Story: English language in New Zealand

Page 4. Words from the Māori language

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The incorporation of Māori words – borrowings, blends and compounds – into New Zealand English is one of its most distinctive features, distinguishing it from all other forms of English.

New Zealanders use terms like mana and taonga (treasure) without glossing them. Kea crossing (patrolled pedestrian crossing outside schools) and kaumātua flat (accommodation for Māori pensioners) are common compounds, while huiette (small-scale meeting) is a hybrid form.

Global terms like couch potato and tall poppy are adapted into couch kūmara and tall ponga. Adaptations have been made in both languages, often in transliteration, as in the case of kawenata (covenant) and biddy-bid (piripiri – a creeping plant with burrs).

Language colonist

The 19th-century letters of early colonist William Colenso show early blends, compounds and anglicisation using the word Māori, terms which were thought to have been of more recent origin. Among these were à la Māori, Maoricize, Maorified, and pseudo-Māori.

Early adoption from Māori

Printer and missionary William Colenso was one of the first colonists to use te reo Māori fluently, and he introduced many Māori words into New Zealand English. From as early as 1843 he commonly interspersed Māori and English, using terms such as kapai (good) and anglicising others, such as tangiing (crying). He took care to explain the various meanings associated with Māori vocabulary, showing that the term Māori itself meant ubiquitous and common, and not merely indigenous, especially when applied to flora and fauna. He distinguished, therefore, a native tree from a Māori tree.

The early use of the term Māori for common or ubiquitous in Māori–English compounds often caused confusion. Māori clearing, Māori pass and Māori track pertained to Māori use or origin – but Māori cabbage and Māori parsnip meant these plants were common and grew wild.

Early borrowing

One of the first terms borrowed from Māori material culture was mōkihi or mōki (a raft made from kōrari or flax stalks), a word that was used widely by surveyors and land-seeking colonists. In the South Island it was often written as mogihi or mogi.

Early borrowings from the Māori language into English generated a range of pronunciations and spellings. Kōwhai, for example, was spelled co-eye, kowai, kowhy, goai, ghoai, goa, goi and ghoa.

Borrowing stops

By the 1860s there were more Europeans than Māori in New Zealand, because of increased European migration and Māori mortality due to introduced diseases for which Māori had little immunity. The New Zealand wars of the 1860s enforced separation between Māori and Europeans. As a result, few Māori words came into New Zealand English from then until around 1970. However, many transliterations from English entered te reo Māori.

Borrowing resumes

From the 1970s Māori words started to re-enter New Zealand English. Three major factors contributed to this change.

  • Efforts were made to revitalise te reo Māori.
  • The post-Second World War urban migration of Māori was completed, and the geographic gap between Māori and Europeans closed.
  • New Zealand looked less to Britain and began to forge an identity as a Pacific nation.
How to cite this page:

Dianne Bardsley, 'English language in New Zealand - Words from the Māori language', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

Story by Dianne Bardsley, published 5 Sep 2013