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Te reo Māori – the Māori language

by Rawinia Higgins and Basil Keane

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 and preschool kōhanga, as well as Māori-language radio and television broadcasting.

The Māori language

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’.

Pākehā engagement with te reo, 1769 to 1840s

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 'now 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

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

Spelling lessons

Early writer 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 Zealander's 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 see 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 (CMS) missionaries, particularly William Williams and Robert Maunsell. In 1844 the first edition of Williams's Māori dictionary appeared. Its orthography was the same as that used in the 2000s, with the exception of the 'wh', which 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 are from land sales purchases. Other early writings were biblical, as missionaries attempted to translate the Bible for their converts. In 1834 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 government official James Busby. Williams, Busby and others later played a role in the translation of the Treaty of Waitangi into Māori in 1840.


The spread of English, 1840s to 1900

From the 1840s to 1900 te reo Māori was the language of communication within Māori communities in New Zealand. As European settlement continued, the use of English spread, but only in European communities. There was occasional crossover between the two languages relating to trade, education, work or government activities.

Native Land Court

The Native Land Court was set up in the 1860s, with judges assisted by Māori assessors. In the proceedings Māori generally spoke in te reo, while minutes were usually written in English. Many of the judges, who were Pākehā, had knowledge of Māori language and culture.

Parliament and legislation

In 1858 the Native Districts Regulation Act and the Native Circuit Courts Act were the first government acts to be printed in Māori. In 1865 standing orders of Parliament provided that petitions in te reo needed to be translated into English as well, and that bills ‘specially affecting’ Māori should be translated and printed in Māori. In 1868, due to the incoming Māori members of Parliament, basic parliamentary practice was translated into Māori and so were certain papers. In 1880 Parliament's standing orders were printed in Māori, and an interpreter was appointed, increasing to three interpreters over the decade. Each year from 1889 to 1910 a series of acts relevant to Māori were printed in te reo.


While missionary schools had operated in Māori through necessity, this soon changed. Sir George Grey introduced the Education Ordinance 1847, which required that education be carried out in English. This was followed by a proliferation of legislation and education policy that has had a colossal negative impact on the Māori language. The supposed civilising mission of schooling openly promoted the devaluing of te reo. For example, the aim of an 1890 policy was to ensure that children whose first language was Māori would have it replaced by English by the time they left school.

The adoption in the early 1900s of the ‘direct method’ (where the teacher avoids using the learner’s native language) signalled a means to an English-speaking end. By the mid-19th century the Pākehā population was greater than the Māori population. Numbers of Māori continued to fall, and non-Māori no longer saw the need to learn Māori.

Māori literature

In the 19th century much oral literature was written down. In 1853 Ko nga moteatea, me nga hakirara o nga Maori was published, containing a number of traditional waiata (songs). In 1854 Ko nga mahinga a nga tupuna Maori, a series of traditional Māori stories in te reo, was published.

In 1858 Robinson Crusoe was translated into Māori and published. In 1878 Sir George Grey organised the translation of Thomas Bracken’s hymn ‘God defend New Zealand’ into Māori. Starting with Te Karere o Nui Tireni in 1842, a large number of Māori-language newspapers were published. Initially they were government-sponsored, but later a number were published privately by Māori.

Language decline, 1900 to 1970s

Monolingualism to bilingualism

At the beginning of the 20th century Māori society still largely spoke just Māori. However, there was an increasing shift to bilingualism. A relatively stable type of bilingualism existed among Māori until the 1930s, with te reo spoken at home and on the marae, and English used at school and in interactions with the government or with employers.

In the 1930s some Europeans advocated a move towards monolingualism. T. B. Strong, director of education, commented in 1930 that ‘the natural abandonment of the native tongue inflicts no loss on the Maori’1. However, Māori were reluctant to stop speaking te reo in the home. Education became an area of cultural conflict, with some Māori seeing the education system as suppressing Māori culture, language and identity. Children were sometimes punished for speaking te reo Māori at school.

Decline in speaker numbers

Between 1920 and 1960 there was a significant decline in the number of speakers of Māori. A number of factors contributed to this decline. The Māori male population had decreased as a consequence of participating in two world wars. Also, during urban migration Māori families were encouraged to integrate into mainstream society – sometimes known as ‘pepper potting’. The intention was to house Māori families among non-Māori families in order to promote Pākehā ideals, culture and language.

English as dominant language

Negative societal values and attitudes towards the Māori language continued to penetrate the education system and spilled over into the home environment. Subsequently, English eventually became the dominant language in Māori homes because many Māori came to see English as the language of success, achievement and advancement.

Māori studies in universities

During this period the genesis of Māori studies at universities occurred. An increasing number of Māori had become isolated from their language and culture and were looking for ways to remedy this. Although the first Māori-studies subject was not introduced at Auckland University College until 1952, the University of New Zealand Senate had agreed to permit the Māori language to be examined for the Bachelor of Arts in 1929. From 1967 Māori studies was taught as a BA subject at Victoria University of Wellington.

In 1978 the first MA programmes in Māori studies were introduced at Waikato and Victoria universities. In 1981 the study of the Māori language was introduced at Otago University, but was not offered as a major until 1990. These programmes were one way of promoting the language.

English-speaking Māori students

Not long after the development of Māori studies departments, an increasing number of monolingual English-speaking Māori students began enrolling at universities. For many of these students, universities became a means for learning their language and culture and becoming connected to their identity. Māori studies needed to accommodate the increasing roll of Māori who had no previous access to this knowledge, so university courses were developed to address this issue.

Political awareness

Universities also became the platform from which Māori political awareness grew. Ngā Tamatoa (at Auckland University) and the Te Reo Māori Society (Victoria University) are a testament to this growing politicisation. The often-heralded Māori renaissance period of the 1970s and 1980s saw these university graduates fighting to reverse language loss, change attitudes towards te reo and support political issues including land and Treaty of Waitangi rights. The impact of not knowing the Māori language became the catalyst for many graduates to fight for its recognition in New Zealand society.

Te reo Māori petition

In 1972 Ngā Tamatoa and the Te Reo Māori Society collected over 30,000 signatures on a petition to Parliament calling for the government to offer Māori language in schools. That year the Te Reo Māori Society was also instrumental in establishing Māori Language Day – extended to Māori Language Week in 1975. Māori Language Week continues to be a feature of the New Zealand calendar and in the 2000s followed a theme set by the Māori Language Commission.

    • T. B. Strong, ‘The education of South Sea Island natives.’ In Maori and education, or, The education of natives in New Zealand and its dependencies, edited by Patrick M. Jackson. Wellington: Ferguson & Osborn, 1931, p. 193. Back

Revitalising te reo, 1970s and 1980s

Māori in secondary schools

The impact of the 1972 Māori-language petition saw Māori being offered as a subject in some secondary schools. However, there were limitations placed on schools that opted to teach this. The subject was usually taught for four hours a week and focused on grammar and written Māori. In 1978 Ruatoki Bilingual School opened, and by 1980 there were four officially approved bilingual schools. These schools were successful because they were located in communities that still predominantly spoke Māori in the home. The schools used variable amounts of Māori language in the curriculum. However, they showed an increase in Māori student self-esteem and willingness to participate in education.

Te Ataarangi

Te Ataarangi programmes are taught using the coloured plastic Cuisenaire rods known in Māori as rākau. Dr Kāterina Te Heikōkō Mataira adapted the 'Silent Way' language learning methodology, developed by Egyptian educationalist Caleb Gattegno, for Māori. Working with Ngoingoi Pēwhairangi, Mataira trained a number of native Māori-language speakers who went into communities and taught adults to speak Māori.

Te Ataarangi aimed to support and encourage the development of oral proficiency in Māori. In the 2000s Te Ataarangi continued to be taught throughout the country. It has been instrumental in supporting the revitalisation of the language in homes. Over time, the variety of programmes has developed from informal, voluntary community-based learning initiatives through to degree-level programmes.

Right from the start

During a review of kōhanga reo in 1988, an elder commented, ‘Whānau ana te tamaiti, me rarau atu, whakamau ki te ū, kei reira ka tīmata ki te kōrero Māori (when the child is born, take it, put it to the breast and begin speaking Māori to it at that point).’1

Kōhanga reo

As Te Ataarangi was becoming established, the plight of the Māori language remained an issue. This was further emphasised by the results of Richard Benton’s extensive survey of the Māori language in the mid- to late 1970s, which highlighted the perilous state of te reo.

Māori elders from around the country attended the Hui Whakatauira, a series of meetings at Waiwhetū marae in Lower Hutt. At one of these meetings a decision was made that for the Māori language to survive, language learning needed to start from birth, and kōhanga reo (preschool language ‘nests’) were initiated. At the first Hui Whakatauira in 1979, Sir James Hēnare encouraged kaumātua to consider the legacy they were leaving behind, and there was a consensus that the language be a priority. This was reaffirmed at the wānanga in 1980.

Kaumātua and kōhanga

The influence of kaumātua has been a core element in kōhanga reo from the beginning. Elders’ knowledge of the Māori world and its concepts are deeply embedded in kōhanga reo, and their continuing role is equally important. Kaumātua allowed for the development and adoption of kōhanga in Māori communities. They provided guiding principles that made the initiative uniquely Māori and an indigenous pedagogical model for developing the whole whānau. The first kōhanga was Pukeatua, set up in Wainuiomata in 1982.

The framework of kōhanga reo is based on the traditional whānau structure and incorporates Māori cultural concepts. These principles allow for intergenerational learning between at least three generations, not only to educate a child in an immersion setting, but to encourage language revitalisation within the household. With the expectation that parents participate in their child’s education, many kōhanga had to train whānau members in these roles and in te reo Māori.

    • Kathie Irwin, ‘The politics of kōhanga reo.’ In New Zealand education policy today: critical perspectives, edited by Sue Middleton, John Codd, and Alison Jones. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1990, p. 115. Back

Ongoing work, 1980s to 2000s

Kura kaupapa

In response to the increasing number of kōhanga reo graduates, kura kaupapa (Māori-language immersion schools) were developed to provide a full immersion Māori-language education. The first school to open was Te Kura Kaupapa o Hoani Waititi in Auckland. A curriculum programme, Te Aho Matua, was designed for these schools and provided an alternative education system for those who wanted their children taught in Māori. Wharekura (Māori-language secondary schools) were later developed to support the progression of these children to secondary school.

Whakatupuranga Rua Mano

In 1975 Professor Whatarangi Winiata developed Whakatupuranga Rua Mano as a strategic plan to revitalise the Māori language in Ngāti Raukawa, Te Āti Awa and Ngāti Toarangatira. At the time these iwi had no speakers of te reo under the age of 30 and there was a fear that the language would quickly die out. The plan aimed to increase the number of speakers through immersion wānanga, and eventually provided the foundation for the establishment of Te Wānanga o Raukawa in 1981. This offered a model for other whare wānanga (Māori tertiary education institutions), and Awanuiārangi and Aotearoa wānanga were set up shortly afterwards.

Māori language claim

In 1984 Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo (the Wellington Māori Language Board) lodged a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal to gain official status for the language. This claim, WAI 11, was the first generic Māori claim to the Tribunal and the hearings took four weeks. In 1986 the tribunal recommended that the language be acknowledged as a taonga (treasure) under Article II of the Treaty of Waitangi and recognised as an official language. The Māori Language Act 1987 made Māori an official language and set up Te Taura Whiri i Te Reo Māori, the Māori Language Commission.

Māori broadcasting

Also in 1987 the first Māori radio station, Te Upoko o Te Ika, was piloted, and other stations followed soon after. In the 1990s the government made plans to sell state-owned broadcasting assets. The New Zealand Māori Council and Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo took the Crown to court to halt these sales. Although their attempts failed, they continued to appeal through the courts and eventually went to the Privy Council in England. The Privy Council recognised that the language was in a ‘vulnerable state’ and that the Crown would need to ‘take especially vigorous action for its protection’1. As a consequence of this the Crown amended the Broadcasting Act in 1993 and established Te Māngai Pāho, the Māori language and culture broadcasting funding agency. In the 2000s 21 iwi radio stations were part of the Te Māngai Pāho-funded network across the country.

Māori television programming

Māori television programmes have also been a feature of mainstream broadcasting, and Te Karere, Waka huia and Marae feature on Television New Zealand as flagship programmes. In 2004 the Māori Television Service was set up to increase Māori-language broadcasting. Four years later Māori Television launched the Te Reo channel, which broadcasts entirely in Māori. The broadcasting industry has had a significant impact in raising awareness of the Māori language and supporting its revitalisation, particularly for those who have limited access to speakers.

Māori Language Strategy

In 1997 the government developed the Māori Language Strategy to coordinate the Māori-language sector. This provided a platform from which Te Puni Kōkiri, the Ministry for Māori Development, was able to produce research on the health of the Māori language and monitor the numbers of speakers.

The Māori Language Strategy 2003–2008 focused on increasing language usage in specific domains, with an overall vision that ‘[b]y 2028, the Māori language will be widely spoken by Māori. In particular, the Māori language will be in common use within Māori whānau, homes and communities. All New Zealanders will appreciate the value of the Māori language to New Zealand society’2.

In 2010 the minister of Māori affairs established a panel, Te Paepae Motuhake, to review the Māori-language sector and its funding. Before the conclusion of this review the Waitangi Tribunal released a pre-publication version of their WAI 262 findings related to the Māori language. The Te reo mauriora report was released in 2010 and proposed changes to the Māori Language Strategy that would shift the focus of the language back into communities and homes.

    • Quoted in Ko Aotearoa tēnei: a report into claims concerning New Zealand law and policy affecting Māori culture and identity. Vol. 2. Wellington: Waitangi Tribunal, 2011, p. 401. Back
    • Māori Language Strategy 2003–2008. Wellington: Te Puni Kōkiri, 2003, p. 5. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Rawinia Higgins and Basil Keane, 'Te reo Māori – the Māori language', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 5 December 2020)

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