Te reo Māori lesson 1: it’s not pronounced “may-OR-ee”

Not into a long read? Click here (and then on the little speaker icon) to listen to a Māori speaker pronounce the word Māori correctly.

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It feels important to preface this essay by saying that as inquisitive as I have been since moving here, I still have a very limited understanding of the complex and interwoven effects of colonization, the Waitangi Treaty, race relations, and increasing rates of immigration on the many different people who live here in New Zealand. I share what little I’ve gathered below not out of any sense of authority, but out a belief that comparing notes and having open conversations about these issues is one way to pay respect to the people who were here before I arrived.

The history of colonization here in New Zealand Aotearoa included, as it did in so many places, a prohibition on the local Māori language (also known as te reo Māori, which translates to “the Māori language”), complete with punishments for those who dared to speak it. Te reo Māori might have disappeared completely had it not been for the language revival efforts of Māori leaders in the eighties.

Knowing this, and as someone who fully inhabits the world of words / language / metaphor, I’d like to do justice to te reo Māori as a way to honor the culture and the people who lived the longest in this place I now call home. And so I have very much appreciated the opportunity to pick up a bit of this language at work, and in particular, from my boss Pat, a proud Māori who regularly mixes Māori words in with English when he speaks.

At first, our relationship around te reo Māori consisted of him relentlessly correcting my attempts at proper pronunciation. (Scott and I learned very early on that our first guesses at how a word might sound would always be wrong; knowing a bit of Spanish helped us roll the rs properly, but that was about it.) I’ve heard it claimed that some people appreciate it if you make any effort at all not to butcher a Māori word with the “colonizer” version, but I couldn’t seem to catch a break! Still, I do my best to split the difference between having enough of a sense of humor that I don’t just give up in exasperation, and taking the corrections to heart.

Eventually Pat began bringing me Māori words and concepts relevant to our ongoing conversations about meditation and spirituality. I want to acknowledge the time he’s spent answering my questions about his culture and language; while he does appreciate my interest, I recognize that he’s doing form of labor that wasn’t explicitly offered to me as a perk of the job. [Breaking news: as I was about post this, the company we work for announced plans to introduce a te reo Māori course in  office!] I’m also conscious of the fact that I cannot expect him to (nor does he claim to) speak for all members of his iwi, much less ALL Māori people.

Learning to pronounce te reo Māori correctly is particularly challenging for speakers of American English, as the pronunciation guides are clearly designed with a New Zealand English accent (or at least a British one) in mind. That said, at least we’re not working against a lifetime of bad pronunciation habits, as are the Pākehā (white) New Zealanders who care enough to try.

As an example, take Taupõ, a popular lake and tourist destination that a lot of people reaaalllllly want to call “TOW-” (as in “tower” or “ow!”) “poe” (as in Edgar Allen). But read up on how to pronounce the “au” sound and the prompts always say “like ‘author’”, but that instruction only works for the New Zealand / British pronunciation of “author’; for people with American accents, a better prompt would be something like the o in “or” or “tore.” So Tau is pronounced something like “toe” for Americans, but really it’s more like “tore” if you cut the word short and didn’t pronounce the “r” at the end.

The prompts for New Zealand / British English speakers around the o sound are a little closer. They say the ō “should sound like the “aw” part of “paw.” So Taupō sounds like “Toepaw.”

But saying “Toepaw” sounds a lot closer to the te reo if you speak it with a British accent; there’s not really an equivalent that I can think of for pronouncing ō in American English, other than a very condescending, fake “awww” when you don’t really feel sorry for the person.

And this ō syllable reveals another challenge for American-English speakers, and I’m finally getting to the lesson promised by the title: we’re used to a long accent on a vowel indicating the long vowel sound. So an ā would sound like the a in “cake”. But that’s NOT what the macron accent (or tohutō) ā sounds like in te reo Māori! It sounds more like a drawn out “aaah”, or more precisely, the o in “mom”.

So how do you pronounce the word Māori? Depending on where the person you’re talking to is from, it can sound like “Mali” because of the way the r is rolled (that’s how Pat says it), or even a bit like “MAA-odie” if someone is pronouncing the o more. (It’s still a very quick “o” sound, and a very quick tip-of-the-tongue-barely-hitting, rolled-r “d” sound.) It’s definitely not pronounced “may-OR-ee”, and since learning how to say it more correctly, that Americanized version definitely makes me cringe.

The most helpful te reo Māori resource I’ve found thus far is the online Māori dictionary, which includes recordings of native speakers saying the words so you can hear what they sound like. Not all place names are included there, which is unfortunate given how frequently place names are mispronounced, but it’s quite thorough in terms of providing multiple meanings of any word, and you can choose whether you want to also view related idioms, phrases, proverbs, and loan words (which I only just discovered are words “adopted from one language and incorporated into another language without translation”).

I’ve been wanting to share more of what I’m learning about Māori culture and language here, but haven’t felt comfortable doing so without first sharing a bit more context (hence this essay)… we’ll see what unfolds now that I’ve put this out there 🙂

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