Māori: Losing and Reviving Its Voice

“Empires come and go, languages ebb and flow (Harrison 2007).” But sometimes, there’s too much of leaving, of losing. It only leaves people wondering and feeling incomplete. It leaves people asking, “Why have I not listened while there was still something to be heard?” Such, is language.

According to New Zealand History (2014), New Zealand in 1800 was a Maori world. Māori, a Polynesian language, was its predominant language (Spolsky 2009). However, several events in the early 19th century started the turning point not only in New Zealand’s people’s living but also in Maori as its language.

In the early part of 19th century, as Maori came into contact with English through the arrival of missionaries and traders, English settlement in the country began to increase. Some of these missionaries and traders were actually invited to New Zealand by tribal leaders “who saw the value of modernisation”. Literacy became one of the aspects of the adoption to modern culture. With Maori education left in the hands of Pakeha, New Zealand appears to have been bilingual by the time (Spolsky 2009). However, as more English speakers arrived, Maori was increasingly confined to Maori communities (“History of The Māori Language” 2015). Furthermore, with the white increase in white settlement, there was a great increase in disputes over land ownership which culminated in the New Zealand wars of 1845-72 (Belich cited in Spolsky 2009). These may have begun the Māori language endangerment because following the war, shift to English came. In a sense, these show why some argued that the “non-European worlds crumpled ‘under the weight of expanding Europe’” (“History of The Māori Language” 2015).

For instance, Education Ordinance of 1847, later continued by 1858 Native Schools Act, ruled that mission schools will only receive government support “if they would provide religious and industrial training and teach English.” Then, a new act in 1867 required schools to use English as the medium of instruction (Spolsky 2009), and “forced” the students and the whole community to speak in English because otherwise, they will be punished (Calman 2012). Moreover, Dana Rachelle Peterson (2000) reported that although such punishment ceased to be the official policy of the Department of Education in 1930s, it was still practised in schools in some areas for decades. In fact, a survey conducted in mid-1970s on Maori language us found out that 40% of the adult respondents had been punished personally for speaking Maori when they were at school, some of whom experienced it as late as 1950s to 1960s. In an account in the New Zealand History (2015), in the mid-1980s, Sir James Henare recalled being sent into the bush to cut a piece of pirita (supplejack vine) which was used to strike him for speaking Maro in the school ground.

Moreover, by the start of the 20th century, large-scale “urbanisation” affected the Maori language because there was a decline in the number of fluent native speakers and an increasingly demotivated generational transmission. Bernard Spolsky (2009) went on to discuss in his article “Rescuing Maori: The Last 40 Years” that service in the army and job opportunities, in urban places, during World War II further increased the need for the use of English. There were 75% of the Maori population that lived in rural areas before the war, however after approximately 2 decades, 60% of the Maori people were already living in the urban areas (“History of The Māori Language” 2015).  Although learning English did not necessarily caused the endangerment of the Maori language, the separation of domains of language use, wherein Maori language was increasingly confined to home or non-work community activities, contributed to the perception of the Maori people that Maori language was “irrelevant” (Day and Rewi 2014).

According to Delyn Day and Poia Rewi’s (2014) study, as an effect of the change in the environment for language use, several meanings and concepts in the Maori language were lost or “misplaced”. For instance, the eradication of place names from their geographical location , although did not mean the loss of Maori knowledge per se, indicated that they may have been a weakening of an intricate method of remembering through landscape (Walker 1969 cited in Day and Rewi 2014). Also, the disconnection of language from its origin shows that meaning loss occurs because speakers no longer engage in the day-to-day activities or live in the same environment as their ancestors. Further, the taboos impressed upon the Maori community by European standards caused the shift in the Maori language wherein a Maori individual resorts to colloquialisms as opposed to using direct and explicit Maori words. For example, infidelity became taboo in the Maori culture as European standards “assessed” the language and the community which compromised the whole language family context of the word.

Thus, since the Maori language is indigenous only to New Zealand, the people saw that its survival as a living language was dependent on their own actions. The regeneration movement started in the 1970s where Nga Tamatoa and Wellington-based Re Reo Maori Society presented to the Parliament a petition signed by 30,00 people on September 14, 1972. The petition called for “courses in the Maori language and other aspects of Maori culture [to] be offered in all… [of] New Zealand to promote a more meaningful concept of Integration” (Spolsky 2009).

In 1977, as Kara Puketapu was appointed first secretary of the Department of Maori Affairs, Tu Tangata, a movement active in revival of Maori culture and arts, was established which led to several programmes established. The programs sent young Maori into villages to restore marae (meeting houses) and learn the language and customs they had lost in the cities where they lived.  Some of these programs include the Te Ataarangi in late 1970s, Kohanga Reo (language nests) in 1981, and Kura Kaupapa Maori in the late 1980s. These, like other programs, gave a promise of support in teaching the language to pre-school level that was preceded by an adult education initiative (Spolsky 2009; Peterson 2000).

Fortunately, the pursuit of reviving the Maori language succeeded since the number of speakers increased, especially younger speakers, and there has been recognition and support from the government. Also, there have been signs of renewed use in home, and even wider usage on radio, television and newspapers.

Certainly, documentation of endangered language is not like it is about catching fireflies in jars nor is it about not learning constellations, because we should not trap the stars. It is about listening to the speakers’ whispers before they fade with all the life to it. What better way to characterize “ebb and flow” than integration and holding on?


Calman, Ross. 2012. “3. – Māori Education – Mātauranga – Te Ara Encyclopedia Of New Zealand”. Teara.Govt.Nz. http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/maori-education-matauranga/page-3.

Day, Delyn, and Poia Rewi. 2013. Endagered Meanings And Concepts: Māori Language Habitats. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265413297_Endangered_meanings_and_concepts_Maori_language_habitats.

Harrison, K. David. 2007. When Languages Die. New York [u.a.]: Oxford University Press.

“History Of The Māori Language”. 2015. New Zealand History. https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/maori-language-week/history-of-the-maori-language.

“Overview Of NZ In The 19Th Century: 1800-40”. 2014. New Zealand History. https://nzhistory.govt.nz/classroom/ncea3/19th-century-history-overview.

Peterson, Dana Rachelle. 2000. Te Reo Māori: The Māori Language. New Zealand: Parliamentary Library. https://www.parliament.nz/resource/0000000292.

Spolsky, Bernard. 2009. “Rescuing Māori: The Last 40 Years”. Language Documentation And Description 6. United Kingdom: Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project.


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