Māori Language

The Basics To Help You Get Around NZ

The māori language (te reo) is an official language in New Zealand but before you panic, we all speak English. Phew, huh?

The problem is that māori words feature quite prominently throughout New Zealand.

You are likely to be greeted in māori. There are a lot of street signs in māori. Lakes, rivers, mountains, cities etc. have māori names. You will trip over it everywhere because the language is woven into everything we have and are.

So what does that mean for you? Making an effort as a visitor to learn basic words, phrases and pronunciation will make it easier for you to get around, especially if you have to ask for directions and don't have a map on you.

You will find that local people will love that you are trying.

A lot of europeans -including local ones - have trouble getting their tongues around the māori language as do a lot of māori themselves. Take me for instance, although I am part-maori I didn't have much to do with the māori culture growing up.

I think that's mainly to do with the fact that my mum is european and my dad, who was part-māori, was from up North - meaning his tribal affiliations were there rather than Rotorua which is where I was born.

When he was growing up he was punished for speaking māori in school. True! I don't know whether european teachers were trying to wipe out the heathen ways of the indigenous culture or what.

The upshot is that he didn't speak māori with us. As a consequence, my brothers and I missed out big-time in learning about our māori heritage.

While training to become a museum guide at Rotorua, I found out just how well I don't pronounce māori words properly so it's been back to the classroom for me. Talk about tongue-twisters!

I would encourage you to visit the korero maori website where there are lots of interactive features. You will also be able to LISTEN to maori words, letters, sentences etc and get familiar with hearing how they sound.

If you would rather have a quick overview carry on reading.

Basic Pronunciation

You will see in the following table that there are two rows with the five vowels. The third row of vowels has a macron on top of the letters. This indicates a longer vowel length. The rows with the words below each vowel are how the vowels are pronounced.

a e i o u
up egg eat port soup
ā ē ī ō ū
arc where eve oar ooze

Depending on the length of the vowel, similarly spelt words will have different meanings. Here is an example; keke means cake and kēkē means armpit or loan and kekē means to creak. It would be funny getting them mixed up wouldn't it?

A lot of words have two vowels together: ai, au, ao, ui, ua, oa, ia, ea. Practise by separating initially eg. a i, a i, until you can run them together.

Consonants are pronounced much the same as in English with a few differences.

r - is not rolled but is pronounced quite close to the 'l' in English. The tongue is in the same place as, for example, when you say 'lollies'. This is the one I have a problem with.

p - is usually softer than it is in English.

t - is pronounced more like a 'd' with the tip of the tongue slightly further back from the teeth.

wh - is used as a consonant. It is commonly pronounced as an 'f' although in some areas you may hear it said a bit differently such as the 'wh' in 'when'

ng - this is a fun one that is also used as a consonant. It is pronounced like the 'ng' in the word 'singer'. Not like the 'ng' in 'finger'.

Break the words up into syllables and say them slowly at first, getting faster and faster as you get better.

A syllable in the māori language is either a vowel on its own or a consonant followed by a vowel - and don't forget, 'wh' and 'ng' are counted as single consonants. Try these.

Aotearoa - a-o-te-a-ro-a
Whangarei - wha-nga-rei
Whakarewarewa - wha-ka-re-wa-re-wa

Māori Dictionary
If you want to make use of a māori dictionary you will find a particularly good one here at the Te Aka Māori Dictionary website.

As a free resource it is a work in progress with a number of features:

  • Both english or māori words can be entered into the search box.

  • Idioms and colloquialisms are included along with how they are used. The sample sentences also have English translations.

  • There are photos of important people and species.

  • You will also get to hear the sounds of all native birds.

Words To Practise Before You Come To NZ
Now that you have an idea about māori pronunciation go to my page of Māori Words. Here you will find words and phrases that you are likely to come across when you visit Rotorua and also throughout New Zealand.

It will open in a new window so you can still refer to this page as a guide to the pronunciation.

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