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.