Māori language

Māori or te reo Māori, also commonly shortened to te reo (literally the language), is one of the official languages of New Zealand. An Eastern Polynesian language, it is closely related to Cook Islands Māori, Tuamotuan and Tahitian; somewhat less closely to Hawaiian and Marquesan; and more distantly to the languages of Western Polynesia, including Samoan, Tokelauan, Niuean and Tongan.

Official status

New Zealand has three official languages — Māori, English and New Zealand Sign Language. Māori gained this status with the passing of the Māori Language Act in 1987. Most government departments and agencies now have bilingual names, for example, the Department of Internal Affairs also uses the name Te Tari Taiwhenua, and some places such as local-government offices and public libraries display bilingual signs and use bilingual stationery. New Zealand Post recognises Māori place-names in postal addresses. Citizens may conduct their dealings with government agencies in Māori, but in practice this almost always requires interpreters, restricting its everyday use to the limited geographical areas of high Māori fluency, and to more formal occasions, such as during public consultation.

A 1994 ruling by the Privy Council in the United Kingdom held the New Zealand Government responsible under the Treaty of Waitangi (1840) for the preservation of the language. Accordingly, since March 2004, the State has funded Māori Television, a service broadcast partly in Māori. On 28 March 2008 Māori Television launched its second channel, Te Reo. Te Reo broadcasts entirely in the Māori language, with no advertising or subtitles. It has a particular focus on new programmes for a fluent audience. However, Maori still ranks as an endangered language.


Māori came to New Zealand as Eastern Polynesians voyaging, most likely, from the area of the Cook Islands or from the Society Islands, in seagoing canoes — possibly double-hulled and probably sail-rigged. These Polynesian settlers probably arrived at about AD 1300. Their language and its dialects then developed in relative isolation until the 19th century.

Since about 1800 the Māori language has had a tumultuous history. It started this period in the position of the predominant language of New Zealand. In the 1860s it became a minority language in the shadow of the English spoken by settlers, missionaries, gold-seekers and traders from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. In the late 19th century the colonial governments of New Zealand and its provinces introduced an English-style school system for all New Zealanders, and from the 1880s the authorities forbade the use of Māori in schools (possibly at the request of Māori leaders, who appreciated the value to their young people of fluent English — see Native Schools). Increasing numbers of Māori people learned English.

Until World War II (1939-1945) most Māori people still spoke Māori as a native language. Worship took place in Māori; it functioned as the language of Māori homes; Māori politicians conducted political meetings in Māori; and some literature and many newspapers appeared in Māori.

As late as the 1930s, some Māori parliamentarians suffered disadvantage because the Parliament's proceedings took place in English. From this period, the number of speakers of Māori began to decline rapidly. By the 1980s fewer than 20% of Māori spoke the language well enough to class as native speakers. Even many of those people no longer spoke Māori in the home. As a result, many Māori children failed to learn their ancestral language, and generations of non-Māori-speaking Māori emerged.

By the 1980s, Māori leaders began to recognize the dangers of the loss of their language, and initiated Māori-language recovery-programs such as the Kōhanga Reo movement, which immersed infants in Māori from infancy to school age. There followed the founding of the Kura Kaupapa Māori, a primary school program in Māori.

Linguistic classification

Comparative linguists classify Māori as a Polynesian language; specifically as an Eastern Polynesian language belonging to the Tahitic subgroup, which includes Rarotongan, spoken in the southern Cook Islands, and Tahitian, spoken in Tahiti and the Society Islands. Other close relatives include Hawaiian, Marquesan (languages in the Marquesic subgroup), and the Rapa Nui language of Easter Island While all these Eastern Polynesian languages inter-relate very closely, they do not rank as dialects of a single language, but as languages in their own right that diverged over centuries, with limited mutual intelligibility. Nonetheless, Tupaia, a Tahitian travelling with Captain James Cook in 1769-1770, could communicate effectively with Māori. Subjectively, speakers of modern Māori generally report that they find the languages of the Cook Islands, including Rarotongan, the easiest other Polynesian languages to understand and converse in. See also Austronesian languages.

Geographic distribution

Over 100,000 people, nearly all of them of Māori descent, speak Māori — most extensively in New Zealand. Estimates of the number of speakers vary: the 1996 census reported 160,000, while other estimates have reported as few as 50,000. According to the 2006 census, 131,613 Māori (23.7 percent) "could [at least] hold a conversation about everyday things in te reo Māori". In the same census, Māori speakers accounted for 4.2 per cent of the New Zealand population.

As indicated above, the level of competence in the language of self-reported Māori speakers remains unknown and variable — some speakers use Māori as their main home language, whereas many more use only a few words or phrases (passive bilingualism). Probably very few Māori monoglots exist, but a larger number will have spoken Māori before they learnt English, because:

  • Māori still serves as a community language in some predominantly-Māori settlements in the Northland, Urewera and East Cape areas
  • kohanga reo Māori-immersion kindergartens throughout New Zealand use Māori exclusively
  • increasing numbers of Māori raise their families bilingually

Urbanisation after the Second World War led to widespread language shift from Māori predominance (with Māori the primary language of the rural whānau) to English predominance (English serving as the primary language in the Pākehā cities). Therefore, as of 2007, Māori-speakers almost always operated bilingually, with New Zealand English as either their first or second language.

The Māori diaspora also speaks the Māori language, most significantly in Australia, where census-data revealed it as the home-language of 5,504 persons in 2001 — an increase of 32.5 per cent since 1996. This represents 7.5 per cent of the Māori community in Australia.


The modern Māori alphabet has 20 letters and digraphs: A Ā E Ē H I Ī K M N O Ō P R T U Ū W NG and WH. Attempts to write Māori words using the Roman alphabet began with Captain James Cook and other early explorers, with varying degrees of success. From 1814, missionaries also tried to capture the sounds of the language. William Kendall published a book in 1815 entitled He Korao no New Zealand, which in modern orthography would be He Kōrero nō Aotearoa. The orthography of the written language was established in 1820 by Professor Samuel Lee of Cambridge University who worked with chief Hongi Hika and his junior relative Waikato. Professor Samuel's orthography is the system in use today, with only two major changes: the first distinguishes the bilabial fricative wh from the labio-velar w, and the second change, which did not happen until the late 20th century, saw the marking of long vowels with either double vowels (haangi) or a macron (hāngi). The macron has become the generally accepted way of marking long vowels.

Orthographical matters aside, Māori embraced the exciting new concept of literacy enthusiastically, and missionaries reported in the 1820s that Māori all over the country taught each other to read and write, using sometimes quite innovative materials in the absence of paper, such as leaves and charcoal, carved wood, and the cured skins of animals.

Long vowels

The alphabet devised at Cambridge University had a deficiency in that it did not mark vowel-length, which operates phonemically in Māori — meaning that varying lengths of vowels can change the meaning of words, as seen in the following examples:

  • ata 'morning', āta 'carefully'
  • mana 'prestige', māna 'for him/her'
  • manu 'bird', mānu 'float'
  • o 'of', ō 'provisions for a journey'

Māori themselves devised ways to mark vowel-length, sporadically at first. Occasional and inconsistent vowel-length markings occur even in 19th-century manuscripts written by Māori. These markings can include macron-like bars over vowels, or the doubling of the vowels. Nineteenth-century Māori-language newspapers show some sporadic use of macrons or other length-marking methods. Sir Apirana Ngata's Maori Grammar and Conversation (7th printing, dated 1953) uses macrons, but inconsistently. With the teaching of Māori at Universities since the 1960s a more systematic use of vowel-length marking came into play. At Auckland University, Professor Bruce Biggs (who had Ngāti Maniapoto descent) promoted the use of double vowels (thus Maaori), and that became the standard at Auckland until Biggs died around 2000. The Māori Language Commission, established by the Māori Language Act 1987 as the authority for Māori spelling and orthography, promoted the use of macrons, as did other universities.


In the vowel and consonant tables below, each cell contains a phonetic transcription above and the corresponding orthographic representation in bold below.


Front Central Back
Close i iː
i ī
u uː
u ū
Close-Mid e eː
e ē
o oː
o ō
Open a aː
a ā

Speakers use all vowel-pairs except uo, and all vowel sounds receive their full value, whether stressed or not, but final short vowels may get devoiced.


Bilabial Alveolar Velar Glottal
Plosive p
Fricative ɸ
Nasal m
Tap ɾ
Semivowel w

While pronunciations vary, <wh> generally denotes a bilabial fricative [ɸ], a sound comparable to that of an "f" articulated by putting the lips together as if to make a "w" sound; today the labiodental [f] also occurs, possibly as a result of influence from English. Māori , a tap, [ɾ], resembles the in Spanish or the t in the American English pronunciation of "city".


A syllable in Māori has the form (C)V(V): a vowel preceded by an optional consonant and followed by an optional vowel. Two consonants never appear together (ng and wh function as single consonants), syllables always end in a vowel, though some speakers may occasionally de-voice a final vowel. (These rules give rise to such transliterations as Perehipeteriana, "Presbyterian".) All possible CV combinations exist; though who. wo, wu and whu occur only in a few loan-words from English such as wuru, "wool" and whutuporo, "football".


Linguists generally isolate three major dialect-divisions for the Māori language:

  1. Western North Island
  2. Eastern North Island
  3. South Island

Within these broad divisions, regional variation occurs, and individual regions show tribal variations. The major differences occur in the pronunciation of words, variation of vocabulary, and idiom. Standard Māori derives from the language of the Ngā Puhi and Waikato tribal areas, both parts of the Western North Island dialect-chain. A fluent speaker of Māori has no problem understanding other dialects of Māori, and learners of the language may be unable to discern the subtle differences between dialects.

In terms of grammar, according to Winifred Bauer, scholars generally detect

"very little evidence from the data collected that grammatical structures differ significantly from one area to the next. Most of the tribal variation in grammar is a matter of preferences: speakers of one area might prefer one grammatical form to another, but are likely on occasion to use the non-preferred form, and at least to recognise and understand it.

Bauer also notes that that vocabulary and pronunciation show more variation, but generally without raising barriers to communication.

North Island dialects

Regional variations involve some speakers in the Wanganui and Taranaki regions replacing h with a glottal stop and using a glottalised pronunciation of wh. In Tūhoe and the Eastern Bay of Plenty some speakers merge ng into n. This causes little ambiguity in practice. In parts of the Far North, wh resembles bilabial English wh (when speakers distinguish it from w).

South Island dialects

In the South Island some speakers merge ng and k. However this change did not occur in the whole of the tribal area, with the result that the tribal name Kāi Tahu can also appear as Ngāi Tahu, as it does in Acts of Parliament.

Until the last decade or so, authorities actively discouraged southern Māori in favour of standard (northern North Island) Māori, the only form used by government and by most institutions. The southern dialect has gained acceptance in recent years, however, leading to changes in the official names and translations of several southern places and institutions. New Zealand's highest mountain, known for centuries as Aoraki in southern-Māori dialects that merge ng with k, and as Aorangi by other Māori, later received the name "Mount Cook" (after Captain Cook). It now bears the official name Aoraki/Mount Cook and only this name may appear printed on maps and in official documents. Similarly, Dunedin's main research library, the Hocken Library, now has the name Te Uare Taoka o Hākena, rather than (northern) Te Whare Taonga o Hākena.



Professor Bruce Biggs of the University of Auckland developed a grammar of Māori (Biggs 1998) which defines possible forms of the phrase, which he regards as the basic unit of Māori speech, rather than the word. The base or lexical word forms a central component of the phrase. Biggs further divides bases into nouns (universals, statives, locatives and personals) and particles (grammatical words: verbal particles, pronouns, locatives, possessives and definitives).

Nouns comprise bases that can take a definite article, but cannot occur as the nucleus of a verbal phrase; for example:ika (fish) or rākau (tree). Nouns usually keep the same form in both singular and plural: a change in the definite article from te (singular "the") to ngā (plural "the") indicating the change of number. Some words lengthen a vowel in the plural, such as wahine (woman); wāhine (women). Speakers can derive nouns from other bases by adding the suffixes -nga, -anga, -kanga, -manga, -ranga, -tanga or –whanga. A correspondence exists between the beginning of the passive suffix and that of the derived noun suffix, so inu drink, inumia, passive, inumanga, occasion of or thing for drinking, and tangi, weep, tangihia, passive, tangihanga, occasion for weeping.

Universals function as bases used passively, such as inu, drink, (inumia, be drunk — of a liquid), tangi, weep (tangihia, be wept over). The passive suffixes are -a, -ia, -ina, -hia, -kia, -mia, -na, -ngia, -ria, -tia and -whia. Each universal generally takes the same suffix. The passive may also be used imperatively, as in inumia! (drink it!).

Statives serve as bases that can be used as verbs but cannot be used passively, such as ora, alive, tika, correct. These are generally referred to as 'stative verbs'. When used in sentences, statives require different syntax than other verb-like bases. Locative bases are bases that can follow the locative particle ki (to, towards) directly, such as runga, above, waho, outside, and placenames (ki Tamaki, to Auckland). Personal bases take the personal article a after ki, such as names of people (ki a Hohepa, to Joseph), personified houses, personal pronouns, wai? who? and Mea, so-and-so.


Like all Polynesian languages, Māori has a rich array of particles. These include verbal particles, pronouns, locative particles, definitives and possessives.

Verbal particles indicate aspectual properties of the verb they relate to. They include ka (inceptive), i (past), kua(perfect), kia (desiderative), me (prescriptive), e (non-past), kei (warning, “lest”), ina or ana (punctative-conditional, "if and when"), and e … ana (imperfect).

Pronouns have singular, dual and plural number, and different first-person forms in the dual and in the plural express groups either inclusive or exclusive of the listener. Locative particles refer to position in time and/or space, and include ki (towards), kei (at), i (past position), and hei (future position). Possessives fall into one of two classes, a and o, depending on the dominant versus subordinate relationship between possessor and possessed, so ngā tamariki a te matua, the children of the parent, but te matua o ngā tamariki, the parent of the children.

Definitives include the articles te (singular) and ngā (plural) and the possessives and . These also combine with the pronouns. Demonstratives have a deictic function, and include tēnei, this (near me), tēnā, that (near you), tērā, that (far from us both), and taua, the aforementioned. Other definitives include tēhea? (which?), and tētahi, (a certain).Definitives that begin with t form the plural by dropping the t: tēnei (this), ēnei (these).

Personal pronouns

Like other Polynesian languages, Māori has three numbers for pronouns and possessives: singular, dual and plural. For example: ia (he/she), rāua (they two), rātou (they 3 or more). Etymologists can still discern the words rua (2) and toru (3) in endings of the dual and plural pronouns.

Māori has four distinctions in pronouns and possessives: first exclusive, first inclusive, second and third. It has the plural pronouns: mātou (we, exc), tātou (we, inc), koutou (you), rātou (they). The language features the dual pronouns: māua (we two, exc), tāua (we two, inc), kōrua (you two), rāua (they two). The difference between exclusive and inclusive lies the treatment of the person addressed. Mātou refers to the speaker and others but not the person or persons spoken to (i.e., "I and some others, but not you"), while tātou refers to the speaker, the person or persons spoken to, and everyone else (i.e., "You and I and others").

Speakers distinguish correct use of the numbers in all aspects of the language. For example, everyday greetings take different forms depending on the number of people greeted:

  • Tēnā koe: hello (to one person)
  • Tēnā kōrua: hello (to two people)
  • Tēnā koutou: hello (to more than two people)


Qualifiers generally follow nouns.


From missionary times, Māori used transliterations of English names for days of the week and for months of the year. From about 1990, the Māori Language Commission / Te Taura Whiri o te Reo Māori has promoted new ("traditional") sets. Its days of the week have no pre-European equivalent but reflect the pagan origins of the English names (for example, Hina = moon), the months of the year on one regional traditional calendar which, being lunar, does not quite match the Julian/Gregorian months.

Month Transliteration Official
January Hānuere Kohi-tātea
February Pēpuere Hui-tanguru
March Māehe Poutū-te-rangi
April Āperira Paenga-whāwhā
May Mei Haratua
June Hune Pipiri
July Hūrae Hōngongoi
August Ākuhata Here-turi-kōkā
September Hepetema Mahuru
October Oketopa Whiringa-ā-nuku
November Noema Whiringa-ā-rangi
December Tīhema Hakihea

See also



  • Biggs, Bruce (1994). Does Māori have a closest relative? In Sutton (Ed.)(1994), pp. 96–-105.
  • Biggs, Bruce (1998). Let's Learn Māori. Auckland: Auckland University Press.
  • Bauer, Winifred (1997). Reference Grammar of Māori. Reed.
  • Clark, Ross (1994). Moriori and Māori: The Linguistic Evidence. In Sutton (Ed.)(1994), pp. 123–-135.
  • Harlow, Ray (1994). Māori Dialectology and the Settlement of New Zealand. In Sutton (Ed.)(1994), pp. 106–-122.
  • Sutton, Douglas G. (Ed.) (1994), The Origins of the First New Zealanders. Auckland: Auckland University Press.

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