First person: Te reo Māori is simple in comparison to English

9:21 pm on 8 August 2019

First Person: RNZ journalist Te Aniwa Hurihanganui was about to catch a plane home from Auckland when an Air New Zealand worker saw her name on her passport and asked, how on earth did you spell that as a kid? As she explains, it wasn't the first time.

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A flag flies at Ihumātao, near the Auckland Airport. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

I had just spent three days at Ihumātao, the 32-hectare land-block in South Auckland where hundreds of people, including mana whenua, have been occupying the land to oppose a new housing development.

The people there have formed their own papakāinga - a communal, whānau living space where everyone has the same vision to protect the whenua and despite where people might sit on what has become a contentious kaupapa - the site is entrenched in tikanga Māori. So, naturally, a language you hear often when you visit is te reo Māori, and for someone like me who rarely hears it being spoken in urban Wellington, it was so refreshing.

When it was time to leave the whenua yesterday, the language followed me all the way down Oruarangi Road. Young rangatahi stationed at the entry-point saw me and said, "kia ora, kia pai to rā," and then back I went to the opposite side of the city, Auckland's CBD, where the atmosphere could not be more different.

It was the same bustling, frantic, reo-less scene when I arrived at Auckland Airport today. I may have only been a five-minute drive from Ihumātao, but it was an Air New Zealand worker's comment that reminded me just how far away I was.

Upon checking the name on my passport, the worker asked me: "How on earth did you spell that as a kid?"

It's not the first time I've been asked the question, so I responded in the same way I always do. "Probably the same way every other kid learns how to spell their name," I said.

She then asked if I could say my name in full. I was in a rush to get my boarding pass so I quickly obliged. Then she said, "wow, what do your friends call you?"

"A variety of things, depending on who it is," I said, and quickly took my ticket before she could ask another question.

Encounters like these have always bemused me.

Te reo Māori, in comparison to English, is actually very simple. The vowel sounds never change, they're only ever slightly drawn out when spelt with a macron. There are no 'silent' letters in te reo Māori either, unless you take into account particular iwi dialects.

I don't actually remember learning how to spell my name, but I do remember the language coming quite easily to me and the other kids at kura. We learned the entire Māori alphabet in a day; 15 letters in total, two of which are digraphs. There was no need for spelling tests because once you learn the basic principles of te reo, they never change. There are no surprises like silent letters, or foreign words that derive from other languages.

By the time I was age 10, I not only knew how to spell my name, I could spell any word in the Māori language so long as I heard it correctly.

You'd know all of this, of course, if you'd ever learned te reo Māori.

But when strangers from coffee shops, or doctors visits, or airports ask me, "How did you spell your name as a kid?" I am reminded time and time again that that is not the case for most people.

And that's okay too. But perhaps if everyone put even a small effort to learn te reo Māori it might mean the next person who reads my name on a passport will say, instead, "I think I know the meaning of your name, the rainbow, right?"

Air New Zealand has since apologised on behalf of the worker.

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