has neither case nor number. The superlative degree is formed by prefixing “tino,” meaning “very” or “exceedingly,” to the adjective. The articles in the singular number are “a”—”he” “te” —”the”; the plural is formed by “nga” before the noun. The letter “s” should never be placed as the end of a Maori word to designate the plural, particularly when naming tribes, but custom has, unfortunately, disregarded this rule. The dative “to” is “ko.” The past participle is made by adding “tia,” “ria,” “kia” and so on to the verb.

The accent, which is generally slight but emphatic, is the principal difficulty in pronouncing Maori, as the position of it and the lengthening of the vowel alter the meaning of many words. In words of two syllables the accent is most frequently on the first. As a rule “i” is always accented before another vowel, and never takes the sound of “y.” “U” before “a,” “e” or “i” is always accented.

As an example of the accent pointing out the meaning, I may mention. 0-mara-ma. The “0” is a preposition, meaning “of” or “the place of.” Pronounce the word with the accent on the first “a” and sound it long, the word means “the place of light” or “the place of moonlight,” but if you shorten the first “a” and accent the second “a,” it means “of the moon,” or “the place of the moon.” Matau is another; if the accent is on the first “a” it means a “fish-hook,” if on the second “a” it becomes an adjective, and signifies “right.”

William Henry Sherwood Roberts (1834-1817), was born in Wales into the Worcestershire family and educated in London. He came to New Zealand in 1855 and made his way from Nelson to Invercargill, where he became a squatter in Southland. After suffering several losses, he settled in Oamaru, immersing himself in community life. He also wrote several histories on the region.


  • Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Otago & Southland Provincial Districts] as published on the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection
  • Obituary, North Otago Times, Volume CIV, Issue 13785, 23 January 1917, Page 2



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