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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Vowels and Digraphs

To a student who speaks English only, the chief difficulty in pronunciation is the vowel sounds. Every vowel is pronounced and has a long and a short sound. Every syllable ends in a vowel. When two vowels occur together, each has its own sound, but there is no break as one merges into the other. Maori is a phonetic language, that is, a word is spelt according to the sound. To learn how to pronounce Maori, the sounds of the vowels, a, e, i, o, u, must be mastered.

Probably the best way to learn the vowel sounds is to use English examples:

Vowel Short Long
a as in are as in rather
e as in let as in bear
i as in knit as in feed
o as in more as in oar

The two difficult vowels are the e and the o.

Ng, as used in Maori to begin a syllable, is found difficult by most people and is pronounced as “ng” in “singer”. Another method is to pronounce the following three letters successively with the Maori vowel a, thus: ka, ga, nga, and practise till the letter is mastered.

Wh: There is some difference of opinion in respect to the correct pronunciation of the wh sound. It is not a compound of w and h, but represents the single voiceless consonant corresponding with w and is pronounced by emitting the breath sharply between the lips. Most tribes in New Zealand today assimilate the sound to that of f in English. From the phonetic spelling that was adopted by the early missionaries and settlers it would appear, however, that the use of the sound f for wh is a comparatively recent innovation. This is the view supported by Buck who contends that the use of the English f sound for wh, such as fafai for whawhai (to fight), is a post-European development adopted by some tribes. The student should practise the sound by pronouncing the wh as in the English word “when”; it is pronounced without letting the teeth touch the lower lip.

Accent: The disyllablic character of the language tends to cause in utterance a stress on the first syllable of each normal disyllablic element of a word. This stress gives way to a strong accent on the first syllable of a trisyllabic word, but survives as a secondary accent in polysyllabic words. The causative prefix whaka is unaccented and so also are the articles he, nga, te, the prepositions, the verbal particles, and the particle ko. The nominal particle, a, is ordinarily unaccented, but if used with one of the pronouns au, koe, ia, mea, wai, following a preposition, it carries the accent which disappears from the pronoun.

Vowels: Unmarked vowels may be assumed to be short, or comparatively so, though with some of the vowels three or even more grades of prolongation may be detected in speech. In some words the quantity of a vowel may vary in different districts, and strange vagaries are practised in this respect in songs.

Next Part: Marking Vowels