Saturday 18 January 2020

Maori Matters

Out here in Aotearoa – or New Zealand, as we diehard colonialists still call it – Maori matters and Maori culture are never far from the public arena. Nor is the Maori language, which is afforded equal status with English on virtually all civic signage, despite being spoken by barely three percent of the population. I have no problem with that – it seems a natural extension of the Kiwis' extraordinarily well developed niceness – but I do have a problem retaining any Maori words in my memory. I'm constantly trying to memorise words for birds, trees, flowers, etc, only for them to slip almost instantly from my mind. It might help if the Maori language availed itself of more consonants; most of the time it uses only about a third of those available – t, k, r, n, p, h... – and compensates with a lavish use of vowels, making almost every word polysyllabic (compare 'Aotearoa' with 'New Zealand'). Or so it seems to me.
  Long-time readers might recall that on my first visit to the Land of the Long White Cloud, I courted instant deportation with a less than awestruck account of the Maori artefacts in the Te Papa museum. Now I learn that Te Papa's prize exhibit – the famous Rongowhaakata meeting house, the oldest of its kind – is to be returned to its original community, to serve (it is hoped) as a centre for traditional arts and crafts and ecotourism. This will probably take a very long time and involve a great deal of negotiation, but this kind of repatriation is happening everywhere, even in deepest Surrey, where the carved structural elements of a Maori meeting house in the grounds of Clandon Park are to be sent home to Aotearoa (I do believe I've memorised that one now, though it will probably be gone by tomorrow) in exchange for modern carvings in the same tradition.
  Clandon Park is owned by the National Trust, but the meeting house was acquired back in 1892, when the Earl of Onslow, the outgoing Governor General, took it home with him and set it up in his grounds. The house only dated back to 1880, and it had survived being buried in volcanic ash in 1886. It makes an incongruous sight in the grounds of Clandon Park, but apparently is much appreciated by Maori visitors and cultural groups.
 Meanwhile, back in Wellington, the generic red and green 'men' on pedestrian crossings in part of the city have been replaced by outlines of a Maori in a haka pose (red for Stop) and another apparently throwing a spear (green for Go).


  1. My theory, which has gained no ground among philologists, is that there was once a Great Vowel Route, over which were exchanged the vowels so highly prized in the South Pacific for the consonants valued in Central Europe. I'm not sure where the Pacific HQ was, but I figure that the European one must have been near Przemsyl.

  2. You could be on to something there, George – and I might add that something odd happened to the vowel sounds en route to English-speaking New Zealand and they got strangely mixed up ('i' for 'e', 'e' for 'a', etc)...