20 Oct 2022

Challenges ahead as interest in Māori dialects grows

9:30 pm on 20 October 2022
Mātua Rautia kura reo in the Manawatū.

A kura reo in the Manawatū was held to help teach Māori parents. Photo: Instagram / Ohomairangi Whaiapu

By Pokere Paewai

As more and more Māori reclaim their language, many are growing curious about the rangi or dialect of their own iwi, but for some, this is proving challenging.

Iwi from different regions often have their own distinct sounds and phrases. Take Ngāi Tahu, who drop the 'ng' sound for a 'k': Aoraki, not Aorangi. Or Tūhoe, with wānana, not wānanga.

Jeremy Tātere MacLeod (Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitāne) recently finished a PhD on dialectology.

"A lot of people get caught up on words, [but] dialect is about sound, it's about pronunciation, it's about accent, as well as words and grammatical variation," he said.

A great deal of te reo Māori is the same across the motu, with dialects often subtle place markers for where a person comes from. There is variation and some are stronger and more distinctive than others, but there is one intelligible language across the land.

Increasingly, iwi, hapū and marae across the country are holding their own wānanga and kura reo to teach their own mita and versions of the language, although some are better resourced than others.

For those keen to learn their dialect, Dr Tātere MacLeod has some advice: Start with the basics.

"If you want to learn your dialect, it's important to get the bones of the language first, become proficient in the language and it's much easier to identify dialectal variations. Unless you're from a tribe that still has very strong dialectal nuances."

Advocate and educator Mataia Keepa has been teaching te reo among his Te Arawa iwi. He echoed Dr Tātere MacLeod's thoughts with his own kīwaha.

"Dialects are important but I think adding those afterwards is like the finer carvings of a waka. It's important to fell the tree first before you start carving your waka."

Advocate and educator Mataia Keepa has been teaching te reo among his Te Arawa iwi.

Advocate and educator Mataia Keepa has been teaching te reo among his Te Arawa iwi. Photo: Supplied

A strong foundation of te reo was needed before diving into dialects, he said, adding that he did not think the language revival was quite there yet.

It would be better to speak standard te reo of good quality, rather than poor te reo that sounds tribal, Keepa said.

"Because of the calamity te reo Māori has faced and endured, we are still in the process of finding the best way of learning te reo Māori generically and with quality," he said.

He also worried many iwi did not have the resources to teach basic te reo, let alone its dialects.

But for many learners the barriers to their reo are much more ordinary: Lack of time, lack of opportunity, and whakamā.

Rex Paraku recently helped with a kura reo in the Manawatū, aimed at teaching Māori parents.

"We noticed that there are a lot of barriers for matua who are working full time, so what we wanted to do with this kaupapa is hold a kura reo annually and try and remove some of those barriers that are preventing them from acquiring te reo, and being confident to speak it," he said.

Paraku hoped by supporting parents, their children would also benefit from a better understanding of their identity.

"We are over-represented in statistics regarding mental illness, so if our tamariki are able to learn a part of where they come from and who they are, the hope is that their wellbeing will be taken care of holistically."

Then, once those kids have that strong foundation, the hope is that greater effort could be turned to strengthening dialects.

But Dr Tātere MacLeod said that could be easier said than done. While some, like Waikato-Tainui, have strong retention, identity and a strategy, other iwi and hapū would find it much harder.

A great deal has been lost in the century of suppression, and there are few recordings for people like Dr Tātere to study how the tūpuna talked.

"For a lot of smaller tribes, where we struggle is that we don't have a huge wealth of language resources, we don't have a lot of recordings," he said.

"I know on my Rangitāne side, particularly in the South Island, we have nothing. We have no oral recordings of any of our kaumātua that were Māori language speakers, [and] we have five generations of language loss."

Last month marked 50 years since the Māori language petition and the revival of te reo that followed. The language has taken great strides since then, but all the experts say there is still a way to go.

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