The Maori language and NZ English

I’ll never forget the day I received my first-ever piece of hate mail.

I’d been featured a few days earlier in a Sunday newspaper story about the increasing presence of Māori words in NZ English. A reader in the Waikato, judging by the post mark, had taken offence, cut out the article, scribbled rude words across it, and popped it in the mail. Such a reaction to a fairly innocuous article took me by surprise.

So let’s consider the offending information.

For many decades it has generally been accepted that the presence of Māori words is what most obviously defines the variety of English spoken here in NZ. And it is not surprising that Māori words should be an obvious feature. Since the arrival of the first English speakers aboard the Endeavour, the Māori language has been a resource for linguistic enrichment. Rather than think up a new name for a flightless chicken-like bird, for example, it’s easier to use the existing name and call it a weka.

Perhaps what offended the Waikato reader was the idea that this Māori word presence has been increasing over time. Until relatively recently comment on the presence of Māori words in NZ English had been based on intuition and observation. With the advent of computer-based study of language, however, more systematic and empirical investigation became possible. The offending information came from such a study.

Six indicator years – based on the idea of indicator booths in general elections – were selected at thirty year intervals, beginning in 1850. This allowed the study to span the broad history of NZ since systematic European colonisation began, and to do so in a way that reflected generational change (30 years being one measure of a generation). The results showed a gradual increase in the presence of Māori words, from a low of around three and a half words per thousand in the first indicator year to a high of around six in the most recent.

Interestingly, the pattern of increase matched the phases of NZ’s history post-1840 proposed by the historian James Belich. There was a steady rise in the Māori word presence during the first forty-odd years, when English-speaking New Zealanders were creating a new national identity, distinct from Britain. This was followed by a long period where the country re-forged its links with Britain and the Māori word presence remained relatively stable. Around 1970, however, Britain joined what is now the EU and NZ again needed to re-shape its national identity. From 1970 the Māori word presence again began to rise.

Of course, the words that contribute to this Māori presence were not all of the weka variety. They include place names and the names of people, as well as the word Māori itself. However, the nature of the words is less important than the fact that their presence is increasing. Language use and the nature of society are closely linked. The increasing Māori word presence in NZ English suggests an increasing Māori visibility and presence in NZ society.

Perhaps that is really what the Waikato reader didn’t like.

John Macalister

John Macalister’s research interests include second language reading and writing, issues in language learning and New Zealand English. He teaches courses in language teaching methodology (reading and writing), and curriculum design.

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