Māori Language Week

Page 2 – History of the Māori language

Decline and revival

In the last 200 years the history of the Māori language (te reo Māori) has been one of ups and downs. At the beginning of the 19th century it was the predominant language spoken in Aotearoa/New Zealand. As more English speakers arrived in New Zealand, the Māori language was increasingly confined to Māori communities. By the mid-20th century there were concerns that the language was dying out.

Major initiatives launched from the 1980s have brought about a revival of te reo. In the early 21st century, about 125,000 people of Māori ethnicity can speak and understand te reo, which has an official status alongside English and New Zealand Sign Language.

One land, many dialects

The Māori language evolved in Aotearoa over several hundred years. There were regional variations that probably widened because local populations were relatively isolated. These variations had their origins in the fact that the ancestors of modern Māori came by canoe from different villages and islands in eastern Polynesia. Māori had no written language, but the symbolic meanings embodied in carving, knots and weaving were widely understood.

Māori: a common means of communication

For the first half-century or so of European settlement, the Māori language was a common way of communicating. Early settlers were dependent on Māori for many things and had to learn to speak the language if they wished to trade with them.

Language figures

In 2006:

  • 131,613 (23.7 per cent) of Māori could hold a conversation about everyday things in te reo
  • One-quarter of Māori aged 15 to 64 could hold a conversation in te reo
  • Just under half (48.7 per cent) of Māori aged 65 years and over could hold a conversation in te reo
  • More than one in six Māori (35,148 people) aged under 15 could hold a conversation in te reo.

Source: Statistics New Zealand 2006 Census

See also: Facts about te reo Māori

As more settlers arrived, the need for written communication in Māori grew. Missionaries first attempted to write down the Māori language in 1814. Professor Samuel Lee of Cambridge University worked with the chief Hongi Hika and his junior relative Waikato to systematise the written language in 1820. Literacy and expanded numeracy were two exciting new concepts that Māori took up enthusiastically. In the 1820s missionaries reported that Māori all over the country were teaching each other to read and write, using materials such as charcoal and leaves, carved wood and the cured skins of introduced animals when no paper was available.

Up to the 1870s, and in some areas for several decades after that, it was not unusual for government officials, missionaries and other prominent Pākehā (European New Zealanders) to speak Māori. Growing up with Māori youngsters, their children were among the most fluent European speakers and writers of Māori. Particularly in rural areas, interaction between Māori and Pākehā was constant. 

Kōrero Pākehā

Pākehā were in the majority by the early 1860s and English became the dominant language of New Zealand. Increasingly, te reo was confined to Māori communities that lived separately from Pākehā.

Most Pākehā did not understand that the Māori language was an essential expression and envelope of Māori culture, important for Māori in maintaining their pride and identity as a people. Speaking Māori was now officially discouraged, and many Māori themselves questioned its relevance in a Pākehā-dominated world where the most important goal seemed to be to get ahead as an individual.

The Māori language was suppressed in schools, either formally or informally, to ensure that Māori youngsters assimilated with the wider community. Some older Māori still recall being punished for speaking their language. In the mid-1980s Sir James Henare recalled being sent into the bush to cut a piece of pirita (supplejack vine) with which he was struck for speaking te reo in the school grounds. One teacher told him that ‘if you want to earn your bread and butter you must speak English.’

By the 1920s only a few private schools still taught Māori grammar. Many Māori parents encouraged their children to learn English and even to turn away from other aspects of Māori custom. Increasing numbers of Māori people learnt English because they needed it in the workplace or on the sportsfield. ‘Kōrero Pākehā’ (Speak English) was seen as essential for Māori people.

A language lives

Despite the emphasis on speaking English, the Māori language survived. Until the Second World War most Māori spoke te reo as their first language. They worshipped in Māori, and Māori was the language of the marae. More importantly, it was still the language of the home, where parents passed it on to their children. Political meetings, such as those of the Kotahitanga parliament in the 1890s, were conducted in Māori; there were Māori newspapers; and literature such as Āpirana Ngata’s waiata collection, Ngā mōteatea, was published in Māori with English translations.

The language that Māori spoke was changing. All living languages are influenced by the other languages their speakers hear. English became the major source of borrowed words, which were altered by Māori usage to fit euphonically and grammatically.

Loan words such as teihana (station) and hōiho (horse) are called transliterations, Some transliterations were unnecessary. Māori had perfectly good names for places like Napier (Ahuriri), but sometimes transliterations of the European names, such as Nepia (Napier) and Karauripe (Cloudy Bay), were used. The English language in New Zealand was also changing and borrowing words from Māori or Polynesian languages, such as taboo (tapu), kit (kete) and Kiwi (a New Zealander).

The lure of the city

The Second World War brought about momentous changes for Māori society. With plenty of work available in towns and cities, Māori moved into urban areas in greater numbers. Before the war, about 75% of Māori lived in rural areas. Two decades later, approximately 60% lived in urban centres.

English was the language of urban New Zealand – at work, in school and in leisure activities. Māori children went to city schools where Māori was unknown to teachers. Enforced contact between large numbers of Māori and Pākehā caused much strain and stress, and te reo was one of the things to suffer.

The number of Māori speakers began to decline rapidly. By the 1980s less than 20% of Māori knew enough te reo to be regarded as native speakers. Even for those people, Māori was ceasing to be the everyday language in the home. Some urbanised Māori people became alienated from their language and culture. Others maintained contact with their original communities, returning for important hui (meetings) and tangihanga (funerals), or allowing the kaumātua at home to adopt or care for their children.

Seeds of change

From the 1970s many Māori people reasserted their identity as Māori. An emphasis on the language as an integral part of Māori culture was central to this identity. Māori leaders were increasingly recognising the danger that the Māori language would be lost. New groups with a commitment to strengthening Māori culture and language emerged in the cities.

In 1972, three of these groups, Auckland-based Ngā Tamatoa (The Young Warriors), Victoria University’s Te Reo Māori Society, and Te Huinga Rangatahi (the New Zealand Māori Students’ Association) petitioned Parliament to promote the language. A Māori language day introduced that year became Māori language week in 1975. Three years later, New Zealand’s first officially bilingual school opened at Rūātoki in the Urewera. The first Māori-owned Māori-language radio station (Te Reo-o-Pōneke) went on air in 1983.

Major Māori-language recovery programmes began in the 1980s. Many were targeted at young people and the education system. The kōhanga reo movement, which immersed Māori pre-schoolers in the Māori language, began in 1982, when the first kōhanga reo opened in Lower Hutt. Other programmes followed, such as kura kaupapa, a system of primary schooling in a Māori-language environment.

The ‘Kia ora’ controversy

Increasingly, Māori words were heard on radio and television, and read in newspapers. The first Māori television programme, Koha, was broadcasting from 1980. Some announcers began radio shows or news bulletins by saying, ‘Kia ora’.

But there was some controversy. In 1984 national telephone tolls operator Naida Glavish (of Ngāti Whātua) began greeting callers with ‘Kia ora’. When her supervisor insisted that she use only formal English greetings, Glavish refused and was demoted.

The issue sparked widespread public debate. Not everyone was keen to hear ‘kia ora’ used commonly, but many others came out in support of Māori greetings. People called the tolls exchange to speak to ‘the kia ora lady’, and airline pilots began to use the term to greet passengers. After Prime Minister Robert Muldoon intervened, Glavish returned to her old job. Eventually, she was promoted to the international tolls exchange, where she greeted New Zealand and overseas callers alike with ‘Kia ora’.

Legislating for change

Efforts to secure the survival of the Māori language stepped up a gear in 1985. In that year the Waitangi Tribunal heard the Te Reo Māori claim, which asserted that te reo was a taonga (treasure) that the Crown (government) was obliged to protect under the Treaty of Waitangi. The Waitangi Tribunal found in favour of the claimants and recommended a number of legislative and policy remedies. Māori was made an official language of New Zealand under the Maori Language Act 1987.

Māori Language Week quiz

There are now many institutions, most set up since the 1980s, working to recover te reo. Even so, the decline of the Māori language has only just been arrested. There is a resurgence of te reo, but to remain viable as a language, Māori needs a critical mass of fluent speakers of all ages, and it needs the respect and support of the wider English-speaking and multi-ethnic New Zealand community.

How to cite this page

'History of the Māori language', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/maori-language-week/history-of-the-maori-language, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 30-Jul-2015

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Posted: 11 Aug 2015

Posted on behalf of John McCaffery

The Real Significance of Maori Language Week- 'Ka Tu te Kohu'

Tena tatou katoa aku rangatira, aku tuakana-  Further information about the 1970’s revival is important to an understanding the significance of Te Ra me Te Wiki o Te Reo Maori these days  as it is a mistake to think that the modern revival of the language began with Te Kohanga Reo in 1980. The flowering of the reo from the 1980s on began and succeeded  because of  the preparation of the seedbed and planting of the seeds  that began in earnest  the 1970s.  We say in earnest because in the  early 1960’s  Hoani Waititi o  Te Whanau a Apahui  wrote  the Te Rangatahi   te reo Maori text book and in the mid to late 1960s some very significant  other  steps were taken, many of them led by Te Kapunga Matemoana (Koro) Dewes (Ngati Porou) . The most significant of these measures was a Maori education report in 1965/6 followed by  the introduction of the teaching of Maori as a timetabled subject in a few Secondary schools. However these developments were all by adult speakers from strong rural tribal areas whose parents were by and large  still native speakers of the language. The 1970’s  however marked the first movement by young people, often in Urban areas, who faced a stark future without the language. It was this group that felt the loss, expressed their concerns publically  and determined to rise up and do something about it … Tihei mauri ora  !

Te Ra me Te Wiki o te Reo Maori are the founding pou/ posts and beginning of this  modern revival movement. Their significance has long been shrouded in mist as no one has yet published an insider history of this time other than from Nga Tamatoa's perspective.  The following is a brief introduction.   To give a context-  Ko John McCaffery  ahau and I am one of several  founding members of Te Reo Maori Society (TRM)  from its origins at VUW in  1969-70. Inspired  and taught by by Koro Dewes and led by Cathy Dewes, Whaimutu Dewes Rawiri Rangitauira, Joe Te Rito, Tom Roa, Lee Smith,
Pineāmine Dewes, Rangi Nicholson, Robert Pouwhare,  Miki Rikihana, Pia Tamahōri, and Hākopa Te Whata we crossed the marae at Parliament in 1972 with TRM elder Te Uenuku Rene,  Nga Tamatoa (Hana, Sid,  Rawiri Paratene  & Lee Smith ..)  to present the Petition. I was  a TRM  education  representative on the Department  of Education Maori language development work from 1972 to 1990  and with Tom Roa, Joe Te Rito and Robert Pouwhare  publicity and  strategy, adviser to Te Reo Maori to the current times as the organisation lives on. My more recent work on te reo has been  through the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland has been on developing, teaching researching and  and supporting bilingual/ immersion education programmes and the learning and teaching of te reo to to all New Zealanders . To me there is no one History there are only histories that represent our personal views of events from our own perspectives. Here is one part of my view on the Wiki o Te Reo from my own experiences . I do not portray it as the views of all TRM members and the mistakes and memory errors are my own.  (He tono Please acknowledge the source of this information when it is used in your work and  stories as it belongs to TRM ).

The 1972 te reo  Maori Petition  to Parliament in the name of Hannah ( nee Te Hemara) Jackson was a  jointly supported  partnership by both Nga Tamatoa ( primarily in Auckland  though it had an Wellinton branch. See Te Rito, 2008) and Te Reo Maori Society  based at Victoria University of Wellington and Te Huinga Rangatahi the  original NZ Maori Students Association.  Te Reo Maori Society operated in partnership with Wellinton Teachers College Maori Club ( Jim Schuster, Tipene O'Regan, Keri Kaa)  and  under the patronage  and advice of the Maori Graduates Association (especially Koro Dewes, Tipene O'Regan , Api Mahuika,  Tamati & Tilly Reedy, Turoa Royal, Amster Reedy ma ..  While Nga Tamatoa went on to fight the land battles Te Reo Maori Society  remained focused only on the revival of the language and following the successful presentation of the Petition worked with the  Department of Education  ( Director Maori Education Alan Smith and staff Tamati Reedy, Turoa Royal,  Sonny Wilson  ma and the politicians to  get a positive outcome to the hearing and the new policy for primary and secondary schools that followed  ( Education Gazette notice 1974 ). Te Reo Maori Society  then established the 14th of September as an annual  Te Ra o Te Reo Maori/ National Maori Language Day and ran it  from 1972 to 1974 when the Department of Education asked that we move it to a date that all schools  could take part as the 14th September fell in the August September school holidays. Te Reo Maori decided this would be a good time to expand it to a full week so in 1975 the first Te Wa o Te Reo Maori was held still organised and run by te Reo Maori but now  in partnership with the  Department of Education- 40 years this week 2015.  Slowly Te Ra o te Reo Sept 14 fell into lesser importance  as the focus was by now on the Week in July. Some of us however now believe te Wiki o te Reo should be moved back  to September so the day  of the 14th  falls during the week itself.

Returning to the background of the week from  1970  we also formed a partnership with Dr Richard Benton  at the Maori Unit at the NZCER (Tawini Rangihau, Hīria Tūmoana,Lee Smith) where many of our student members worked on the Who Speaks Maori in Aotearoa NZ survey work released in 1973/4 which provided research data to our own concerns about the widespread loss of the language.  While Nga Tamatoa was advocating the teaching of Maori as  a timetabled subject in schools especially secondary, Te Reo Maori from the beginning argued that only Bilingual /immersion Education would achieve the goals of language rejuvenation. In 1972  as part of  the first Maori language day for instance, we  helped organise the presentation by Dr Richard Benton of his NZCER Research paper- Should Bilingual Education be Fostered in NZ?  This work has continued to the present day.  

Te Reo Maori also worked with the Department and the Maori Grads  to expand resources, programmes of work and professional development over the following years including the  first pilot bilingual immersion education programmes at Ruatoki , Tawera, Hiruharama, Omahu and  informally St Peter Chanel at Puke Karaka in Otaki( Pa Gupwell)  “Tihei Mauri Ora” the first te reo Syllabus for  primary schools finally published in 1989-90.   However the Government, the  Ministry of Education, and the  NZEI all sought to restrain these developments preventing the now  urgent expansion that would be needed to save the language from  intergenerational extinction. Consequently relations with the  Department of Education  grew more and more strained  and Te Reo Maori and the Maori Grads expanded their research and  political activities in support of these bilingual immersion developments. 

The second strand of Te Reo Maori's  work from the beginning  was on broadcasting  led by chairpersons  Whaimutu Dewes and Rawiri Rangitauira. This resulted in the Te Reo Maori Society 1978 broadcasting Petition and a subsequent one  to Parliament  which set the agenda and the battle lines for the Maori Radio and TV struggle to come. This led to  Māori-language news programmes  like Te Karere  which screened for the first time in 1982.  Also to Te Upoko o te Ika  radio under Piripi Walker 1987 and  the ropu  Nga Kaiwhakapumau i te Reo  which was originally a partnership between Te Reo Maori and the Wellinton Maori Language Board. Other key TRM members in the broadcasting struggle  included Anaru Robb, Joseph Te Rito ( Radio Ngati Kahungungu),  Robert Pouwhare  first TV  producers intake and one of Aotearoa TV’s founders ( 1996-7).  In 1980 a Te Reo Maori Society branch was established by Tom & Robyn Roa and John McCaffery in Otara, TRM ki Otara where they had moved after returning to VUW in 1979 for a post graduate  course and  together while Tom and Robyn Roa  supported 1)  the establishment of a Kohanga Reo at Kokiri Te Rahuitanga where Tom moved from Hillary College to teach   2) John established the first urban bilingual school at Clydemore  where TRM Otara was based which fed into Hillary College where Tom and Robyn originally had been teaching with Garfield Johnstone .

After Vic graduation Cathy Dewes went to Wellinton Teachers College and Rawiri Rangitauira  was admitted to the bar and became a founding member of the Maori Lawyers association.  After Koro moved back to the East Coast to the family farm in 1976  Cathy & Rawiri moved back to Rotorua  around 1980 and established  the Te Reo Maori ki Rotorua  HQ  branch but keeping strong links in Wellington with Lee Smith, Piripi Walker,  Anaru Robb and Huirangi Waikerepuru, an early Te Reo Maori member and VUW graduate and Nga Kaiwhakapumau chair. Whaimutu and wife  Judy went to Tamaki Makaurau. 

  The frustration over the lack of action and support for the Maori Broadcasting and the Kohanga Reo  follow on  primary programmes for bilingual education along with the Courts denial of  Dun Mihaka's right to use te reo in his own defence, led us all to believe that the language needed national status as a official national language to achieve the next stages of its revival. Consequently all efforts  for some time went in to this  goal . There were  protest marches from 1980 in Wellinton and these partnerships and joint action led to the 1985 Waitangi  Tribunal Claim and 1987 Official Language Act.  TRM through Whaimutu Dewes and Rawiri Rangitauira worked with Whetu Tirikatene and Matiu Rata prepare draft Official Maori  Language bills for her and  the  Labour Party in the early 1980s  and  at least three bills  put up were defeated by National in this time. This in spite of Duncan McIntyre  being the first really suportive National Minister of Maori Affairs.

In Manukau City Auckland TRM ki Otara had more success and  managed to get the first  official recognition for te reo in Aotearoa  from Manukau City Council  as an  Official language of the City , the first local authority to do so.  The strategy was then adopted by TRM ki Rotorua where Paora Maxwell and  the current Minister of Maori Affairs  Te Ururoa Flavell were supporters. This local authority support spead and did  put extra pressure on Govt and when the Waitangi Tribunal reported in 1986 the new Labour government moved quickly, perhaps too quickly,  to finally grant official  status to the language, set up the Maori Language Commission and  ruled that the education system was being operated in breach of the Treaty.  We say too quickly because the Bill entered Parliament before the Waitangi Tribunal Report and the Bill did not contain all the recommendations of the Tribunal on measures that needed to be taken on the Official Language establishment. Missing  in particular was the requirement for all Government Departments, not just the courts,  to  train all public servants in te reo and be able to also operate  all their functions in te reo , at least to allow citizens to interact with Govt Departments  in te reo Maori .  The outcome we did  get was a special funding allowance  for public servants to learn and use te reo. In 1988/9  for example the Courts ruled the Act only provided for persons in  NZ courts to use oral Maori but there was no provision for documents evidence or any other business to be conducted in the written form in the court system ( Huirangi Waikerpuru http://collections.soundarchives.co.nz/search.do?view=detail&page=1&id=152080&db=object).   Even in the new replacement Maori language Bill 2015 these numersous omissions have not been rectified .

This historical Waitangi Tribunal  finding however  opened the door to the establishment of  Te Rununga o KKM and Kura Kaupapa Maori  schooling  in the  1989 Ed Act. The KKM provisions were supported by Treasury and a number of other Govt Departments and Advisory services on the grounds that the current Education system could not, or would not provide the types of language/s education being demanded by the Maori community.  Meanwhile Cathy Dewes and Rawiri had established Te Kura o Ruamata at Rotorua  following  Peter Sharples’ 1985 Te Kura o Hoani Waititi at Henderson,  West Auckland.

 When Tamati Reddy became Secretary of Maori Affairs, 1983-1988  Nga Kaiwhakapumau  i te Reo with Huirangi Waikerepuru  as its chair was formed out of the new Wellington Maori Language Board Tamati established . This  group contained many members of TRM and Upoko o te Ika Radio  with Anaru Robb as TRMs key member . From then on the Broadcasting struggle was carried by Nga Kai in partnership with the  NZ Maori Council( see also Te Rito, 2008, Winitana, 2011 & Piripi Walker’s work,  ) This  has continued  through the Maori radio, TV and spectrum debates to the formation of Maori TV 2004  and into the present time.  This is why Te Ra me Te Wiki o Te Reo Maori is so important in our history and our struggle- ina te whakatauki- "Tama Tu Tama Ora -Tama Noho Tama mate.

Otira me mutu au i konei mo tenei wa- ma te wa pea me timata ano te korero.

No reira koia nei etahi pito pito  korero  e pa an ki te timatanga o te Wiki o te Reo Maori e tu mai nei i tenei wiki July 27- 2015. Ka maumahara  hoki matou  i a Rawiri Rangitauira  o matou rangatira nana in mate i tenei ra te 27th i tera atu tau 2014. Haere ra e te rangatira i ki te huinga o te kahurangi , oti atu.. aue..  Kei te mohio  hoki ahau  kua warewaretia e au etahi  atu taniwha e awhina nei, e whawhai nei  i te kaupapa  i  tera wa-  Aroha mai.   Me email  koe ki  matou kia whaktikatika aku korerorero.  Otira Nga mihi nui ki a  koutou e nga uri whakatipu i enei ra ... aroha nui

 John McCaffery  j.mccafferynz@gmail.com:  j.mccaffery@aucklanduni.ac.nz .

(He tono Please acknowledge the source of this information (when it is used in your work and  stories as it belongs to TRM and note any mistakes are mine  so is dedicated to those who have already passed on ki Paerau - Mere Te Awa, Teri McIntrye, Miki Rikihana, Hakopa Te Whata,  Rawiri Rangitauira, Te Kapunga Matemoana Dewes, Api Mahuika  ratou ko etahi atu mema...  ).