Story: Te reo Māori – the Māori language

Page 2. Pākehā engagement with te reo, 1769 to 1840s

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Tupaia – the first translator

In late 1769 British explorer James Cook made contact with Māori for the first time. On board Cook’s ship the Endeavour was Tupaia, a Tahitian high chief. Joseph Banks noted that Tupaia ‘found that the language of the people was so like his own that he could tolerably well understand them and they him’.1

Tupaia’s role as translator was important, though misunderstandings were still possible. One of the first places Cook visited in New Zealand was Tolaga Bay on the East Coast. Tolaga is a corruption of the word tāraki, which Cook believed was the name of the bay. However, local Māori know it as Ūawa, and may have been explaining what kind of wind (tāraki – north wind) was blowing.

Early European arrivals

Early European explorers in New Zealand had to learn Māori to converse with local people. As sealers, whalers and traders followed explorers to New Zealand, they were forced to do the same. More permanent traders often married Māori women and learned te reo. Their children were often bilingual and played an important role as intermediaries. Missionaries also needed to learn Māori to communicate with potential converts.

Spelling lessons

The pioneer trader Joel Polack observed the range of ways that Māori words were spelt: ‘Herd in his chart, calls the Port of Hokianga, Jokeeangar, Mr. Marsden terms it Shukianga, and the Baron de Thierry in his proclamation 1837, Yokianga; the most faithful pronunciation is E’Oakianga ... it is however best known as Hokianga.’2

Writing down Māori

Māori had not previously been a written language. Early orthography was highly inconsistent. There were attempts to remedy this inconsistency. In 1815 Thomas Kendall's A korao [korero] no New Zealand, or, the New Zealanders first book was published. It had a number of limitations due to Kendall’s lack of expertise in linguistics.

Kendall travelled with Ngāpuhi chief Hongi Hika and Hika’s relative Waikato to visit the world-renowned linguist Samuel Lee in England. Following this, in 1820, Kendall published A grammar and vocabulary of the language of New Zealand, which contained the orthographic foundations of written Māori.

This orthography was tested by Church Missionary Society missionaries, particularly William Williams and Robert Maunsell. In 1844 the first edition of Williams’s Māori dictionary appeared. Its orthography was still used in the 2000s, except that ‘wh’ was represented by a mark in front of the w. The second edition in 1852 used ‘wh’.

Importance of written Māori

Writing in Māori became increasingly important as Europeans attempted to buy Māori land. Some of the earliest examples of written Māori document land purchases. Other early writings were biblical, as missionaries attempted to translate the Bible for their converts. In 1835 He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tirene – The Declaration of Independence – was written in Māori and translated into English. A group of Māori chiefs declared their independence, assisted by missionary Henry Williams and British representative James Busby. Williams, Busby and others later played a role in the translation of the Treaty of Waitangi into Māori in 1840.

  1. Joseph Banks’s journal, 9 October 1769, (last accessed 21 May 2013). Back
  2. J. S. Polack, New Zealand: being a narrative of travels and adventures during a residence in that country between the years 1831 and 1837. Vol. 2. London: Richard Bentley, 1838, p. 280. Back
How to cite this page:

Rawinia Higgins and Basil Keane, 'Te reo Māori – the Māori language - Pākehā engagement with te reo, 1769 to 1840s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

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