Education, Health & Wellbeing, Other, Politics

Why Te Reo Māori is Relevant Now

Kei hea tātou reo, Aotearoa?
Where is our language, Aotearoa?

This is a question that has been buzzing around in my head over the last few months. In January, I attended a summer camp in Ōtaki. It was an opportunity for youth aged 17-30 to come together and discuss politics, environmental issues, play music, dance, be in nature and to whakawhanaungatanga/meet people and hang out together. What was cool about both the town of Ōtaki and the camp itself was the celebration and encouragement of kōrero in te reo, and observation of tikanga Māori like karakia and mihimihi.

The experience was not only mind-blowing for me in terms of political activism, but was also inspiring and a catalyst that saw me fully dive into actively learning te reo māori. I think for a lot of Pākehā New Zealanders, there can be a disconnect when it comes to engaging in te reo and tikanga Māori (customs/meaning) as a whole. There is a sense of not wanting to offend, or feeling like outsiders to the language and culture. The thing is, I see so much potential in all of us – no matter if we are tāngata whenua, tāngata tiriti or immigrants to New Zealand – embracing te reo Māori. I see it breaking down cultural barriers, generating rich discussion, educating us on our country’s pre and post-colonial history. More than that, te reo is beautiful to me in its depth, its sound and its spirituality: something that I feel English lacks entirely.

It is upsetting to me that many tāngata whenua cannot speak their mother tongue. That is the fault of my colonial ancestors. We cannot change the past, but we can always make efforts to create a better future for everyone. It starts with acknowledgement and with mutual understanding. Yes, I realise my idealism and my naivety, but if we can’t dream of something better than what we currently have, how on earth can we change the status quo?

I had an acquaintance tell me recently that they thought by pronouncing Māori place names correctly, I was (somehow) being racist? I was quick to counter that I see intentionally mangling Māori place names as apathetic (and potentially) racist. In my eyes, any effort to engage with te reo respectfully and in a contextually meaningful way should be encouraged.

It is interesting me that there is so much pushback when it comes to the idea of adopting compulsory te reo in primary schools. I believe there is so much to be gained; that this move would promote inclusivity and create deeper understanding of cultural backgrounds that are currently foreign to many non-Māori – though they should not be, for te reo is a part of our culture. I see te reo Māori as a language for all of us: it is time we as a country became proud of it. I’m not talking about the All Blacks haka, or about a hurriedly drafted mihimihi in bureaucratic contexts – I mean engaging with te reo Māori on a deeper and more meaningful level. How awesome would it be to have Aotearoa that is a truly bilingual nation; one that recognises our indigenous heritage and seeks to cherish it rather than squander it?

What I Love About Te Reo Māori:
Quick disclaimer – I have barely started to scratch the surface of this language, and I am absolutely no authority on the subject, but I am passionate about the language revitalisation movement.

Super grammar nerdy of me, but I can’t help myself:

1. Tense indicators:
If you have dabbled in other languages before, you will be well versed in a sneaky little concept called verb conjugation. For those of us to whom English is a first language, these conjugation rules are intrinsic and we don’t really acknowledge them ever unless we learn a second language. In truth, there are vastly contrasting the differences in grammatical structure from language to language. Essentially, verb conjugation is a bitch – but te reo Māori bypasses all of this hassle with a grammatical tool called a tense indicator. For example…

In present tense English we say:

  • I walk/I am walking.
  • I sleep/I am sleeping.
  • I spin/I am spinning.

Conjugating these to simple past tense they become:

  • I walked.
  • I slept.
  • I spun.

Notice these verb endings have no logical pattern as they change. The only reason we don’t find it laborious or confusing is because we’ve been exposed to it since birth.

In te reo māori, a tense indicator like kei te, kua, i, or ka replace the need to bother with verb conjugation. (I love this – partially because I’m lazy, and partially because it makes a lot more sense to me than French conjugation rules do.) Honestly it’s just so functional. So in te reo:

  • Our present tense indicator, kei te, along with our verbs and pronoun, ahau, (I/me) is used to create:
  • Kei te hīkoi ahau. = I walk/I am walking.
  • Kei te moe ahau. = I sleep/I am sleeping.
  • Kei te huri ahau. = I spin/I am spinning.
  • Kei te kai ahau. = I eat/I am eating.

And to convert these to past tense, we can use simple past tense indicator, i.

  • I hīkoi ahau. = I walked.
  • I moe ahau. = I slept.
  • I huri ahau. = I spun.
  • I kai ahau. = I ate.

It may look like more words, but the repetition of tense indicators, rather than memorising verb endings – which can oftentimes be unique to each verb – is ingenious to me.

2. Greater Understanding of Tikanga (and Te Ao Māori in General)
I feel like this is pretty self-explanatory, but language is intrinsic to culture. It is difficult to truly understand or connect with a culture if one does not engage with it in the language that the people of that culture. When a person engages with a culture that is different to theirs, they get to know it on a much deeper level. I can vouch for the fact that the (very, very basic) Arabic I picked up during the 6 months that I lived in Bahrain helped me to further understand Bahraini culture, and the customs and traditions interwoven within it. I don’t think I would have gained that same knowledge if I hadn’t tried to learn the Arabic language.

Te Reo Māori is a distinctive part of the culture of Aotearoa – and as New Zealanders, I propose that this culture is part of both our history and our future. It should be valued and seen as the taonga that it is, and should be used respectfully at all times.

3. The Connection with Nature
In writing a mihimihi, (formal greeting/s) a person states specific whenua/land that is significant to them – be it where they were raised, where they live, where they strongly feel part of, or a combination of the three. For example: maunga, awa, moana, iwi, and hapu (namely the mountain, river, ocean, tribe and sub-tribe that a person is connected to) all relate to geographical areas, nature and land as a whole.

This concept appeals to me so much. I have always considered myself connected with nature, but never necessarily had any way to articulate that. Being such an ancient and tapu language, te reo Māori has this deep connection to the whenua of Aotearoa, which I think is beautiful. We could all do with acknowledging where we have come from, our whakapapa, more often. In terms of both our lineage and in nature/spiritually.


Okay I think I just wrote an essay, so I’m going to leave it there – but I would love some feedback e te whanau!

Arohanui xx


1 thought on “Why Te Reo Māori is Relevant Now”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s