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Soapbox: Kei te korero au i te reo Maori

Kei te korero au i te reo Maori
Matthew Thomas
Soapbox 0049

Those people who know me personally would not describe me as the sort of person who is often lost for words. But during the past weekend I have been very quiet indeed. It's not that I haven't had a lot to say; in fact, the opposite is true. But the reason I haven't been very talkative is that I have been on a marae for the whole weekend -- forced to speak nothing but te reo Maori. And it's hard.

About 50 University of Canterbury Maori students, from beginners (like myself) to highly fluent speakers, took part in this wananga reo (language seminar). There were only four students from my class (the beginners' Maori class); most were from Stage Two and Three classes. So most of the language activities were aimed above my level, but I managed to survive -- with my trusty papakupu (dictionary) by my side, of course.

Onuku Marae, near the coast just outside Akaroa, is the marae where the Crown made its formal apology to Ngai Tahu as part of the settlement of Ngai Tahu's Treaty of Waitangi grievances in 1998. On the wall of the whare kai (eating room) is the framed apology from the Crown, along with photos of the hui at which the presentation took place -- including shots of Jenny Shipley, Sir Douglas Graham, and the rest of the Crown party being welcomed on to the marae with due pomp and ceremony.

Our own welcome was less impressive, but memorable nonetheless. There was the powhiri, the exchange of calls between the women in each party; then we took off our shoes and slowly filed in to the whare nui (main building). Three men from the marae took turns to give korero (speeches). To my surprise, two of them spoke mostly in English -- the language which, as one of them put it, they knew `only too well'. I could see on their faces the slight shame they felt in not knowing Maori well enough to speak it at length.

What was pleasing, though, was to see the number of young children at the marae, the children of the lecturers and tutors, speaking in te reo without the slightest effort -- even if they did lapse into English occasionally when playing games with each other. Most Maori speakers in New Zealand today are elderly, and a language can only really survive if there are children who are learning it from birth.

We ourseleves had been told not to speak English at all, except in the whare paku (toilets). It was very hard (uaua), and often I'd just give up on trying to get my thoughts across -- which is why I say I was quieter than usual. Thankfully, with dozens of other students all doing the same activities, I could just watch (titiro) and listen (whakarongo), and get along pretty well.

Most of the weekend was spent on various learning exercises -- making shopping lists in Maori, doing aerobics (or `maraerobics') in Maori, playing the card game Haere Hi Ika (Go Fish) in Maori, and so on. I have been learning Maori as a university course for only six months, and while most of the grammar used by the others at the wananga was fairly straightforward, I didn't know much of the vocabulary. I did learn quite a few new words, though, including mohio (know, or think), marama (understand), manuhiri (visitor), and patae (question). And I also learnt the vital difference between tara (dollar) and tara (vagina) -- it's all in the length of the vowels, you see.

But next to Kei te marama koe? (Do you understand?), probably the most-used phrase I learned was kapu ti -- cup of tea. This marae, at least, seems to have an obsession with kapu ti; we had about five of them each day. Tea seems to have been assimilated into Maori culture. The guitar (kita) has had a similar fate -- I often wonder how Maori musical groups survived before guitars were introduced to this country.

I also wonder about how much sleep people got. In a marae, everyone sleeps in the same room; so if anyone happens to snore (ngongoro) particularly loudly, those nearby might not get much sleep. I'm rather lucky in this regard, in that I'm the sort of person who sleeps through major earthquakes, so a little snoring doesn't bother me too much. But at the marae, I had the misfortune of sleeping between two snorers -- one of whom had the loudest snoring I had ever heard. With some difficulty, I managed to get to sleep. But next morning I was highly amused when Loud Snorer told Quiet Snorer (in English), `hey, I noticed last night that you snore a fair bit -- I didn't mind, just thought you should know'. Well. Pot, I'd like you to meet Mister Kettle ...

Before this weekend, when friends asked me why I was learning Maori I couldn't really give them a simple answer; the best I could do was `I just feel like I should'. But after this weekend at the marae, I think I know why I'm doing it. New Zealand is a very young country, and New Zealand Pakeha -- who come from a large number of different countries -- haven't really had time to develop a single culture of our own. The part of our culture which is more-or-less universal, though, is that which the Maori amongst us have provided. And the language is an inextricable part of the culture; more so with Maori, perhaps, than with other ethnicities. So learning Maori gives me a better idea of the culture of New Zealand -- it makes me feel like I'm really a New Zealander.

But such thoughts were far from my mind on Sunday afternoon, as we left the marae in the pouring rain (ua). I breathed a sigh of relief that I could start speaking English again. `English at last, eh?', one of the other students said. `Ae', I replied. Then I realized what I'd just done, and I tried to correct myself. But I suddenly found that I couldn't do it -- I kept on speaking in Maori instead. After two days of trying my utmost not to utter a single English phrase, English somehow seemed all wrong.

No reira, i kata au. And I began to laugh.


Copyright (C) 1999 Matthew Thomas (mpt @ mailandnews . com).


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Correction

In my previous column, on the Incis computer project, I said that Microsoft chose to adopt Windows over OS/2 as the operating system of the future in about 1994. I was mistaken -- Microsoft announced this decision three years earlier, in 1991, after the release of Windows 3.0. This however only strengthens my point about the unsuitability of OS/2 as an operating system suitable for general-purpose use by the Police (alongside use of the Incis system itself).


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