10 Apr 2016

The future of Te Reo

From Sunday Morning, 7:08 am on 10 April 2016

According to historian Paul Moon, Te Reo's struggle for survival is far from over in 2016.

On 5 April Te Ururoa Flavell announced an amendment to the Māori Language Bill that would acknowledge how the Crown's actions contributed to a decline in Te Reo and had a detrimental impact through the generations on how the language was spoken. Despite calls from the Opposition, the amendment stops short of an apology. Prime Minister John Key says the government recognises it has a legal obligation to preserve the language.

Paul Moon has just released a timely book about how the arrival of colonists transformed Māori language - Ka Ngaro Te Reo: Māori Language Under Siege in the 19th Century.

Read an edited snapshot of their conversation below:

Paul, let's go back to the year 1800. What was the situation with regards to Te Reo Māori?

It was very healthy by any measure, because it was the only language spoken in New Zealand. There were no settlers in the country...

It was the official language.

Effectively. But it actually jumped out of New Zealand about nine years earlier. In 1791 or so the Governor of Norfolk Island had produced a Māori dictionary based on Māori who'd visited Norfolk Island. So there was already a 200-word dictionary in existence before any Europeans had settled in New Zealand.

And here we have this oral language, whereas writing... And this is really fascinating, this is the key point of the book. There's this juxtaposition between the oral and the written. Writing was the medium of the coloniser. So this had profound implications, didn’t it - how knowledge was stored, who was saying it, how it was passed on down so things could be accurate. It was an oral language.

Definitely. And I think people tend to underestimate the power of writing. When you have an entire social system that's based on certain people holding knowledge on behalf of the whole community their position is sacred. It's very hard to get into that very elite group. And all of a sudden you can have anyone possessing even more knowledge, because it' written. The way you transmit knowledge changes. It no longer has to be wrote-learned. It no longer has to take place in certain ceremonies. Now it can just be written. It can be mass produced. And all of these sort of things undermined traditional Māori social structure, but at the same time without writing the language could have been even worse off.

You say in the book that even in 1940 Āpirana Ngata noted that his people still liked committing spoken words to memory, rather than reading them. More poetic, more of an old-time narrative?

That's right, and that was at the tail end. The 1940s was when that just about died out. There are still a few examples. It hasn't quite died out completely. But by and large now, text dominates everything.

You say that language carried on paper was mildly miraculous to Māori who were encountering literacy for the first time. So that must have been an extraordinary part of New Zealand history, to actually see the first texts come through and see the reaction to that.

That's right, and it's something that... When we get the junk mail out of our letterbox we take for granted that words can appear in a physical form. But for this entire society for centuries there was no conception of that. So it almost had magical properties. And the fact that you could transport your thoughts in a physical form, take them somewhere else, it's almost beyond belief .And it was for some people. They saw texts – initially some Māori did – as having these supernatural properties because of that.