Story: Te reo Māori – the Māori language

In 1986 the Waitangi Tribunal recognised te reo Māori – the Māori language – as a taonga (treasure), and a year later it was made an official language of New Zealand. Efforts to revitalise te reo include full-immersion schools (kura kaupapa) and pre-school kōhanga, as well as Māori-language radio and television broadcasting.

Story by Rawinia Higgins and Basil Keane
Main image: Hēmi Pōtatau with Mt Cook School students and a petition for Māori television, 1978

Story summary

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Te reo Māori is the language of the Māori people of New Zealand. It was made an official language of New Zealand in 1987. In 2013, 21.3% of Māori and 3.7% of the total population could speak te reo Māori.

Māori is a Polynesian language, part of the Austronesian language family. There are three major dialects – eastern North Island, western North Island and South Island Māori.

Pākehā encounter te reo

The first Europeans in New Zealand had to learn Māori to communicate. Some married Māori women and had children who were bilingual.

Māori was not a written language before Europeans arrived. Early spelling was varied, but became more standardised from the 1820s. Missionary William Williams published a Māori dictionary in 1844. Writing in Māori became important as Pākehā tried to buy Māori land. Missionaries translated the Bible for their converts.

English spreads

As European settlement increased, there were more English speakers. Māori communities mostly continued to speak Māori. In the later 19th century laws specially affecting Māori were translated into Māori, and interpreters were appointed to Parliament.

Missionary schools had operated in Māori, but from 1847 children had to be taught in English. In the 19th century traditional oral literature was written down and Māori-language newspapers were published.

Language decline

By the early 20th century more Māori spoke English as well as Māori. Over the 20th century the education system promoted English, many Māori men died in the world wars, and urban migration increased contact with Pākehā. English became the main language spoken in Māori homes, and many Māori saw it as the language of success and advancement.

New initiatives

In the later 20th century Māori studies courses were set up in universities. Some students became aware of issues such as land rights and language loss. In 1972 over 30,000 people signed a petition asking for te reo Māori to be taught in schools.

In the 1970s some high schools began teaching te reo Māori. From 1982 kōhanga reo (pre-school language-learning nests) were set up. Kura kaupapa and wharekura (Māori-language schools) also opened.

Māori-language radio stations began broadcasting in 1987. Māori Television (Whakaata Māori) was set up in 2004 and its Te Reo channel began transmitting in 2008.

How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins and Basil Keane, 'Te reo Māori – the Māori language', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Rawinia Higgins and Basil Keane, published 5 September 2013, updated 1 September 2015