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The Polynesian expansion across the Pacific: Language

Maori Languages

The Maori language of New Zealand is a Malayo-Polynesian language, a family of languages commonly divided into four sub-families, namely, Indonesian, Melanesian, Micronesian, and Polynesian. The New Zealand Maori language is part of the Polynesian sub-family of languages which form a very closely related group spoken for the most part within the Polynesian triangle. Thus Maori speech is a dialect of the language spoken throughout Polynesia and hence conveniently called the Polynesian language. The Polynesian group can be divided into east and west Polynesian sub-groups. New Zealand Maori is an eastern Polynesian language. The Maori dialects of Rarotonga, Tahiti, Hawaii, and all the islands of French Polynesia are very closely related to the Maori language spoken in New Zealand. There is rather less relation with the western Polynesian languages in Tonga, Samoa, and Niue, and still less to the Melanesian languages of Fiji.

New Zealand marks the southernmost limit of the Malayo-Polynesian family of languages. Within the last thousand years, either through accidental voyages or by purposive migration using traditional navigational methods, Polynesian speakers fanned out from the Society and Cook groups to Hawaii in the north, to the eastern Archipelagoes of French Oceania, and to New Zealand in the south.

In respect to actual origin, in spite of comparisons that have been made between selected words from Polynesia and the speech of some American groups, the linguistic evidence suggests that the spread of the Polynesian language was from the direction of Asia and not America. The existence of different dialects in New Zealand points to the speculation that the different waves of early settlement were from different dialect areas in central Polynesia. Only intensive archaeological and linguistic research within Polynesia as a whole can determine this.Read more...

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.Read more...

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.Read more...

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.Read more...

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’.Source...

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