Story: Te reo Māori – the Māori language

Page 1. The Māori language

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The Māori language is known as te reo Māori or simply te reo (the language). It is the language of the Māori people of New Zealand. Te reo Māori is an official language in New Zealand, along with English and New Zealand Sign Language. It was made official in 1987.

Number of speakers

Just over a fifth of the Māori population (21.3%) spoke Māori in 2013. The total number of Māori who spoke te reo was 125,352. The total number of speakers, including non-Māori, was 148,395 (3.7% of the population). The 2013 census found that 38.8% of Māori aged 65 and over could speak Māori. However, only 16.6% of Māori under 15 could speak te reo.

Linguistic relationships

Māori is part of the Austronesian language family, which is found through South-East Asia and the Pacific. It is one of a number of Polynesian languages and comes under the Tahitic branch, as do Tahitian, Cook Island Māori and languages of the Tuamotu Archipelago. It is also closely related to the Moriori language of the Chatham Islands.

The Māori alphabet

The Maori alphabet consists of 15 letters:

  • eight consonants: h, k, m, n, p, r, t, w
  • two digraphs, representing single sounds: ng, wh
  • five vowels: a, e, i, o, u.

The vowels can be long or short. Contemporary conventions are that long vowels should be indicated by a macron: ā, ē, ī, ō, ū. Historically, long vowels have not been marked, or have been indicated by double vowels – aa, ee, ii, oo, uu – a system still used by the Waikato people in the 2000s.

Regional and dialectal variation

There are three major dialect divisions in New Zealand: eastern North Island, western North Island and South Island Māori. South Island Māori probably derives from Eastern North Island Māori. In turn, Moriori, spoken by Moriori from the Chatham Islands, may derive from South Island Māori.

Different pronunciation is found in different areas. Ngāi Tūhoe pronounce the ‘ng’ as ‘n’, while Ngāi Tahu replace ‘ng’ with ‘k’. Among the Whanganui and Taranaki tribes the ‘wh’ is pronounced as ‘w’ followed by a glottal stop. In some parts of Northland the ‘wh’ in ‘whaka’ is pronounced as 'h', so ‘whakahaere’ sounds like ‘hakahaere’.

How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins and Basil Keane, 'Te reo Māori – the Māori language - The Māori language', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/te-reo-maori-the-maori-language/page-1 (accessed 11 December 2018)

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