Calming our cultural nerves with Māori language

“There is no Pākehā way of saying Māori words.”

By now you may have seen Finnian Galbraith’s Youtube clip ‘The importance of correctly pronouncing Māori words’. If not, the tail end of Māori Language Week is as good a time to watch it as any.

Finnian posted his school speech online on 20 July. When I last checked it had nearly 290,000 views.

Finninan makes an appeal to basic respect. “People hate English being pronounced incorrectly, especially their names, but yet, is it fine for people to go around pronouncing Māori names incorrectly?”

He cites Taupō as one of the words we commonly get wrong.

I grew up in Taupō and don’t think I ever said it the right way. The sloping twang that everyone used was so familiar and comfortable, it barely registered with me that Taupō is in fact a Māori name.

Oddly, I never had trouble pronouncing the full name correctly: Taupō-nui-a-tia.

Finnian’s plea is hardly new, but the novelty of being reminded about Māori pronunciation by a respectful young white chap, standing politely in his school blazer, somehow makes it more of a wake up call.

If that kid can say Taupō properly then I suppose I should too. It’s not hard; we just need to juggle some vowels. The first syllable should sound like the thing at the end of your foot and the second syllable should sound like the thing at the end of your dog: “Toe-Paw”.

The same goes for Tauranga. “Toe-wrunga”. It is a word I pronounce self-consciously at times. Getting it right has nothing to do with it being difficult. The only barrier is a lifetime of habit and my own misplaced hang ups.

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In his video Finnian says that correct pronunciation will become second nature to New Zealanders if Māori lessons are made compulsory in primary schools. Just an hour per week, he suggests, with the goal that every student leaves primary school with the ability to have a simple conversation in Māori.

That would be great. I would love to see the next generation of New Zealanders fluent in conversational Māori. I would love for it to be perfectly normal to hear at the supermarket: “Kei hea te Whittakers?”

A young generation fluent in te reo would add depth and richness to our national culture. It would be transformative. It could make us the envy of the world.

I can only think of upsides to learning the basics of another language – regardless of which language you invest your time in. Māori is a wonderful language. It is vibrant, expressive, poetic, and also very funny. When I took te reo at university (a skill I am still trying to reclaim) I noticed that ordinary English statements can take on mischievous twists when rendered in Māori.

It is important to remember that New Zealanders share a common heritage, a collective history with all of its bumps, bruises and misunderstandings. As Finnian says in his video, “You live in this country and therefore should be proud of your country’s heritage and should try and preserve it.”

The best way across any cultural divide is through the language. Te reo is uniquely New Zealand’s language. It survives as a national treasure, as a living language. It is the secret weapon that could calm our cultural nerves and draw us together far more effectively than any new flag.

All Finnian Galbraith wants is for kiwis to try a bit harder to look after it. “What matters is that you are trying, and that creates an atmosphere where others will feel okay to try as well.”

The least we can do is have a go at pronouncing Tauranga correctly.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 31 July 2015. Reproduced with permission.