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Macrons and Wikipedia

The use of macrons in New Zealand English is changing fast. Print and television media, local and central government, they have almost all adopted the macron to indicate long vowels in Māori. Macrons are important: a wētā is an insect, but weta is excrement. Many places in Aotearoa now use macrons in their names. But one of the last bastions of macron resistance for place names is Wikipedia, one of the world’s most-viewed websites. That’s a concern, and some Kiwi Wikipedians want to change this.

Macrons have been used in Wikipedia for some time: every use of the word “Māori” has its macron, and articles are increasingly adopting macrons in their names: the “New Zealand pigeon” article was recently renamed “Kererū”. But place names have always been a sticking point. For some reason, people feel especially attached to towns and rivers, and resist changing their spelling. This applies in the real world – see the kerfuffle over the “h” in Whanganui and the “ō” in Taupō – and it’s no different in Wikipedia. Wikipedia rules have, for years, stated that place names were “under discussion”, and macrons have not been used in the meantime for place names.

Wikipedia is written by volunteers, all over the world, including quite a few in New Zealand. There’s no editorial board or committee that decides on the formatting or spelling rules and guidelines – those have been thrashed out by the volunteers themselves over the last 19 years, and continue to be amended and improved. Change happens through long public discussions on Wikipedia talk pages, and anyone can contribute.

Christchurch-based Axel Wilke has put forward a proposal to change Wikipedia’s naming conventions where geographic features contain a macron, based on gazette notices by the New Zealand Geographic Board. Mike Dickison, who was New Zealand Wikipedian at Large in 2018–19, is helping.

“In June 2019, the New Zealand Geographic Board reported that 824 Māori place names had been made official, and about 300 place names now include a macron.”

If the proposal is adopted, nearly 300 place names on Wikipedia would thus be changed to show the macron in the page title and throughout the text (note that not all 300 places will have an article on Wikipedia yet).

This would mark a big change for Wikipedia. The idea was first raised on Wikipedia discussion pages in 2007 with no clear consensus. In 2018, a great debate broke out about the appropriate name for Paekākāriki / Paekakariki; thousands of words of back-and-forth discussion ensued, even leaking out into The New Zealand Herald, which wrote about Wikipedia's "battle of the macrons". Later in 2018, the discussion was revived, but no real consensus emerged. In none of these cases was a clear, well-supported proposal set out and put to the vote. That’s what’s happening now.

You might think it would be an easy thing to just declare “Most New Zealand publications use macrons, so now all Wikipedia articles will too.” But Wikipedia, through years of discussion and debate, has accumulated layers and layers of rules, guidelines, precedents, and style guides. They often have cryptic names like WP:COMMONNAME and MOS:DIACRITICS; you’re expected to be familiar with them if you want to contribute, and any proposed changes have to take them into account. All this is invisible to people who just use Wikipedia to look things up, but affects the work thousands of volunteer Wikipedia editors do every day. That’s why this proposed rule change, which will affect hundreds of articles and require thousands of changes, is such a big deal.

If the change is approved, it will bring Wikipedia into line with the way New Zealand English has changed. Years ago, we all used to talk about “Maoris” and “kakapos”. Because there’s no plural “s” in the Māori language, English speakers in New Zealand began using the same word for singular and plural, and now we might look askance at someone who talks about “Maoris”. More recently, macrons have crossed over from Te Reo into New Zealand English, and rapidly spread through the media, book publishing, legal documents, government, and education, which increasingly now refer to “Māori” and “kākāpō”. This has been a remarkable and swift change, reaching critical mass only a couple of years ago. So it’s understandable that Wikipedia has taken some time to catch up.

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