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, over 130,000 people of Māori ethnicity could speak and understand te reo, one of the three official languages of New Zealand (the others are English and New Zealand Sign Language).
The Māori language evolved in Aotearoa over several hundred years. There were regional variations that probably developed during the relative isolation of local populations. The different village or island origins of the canoe crews from eastern Polynesian islands, whose peoples were the ancestors of modern Māori, also contributed to regional variation. Māori had no formal written language, but there was a wide variety of readily understood communication methods in such things as carving, knots or weaving.
For the first half century or so of European settlement, the Māori language was a common way of communicating. Early settlers had to learn to speak the language if they wished to trade with Māori because settlers were dependent on Māori for many things at this time.
Source: Statistics New Zealand 2006 Census
With the arrival of more settlers, the need for written communication in Māori grew. Missionaries made the first attempts to write down the Māori language as early as 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. Missionaries of the 1820s reported how Māori all over the country taught each other to read and write, using innovative materials, such as leaves and charcoal, carved wood and the cured skins of introduced animals, when there was no paper available.
Up to the 1870s, and in some cases for several decades more, it was not unusual for government officials, missionaries and other prominent Pākehā (European New Zealanders) to speak Māori. Their children often grew up with Māori children, and these sons and daughters of the early missionaries and officials were among the most fluent European speakers and writers of Māori. Particularly in rural areas, the interaction between Māori and Pākehā was constant.
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 existed separately from the Pākehā majority.
The Māori language was not understood as an essential expression and envelope of Māori culture, important for Māori in maintaining their pride and identity as a people. Māori was now officially discouraged, and many Māori themselves questioned its relevance in a Pākehā-dominated world where the most important value seemed to be to get ahead as an individual.
The Māori language was suppressed in schools, either formally or informally, so that Māori youngsters could assimilate with the wider community. Some older Māori still recall being punished for speaking their language. In the mid-1980s Sir James Henare remembered many years earlier 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 'English is the bread-and-butter language, and 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 as a school subject. 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 places of recreation such as the football field. 'Korero Pākehā' (Speak English) was seen as essential for Māori people.
Despite the emphasis on speaking English, the Māori language persisted. Until the Second World War most Māori spoke Māori as their first language. They worshipped in Māori, and Māori was the language of the marae. More importantly, it was the language of the home and parents could pass on the language 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 Apirana Ngata's waiata collection, Nga moteatea, published in Māori with English translations.
The language that Māori spoke was undergoing change. All living languages are influenced by the other languages their speakers hear. English became the major source of borrowed words, which were then altered by Māori usage to fit both euphonically and grammatically.
Such loan words are called transliterations, for example, teihana (station) and hoiho (horse). 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) or 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) or Kiwi (a New Zealander.)
The Second World War brought about momentous changes for Māori society. There was plenty of work available in towns and cities due to the war and 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 unheard of in teaching programmes. The new, enforced contact of large numbers of Māori and Pākehā for the first time 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 language of everyday use in the home. Some urbanised Māori people became divorced from their language and culture. Others maintained contact with their original communities, returning for important hui (meetings) and tangihanga (funerals) or allowing the kaumatua at home to adopt or care for their children.
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. Māori leaders were increasingly recognising the dangers of the loss of Māori language. New groups emerged and made a commitment to strengthening Māori culture and the language.
One of these urban-based groups, Nga Tamatoa (The Young Warriors) petitioned Parliament to promote the language. Māori language day eventually became Māori language week in 1975. Three years later, New Zealand's first officially bilingual school opened at Ruatoki in the Urewera, and the first Māori-owned Māori-language radio station (Te Reo-o-Poneke) went to air in 1983.
Major Māori language recovery programmes began in the 1980s. Many were targeted at young people and the education system. The kohanga reo movement, which immersed Māori pre-schoolers in the Māori language, began in 1982; the first kohanga reo opened in Lower Hutt that year. Other programmes followed, such as kura kaupapa, a system of primary schooling in a Māori-language environment.
Increasingly, Māori words were heard on radio and television, and read in the newspaper. The first Māori television programme began broadcasting in 1980 with the half-hour show Koha. Some announcers said 'kia ora' at the beginning of radio shows or when reading news bulletins.
But there was some controversy. In 1984 national telephone tolls operator Naida Glavish (of Ngati Whatua) began greeting callers with kia ora. Her supervisor insisted that she use only formal English greetings, and when Glavish refused, she was demoted.
The issue sparked widespread public debate. Not everyone was keen to hear kia ora used commonly, but many people came out in support of using Māori greetings. People called the tolls exchange to speak to 'the kia ora lady', and airline pilots began to say kia ora when greeting passengers. After the prime minister intervened in the issue, 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.
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 (a treasure) that the Crown or 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. The following year saw Māori made an official language of New Zealand under the Māori Language Act 1987.
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.