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Biggs, Bruce Grandison


Ngāti Maniapoto; ethnographer, linguist, champion of te reo Māori

This biography, written by Andrew Pawley, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019.

Bruce Biggs had a distinguished career as a scholar but he was also that rarer thing, an exceptional builder of academic institutions. In academic Māori studies he was the most influential figure of the twentieth century. At the University of Auckland he developed the first university curriculum in the study of Māori language, culture and literature, and trained the people who went on to develop similar programmes at other New Zealand universities. He initiated the first programme in modern linguistics at a New Zealand university, and was the main force behind the efflorescence of Polynesian descriptive and historical linguistic research in the 1960s and 1970s. He co-founded the Archive of Māori and Pacific Sound at the University of Auckland.

Early life

Bruce Grandison Biggs was born in Auckland on 4 September 1921, the eldest child of Mary Grandison and her husband, Thomas Herbert (Bert) Biggs. Through their father, Bruce and his sister Patricia had Ngāti Maniapoto ancestry, with connections to the Parewaeono hapū of Te Keeti marae, Ōtorohanga. The family lived in New Lynn, and Bert Biggs managed a hardware store in Queen Street. Bruce attended New Lynn Primary School and then Mt Albert Grammar, where Robert Muldoon (Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1975 to 1984) and Bruce’s close friend, the historian Keith Sinclair, were contemporaries. He went on to train at Auckland Teachers Training College. During school holidays in Rotorua he became interested in Māori culture, but he did not become a fluent speaker of te reo Māori until after the Second World War. His lifelong interest in jazz and popular music was already evident in his teenage years when he played trumpet in the Boom Bah Boys dance band, popular around New Lynn in the late 1930s. He grew into a well-built, handsome young man of medium height.

Second World War

From 1942 to 1945 Biggs served in Fiji as a sergeant (and bugler) in the 3rd NZ Division, and his years in Fiji stimulated his earliest interest in studying Pacific languages and culture. His job in communications gave him freedom to move around Viti Levu, and to meet with Fijians. He used the opportunity to become fluent in the Standard Fijian language and to collect word lists, grammar notes and folklore in some local non-standard dialects. His long association with the Polynesian Society began during the war, when he met the editor of its journal, Clyde Taylor. Biggs’ first publications, an account of the Ba dialects of the Western Fijian language, and a piece on Fijian riddles, appeared in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1948. While serving in Fiji he had a daughter, Mere (Mary) Veremalumu Biggs (born 1945), with Laisa Siganisucu Drova, a Fijian woman from Nausori, who died in 1951. Mere was raised by her Fijian grandmother and the latter’s second husband.


After the war Bruce returned to New Zealand, and on 22 December 1945 he married fellow teacher Joy Mercia Te Ruai Hetet, at Te Kūiti. The couple went teaching at Te Kao, in the Far North, then moved in 1946 to Ruatōria on the East Coast. For the next five years Bruce headed a small Native School at Waiorongomai, beneath Mt Hikurangi, studied part-time for a BA degree from Auckland University College, played rugby and fished, and became a serious student of Māoritanga. He and Joy had three children, Garth (born 1947), Susan (born 1949) and John (born 1950).

Lecturer in Māori studies

As Biggs approached 30, teaching primary school in a remote rural province, without a completed university degree and with no prospects of full-time study, few would have predicted a career in academia for him. Then out of the blue came an opening at Auckland University College. Late in 1950 Ralph Piddington, the newly appointed foundation professor of anthropology, advertised for a lecturer in Māori language. It was the first such position at any New Zealand university. Though his BA degree remained incomplete, Bruce applied and was appointed, taking up the position in 1951. During his early years in Auckland he combined teaching with study, adding an anthropology major to his education major and completing his BA in 1952. He completed his MA in anthropology, with a thesis on Māori marriage, in 1955.

Biggs taught Māori language as a section of an anthropology course in 1951, and first taught a separate stage I Māori language course the following year. When the Anthropology Department moved to introduce stage II Māori in 1952, it was blocked by senior academics in the Faculty of Arts who regarded te reo Māori as an uncultivated language without the literature needed to give distinction and substance to its study. The following year Biggs and his colleagues were better prepared. They lobbied colleagues, pointing out that the Māori people had one of the great oral epic literatures of the world, some of which had been published by George Grey as Nga mahi a nga tupuna, Polynesian mythology. The stage II course was approved, and Biggs taught both courses from 1954.

At the end of 1955 Bruce took leave for two years to do a PhD in linguistics at the University of Indiana, one of the world’s leading centres for structural linguistics. He believed that linguistics training would boost his efforts to develop both research and teaching in Māori language. It was hard work, cramming coursework, summer fieldwork in Native American communities in Arizona and California, and writing a thesis, into just two years, but the effort paid off. His 1957 thesis on Māori phonology and phrase structure demonstrated that the minimal phonological phrase, rather than the word, is the most important structural unit below the clause in Māori, and used rigorous formal criteria to arrive at a new classification of Māori parts of speech. It provided the model for much of the descriptive work done in Polynesian linguistics over the next decade.

Returning to Auckland in 1957 as senior lecturer, Biggs instituted the first language laboratory in the university and set about extending the stock of published works suitable for use in teaching Māori language and literature. His books on Māori topics include Maori marriage (1960), The structure of New Zealand Maaori (1961), Let’s learn Maori (1969), The complete English–Maori dictionary (1981), Nga iwi o Tainui: the traditional history of the Tainui people (with Pei Te Hurinui Jones, 1995), and Kimihia te mea ngaro: seek that which is lost (2006). He also edited several collections of Māori writings, songs and poetry, and contributed many hours to the revision of H.W. WilliamsDictionary of the Maori language as a member and later convenor of a national committee set up for this purpose.

In 1958 Biggs and Jim Hollyman founded the Linguistic Society of New Zealand, and the following year Biggs offered ‘Introduction to descriptive linguistics’ as an optional paper in stage II anthropology – the first undergraduate course in linguistics taught in New Zealand.

By the early 1960s he was running the day-to-day administration of the Anthropology Department and editing the Journal of the Polynesian Society, as well as teaching courses in Māori language and literature, and linguistics, and conducting other research projects.

In 1960 Biggs made the first of two field trips to Papua New Guinea. Social anthropologist Ralph Bulmer persuaded him to join an interdisciplinary project investigating the language, culture and environmental knowledge of a newly contacted people, the Kalam, who lived in the Schrader and Bismarck Ranges. Bruce’s innovative analysis of the Kalam’s difficult sound system startled many linguists.

Polynesian linguistic research

Archaeologist Roger Green got Bruce interested in comparative historical linguistics, which Green felt could complement archaeology as a powerful instrument for reconstructing the prehistory of Polynesia. In 1964 Bruce spent 10 months at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii,  and by the end of the year had written a paper on the Rotuman language, ‘Direct and indirect inheritance in Rotuman’, that became a methodological classic. This work provided for the first time reliable diagnostics for distinguishing the different historical strata in the lexicon of Rotuman. It also contained the first large body of lexical reconstructions for Proto Eastern Oceanic, the common ancestor of Polynesian and various Oceanic languages of eastern Melanesia.

In 1965–66 Green and Biggs obtained substantial grants to launch an ambitious project of descriptive and comparative work on Polynesian languages. Bruce employed David Walsh and a team of student assistants to compare words from the 30 or so Polynesian languages in order to reconstruct the vocabulary of their common ancestral language, Proto Polynesian. The grants also funded students from Auckland and Hawaii to do fieldwork on several of the lesser-known Polynesian languages. Over the next decade students produced descriptions of Luangiuan, Sikaianan, Nanumean, Tokelauan, Aitutakian, Tongarevan and Niuean. Between 1967 and 1990 Bruce himself did descriptive research on several Polynesian languages besides Māori: East Futunan, Marquesan, Mele-Fila (in Vanuatu) and Cook Islands Māori, as well as collaborating with his daughter Mary in recording and translating traditional stories of the Fijian island of Cikobia. He continued to work on the Proto Polynesian lexicon project for the rest of his life, latterly in collaboration with Ross Clark.

Hawaii and return to Auckland

In the mid-1960s the Linguistics Department at the University of Hawaii tried hard to recruit Bruce, and in 1967–68 he took extended leave to take up an appointment as a full professor there. Auckland responded by offering him a personal chair in Maori Studies and Oceanic Linguistics, and he returned to New Zealand for good in 1969. In 1971 he succeeded Piddington as head of the Department of Anthropology and Maori Studies.

Biggs used his Hawaiian position as leverage to achieve another goal: the establishment of an Archive of Māori and Pacific Music at Auckland. The creation of a national repository for recordings of and research in Māori music had long been the ambition of Mervyn McLean, the leading ethnomusicologist specialising in Māori music. Biggs made it a condition of his acceptance of the chair that the university appoint McLean to a post in the Anthropology Department from which he could set up and supervise the archive and teach courses in ethnomusicology. The archive (now the Archive of Māori and Pacific Sound) houses a vast collection spanning music, oral histories, stories and language resources from 1919 onwards.

There were two sharply different sides to Bruce’s character. In the classroom and office he was reserved and sometimes stern, though in later years he became more the urbane kaumatua. He did not suffer foolishness gladly and his comments could be trenchant. Yet in relaxed settings, at home, in the pub, or out fishing, he was full of stories and jokes. His conversation was laced with dry humour, often self-deprecating, and frequently powerful and memorable. It derived its vigour partly from the bottomless well of indignation which he drew on in commenting on the faults of society at large. And unlike some highly educated people, his conversational language was colloquial rather than bookish.

There was one considerable paradox. Bruce described himself as a natural conservative, congenitally incapable of following a fashion, and he treated every new idea with the greatest suspicion. His political instincts told him that ground that has been hard won should not lightly be put at risk or discarded. Despite his distrust of novelty, Biggs was a considerable innovator. Combining a good imagination with analytic rigour and intellectual honesty, he accepted radical solutions if, after carefully evaluating all the possibilities, they proved the best option.

Biggs was also a good spotter and nurturer of talent and gave encouragement and shrewd advice to a large number of students, many of whom went on to make their mark in the academic world. The success of the Auckland Māori studies programme opened the way for corresponding programmes in other New Zealand universities in the 1970s and 1980s.

Later years

Sensing that many of his senior staff wanted to take Māori studies in new directions which he did not approve of, Bruce retired at the end of 1983, aged 62. The following years were, he said, among the most enjoyable of his life. He pursued some long-postponed scholarly projects and spent more time with his family. He devoted most of his research time to his first love, Māori language, oral literature and tradition, and continued to do some teaching in Māori studies at the request of his successors. He continued to work on the Proto Polynesian Lexicon project, and together with Rangi Moeka’a he completed a large dictionary of Cook Islands Māori after its original author died. Perhaps his most satisfying accomplishment in this period was to complete Nga iwi o Tainui, on the traditional history of the Tainui tribes, which Pei Jones had begun to compile in the 1920s. Bruce translated the 67 narratives and the songs collected by Jones, and added editorial commentary. The book was published in 1995 and received the Honour Award in the 1996 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

Various academic and civic honours were bestowed on Biggs. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1969. On his 60th birthday he was presented with a festschrift volume containing papers by 30 linguists from around the world. He was President of the Polynesian Society from 1979 to 1993 and in 1985 received the Society’s Elsdon Best Memorial Medal. He was made an OBE for services to Māori studies and linguistics in 1985, and a CBE for services to education and the Māori people in 1995. Bruce Biggs died in Auckland on 18 October 2000, aged 79. He was survived by his wife, Joy (who died in 2014), four children and nine grandchildren. 

How to cite this page:

Andrew Pawley. 'Biggs, Bruce Grandison', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2019. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 June 2019)