Can Maori language be anything more than an intellectual or cultural indulgence?

During my short stay at grammar school I learned some Latin and French (as well as English). French was never much use to me but Latin, in later years, became more and more valuable because it is not only at the heart of much English but has also helped with what little Italian I’ve needed for several trips to that country.

I think French was taught in mid-last century because it still held some residual power as a language of diplomacy, but these days it seems to me that the French only insist on the importance of their language as an international form of communication for petulant and xenophobic reasons. Today it might be of more utility, I suspect, for Japanese and Mandarin to be taught as second languages despite the fact that in the political, legal and financial forums (fora?) of the world the Japanese and Chinese are smart enough to know that English will get them anywhere.

The endearing thing about English is that it requires no accents to be placed over or under its characters. Apart from separate phonetic pronunciation aids that draw the dictionary reader to some basic common ground - received pronunciation or standard English I believe it’s termed - nobody has the arrogance or pedantry to tell the user how to pronounce the language. Thus the spoken English of the Englishman ranks equally with that of the Scot, Welsh, Irish, Australian, New Zealand, Indian, American, Patagonian, Aborigine or Maori.

Despite it being a whore of a language incorporating anything useful from any other language, English, once its little irregularities are mastered is simple yet comprehensive. It is no longer partisan; it’s a language that belongs to nobody and everybody and if you want to strut on any part of the world’s stage it is absolutely vital to all and any international transactions.

Maori, on the other hand, has no other value than as a cultural and intellectual exercise. Like Gaelic it is a poetic language of interest but to be able to speak it fluently and mellifluously will take the speaker not one metre along the road to international discourse. If you were to grow up speaking only Maori you would be vastly disadvantaged in the rest of the world; and even in New Zealand, where we have a modern history of leaning over backwards to accommodate minorities, it surely cannot be easy to use Maori to make a case or present an argument even when its status as an ‘official’ language demands that it be interpreted into English if a Maori speaker decides to stand upon his rights or decides to be bloody-minded!

I’ve been a New Zealander for over 48 years (longer, I suggest, than most of the present Maori population) and can honestly say that I have never needed to speak Maori. Certainly I know many Maori words because New Zealand English has taken them on board in the time-honoured meretricious fashion of picking up anything useful. It would not be of much use to me to learn Maori; much as I might enjoy the exercise there are many other things I need to learn that take priority.

And I must say that I am put off the language greatly by the mystifying addition of macrons to some of its vowels, a practice born of political correctness that simply complicates a language that might be pronounced differently from one iwi to another (aren’t Aoraki and Aorangi the same word?). That macrons are a confounded nuisance was evidenced in tables published by the Department of Statistics, some of which could not render the accent as a single straight line but instead use the umlaut - two dots like twin pinheads.

I recall when local Maori decided to paint ‘KURA’ on the back of the Rotoiti school bus (I’m not sure whether they still do). I could understand where they were coming from but it made no sense to render into a language that’s only wholly or passably familiar to less than five percent of New Zealand’s population a message that could, in fact, be a matter of life and death. Admittedly Maori is an ‘official’ language (as is sign language) but whatever the reason that might have been given for its use on a school bus. the only conclusion I can draw is bloody-mindedness; I’m not sure how you say that in Maori.

Comments (17)

by Peter Calder on July 01, 2009
Peter Calder

Tackling the profound monocultural ignorance and  formulaic thinking that underpins this column makes me feel soooo  tired, but briefly:

Learning to speak Maori fluently and mellifluously will not take the speaker one metre along the road to international discourse but very few English speakers ever learn to speak any language fluently, much less mellifluously. Educationists do not believe in the teaching of, say, French because it will make it easier for you to order a coffee on the Left Bank. (Anyway most of my contemporaries who studied French for three years would sit down in les Deux Magots and say "coffee, please") The advantages of learning a language (any language) are twofold: cultural and cognitive. The first because you learn (well, some people do) to see the world as others see it and to recognise that there are other ways of seeing it. The second because there is endless educational research to show that educational achievement in all areas is improved if you study languages. The idea is that it stretches the thinking (although you provide a compelling if anecdotal counter-argument).

That being the case, it actually doesn't matter what language you learn. Could be Inuit or Zulu. We learnt French because that's how they did things in the Old Country (which is where I assume you whakapapa to since you are older than 48). But as we grew up and started to see ourselves as an independent nation, some people asked themselves: "Why not Maori?"

It may not improve international discourse (What about national discourse), but it sure as hell helps you to understand the nature of being a New Zealander. Try it; you'll be surprised what happens to your point of view). If you have spent 48 years here without ever "having" (love that word) to speak Maori, I genuinely feel sorry for you because you haven't arrived yet.

Finally, the obvious question: if Maori is not going to be preserved here (and you can only preserve a language by speaking it and you can only speak a language by learning it) where do you suggest that it might be preserved? Or does it not matter whether it is because it does not improve international discourse?

By the way: you need to look up meretricious. And the addition of macrons is not "political correctness" (whenever I see that phrase I know I am reading a shallow thinker): a macron (and I don't know how to reproduce it here so I will use double vowels) marks a distinctive sound  That is to say that "aa" is a different letter (in speech a different phoneme)  from "a". (It's exactly the same as the distinction between "bit" and "bat", which you may consider significant. Opening the dictionary at random I see "haruru" means a dull, heavy sound and "haaruru" (which would have a macron above the a means fetid or foul smelling.) As in: "He haaruru to korero".

 

by Don Donovan on July 01, 2009
Don Donovan

Mr Calder:

You wrote: 'The advantages of learning a language (any language) are twofold: cultural and cognitive.' I agree. I wrote: 'Can Maori language be anything more than an intellectual or cultural indulgence?'

I thank you for feeling sorry for me but the fact is that I have so much yet to learn that's more useful to me than Maori that I simply do not have time.

I didn't need to look up 'meretricious', it means, inter alia, behaving as a prostitute. That's why I wrote: 'Certainly I know many Maori words because New Zealand English has taken them on board in the time-honoured meretricious fashion of picking up anything useful.'

And as for macrons, the very fact that you can't reproduce them proves what a damned nuisance they are. Why does Māori [!!!] need guidance to pronunciation when English, in all its varieties, needs none? Because of the political correctness of putative scholars, trying to justify their existence and thinking far too deeply.

Imagine the semiotic nightmare of applying diacritics to: 'cough, through, though, tough, bough, dough... enough'.

Enough already!

by Peter Calder on July 01, 2009
Peter Calder

You've missed the first point. Went straight through to the wicketkeeper, that one.

You use an obscure meaning of meretricious (its main meaning is "superficially alluring") to sustain a ponderous and confusing metaphor: whores don't pick up anything useful; they engage in sex for money. A better image would have been of a sponge.

As for macrons: you fail to see the hopeless ethnocentrism of your thinking. The fact that the Department of Statistics couldn't set them up in its character set shows simply that their IT people are morons. It says ***nothing*** about Maori ***at all***. I am no geek but I set up my wife's computer (she writes about Maori stuff a lot) to reproduce all five macrons (by a function key) in two minutes. You cannot easily reproduce the French c cedilla or the o with a line through it that Danes use or the a with an acute accent that is common in Spanish (use the Insert/Symbol menu) but that doesn't make these letters a damn nuisance. They are extremely useful to French/Danes/Spaniards. And there is a word for people who think that other cultures' ways of doing things is a damned nuisance.

Still things haven't been the same since those damned Indians kicked us out in 1947, what?

Read some books about language.

Over and out.

 

by Geoff Lealand on July 01, 2009
Geoff Lealand

I have just joined up to Pundit, expecting to find enlightened and interesting material--something akin to the conversations on Public Address, I guess.  But the above contribution is not a good start. It is entirely too self-regarding and unwilling to think imaginatively, nor consider how others might see the world.  One of the great pleasures (and treasures) of Aotearoa/New Zealand is our embrace of biculturalism and multiculturalism. It makes life here more interesting--te reo Maori in particular gives a unique shape to the music, films, TV programmes and art we make. It says 'New Zealand' to the rest of the world.

'Political correctness' is such a facile phrase (in anticipation that you will accuse me of it). It can be decoded as 'I do like this/I don't like social change/I don't like common courtesy', so I will label it  'PC'.  Why shouldn't we also label belief in the free market, deregulation, unfettered development, exploitation of matural resources, monoculturalism 'politically corect'?

by william blake on July 01, 2009
william blake

"Admittedly Maori is an ‘official’ language (as is sign language) but whatever the reason that might have been given for its use on a school bus. the only conclusion I can draw is bloody-mindedness;"

Don, I can actually picture you throwing your hands up in the air as you 'admit' that Maori is an official language.

Don you are a racial suprematist, many people throughout the 20th C were put to death through extensions of this (lack of) thinking, many more died trying to stop it. You should be bloody ashamed.

 

 

by Don Donovan on July 01, 2009
Don Donovan

Well that stirred a few people up!

by Geoff Lealand on July 01, 2009
Geoff Lealand

Was that your only intention?  I think we have been well 'stirred' by similar simplistic and mono-cultural thinking for far too long and such attitudes have really outstayed their  welcome.

by Claire Browning on July 02, 2009
Claire Browning

Being offensive usually does, Don.

by Don Donovan on July 02, 2009
Don Donovan

I'm amazed at how far from its origin a debate can move.

I asked two questions:

1. If it doesn’t communicate, what practical use has a language?

2. Can Maori language be anything more than an intellectual or cultural indulgence?

(If I lived in the UK I might substitute 'Welsh' for Maori.)

I don't believe that I have had a satisfactory answer to either question although Mr Calder 's seemed, ab initio, to agree with me.

Certainly I am pleased to have stirred up a few comments because, looking over the past history of 'punts' most of them seem to sink in a sea of apathy. BUT I am not racist, racialist or as Mr Blake had it 'a racial suprematatist [sic]'.

It's just that I like to solicit well balanced answers to reasonable questions; preferably without tangential assumptions about my character.

by Peter Calder on July 02, 2009
Peter Calder

For God's sake, whatever gave you the idea that Maori doesn't communicate? Watch Maori TV one night; you'll be stunned at how well they are managing to communicate. What you mean is that it doesn't communicate with YOU. I'll let you in to a little secret, Don. Nobody, particularly Maori, gives a rat's arse. Greek and Finnish do a very poor job of communicating with me but they seem to work well for the Greeks and Finns respectively. And they're not lying awake at night fretting about how I can't understand them.

The fact that you don't notice the "to me" hiding in  your sentence "what practical use is Maori" just makes you typical of every short-sighted member of a dominant culture. But if Garth George is learning Maori, you are plainly a few places down the intelectual food chain from him which must be a very dark and abject place.

And don't you dare stitch my initial sentence into your threadbare argument:  Maori won't get you far in Croatia, but I was mocking your dim logic, not agreeing with you.

The answer to your second question is "yes". Ask a Maori sometime; s/he'll explain.

Now I really am checking out of this thread. You have become like the smart-arse little kid in the back of the room swinging on his chair and saying, innocent and wide-eyed, "I was only asking". You've already had much more time than you deserve.

by Claire Browning on July 02, 2009
Claire Browning

The answer to your second question is "yes". Ask a Maori sometime; s/he'll explain.

Or better yet - take a few minutes to just stop and listen to a fluent and passionate Maori, speaking his language in person and from the heart.  I'm thinking of Pita Sharples, and it is (or ought to be) a moving and humbling experience, even if you understand not a single word - a person expressing himself and his people, the furthest thing in the world from "intellectual or cultural indulgence".

by Geoff Lealand on July 02, 2009
Geoff Lealand

Seeing that you personalised the issue from the very beginning  ("I think..."; "I believe...."), of course you should expect responses which raise questions about your values and attitudes.  You refer to this as a 'debate' but it isn't so, when you seem so adamant in your views, with little respect for others (most especially te reo Maori speakers)

by J Keenan on July 02, 2009
J Keenan

Don Donovan perhaps you should have asked these two questions:

1. If it doesn’t communicate, what practical use has a language?

2. Can that language then be anything more than an intellectual or cultural indulgence?

Perhaps then if you had received any comments for what are two pretty inane questions (Q1 answered very well by Mr Calder in his third post with his example) you could have written a follow up post singling out the Maori language using your own thoughts and the ideas of those who may have disagreed with those two leading questions.

You certainly did personalise this post, and did it with an emotive issue. That to me is a recipe for personal abuse by those with a differing opinion who you have stirred up.

by Julie zein on July 02, 2009
Julie zein

""....nobody has the arrogance or pedantry to tell the user how to pronounce the language. Thus the spoken English of the Englishman ranks equally with that of the Scot, Welsh, Irish, Australian, New Zealand, Indian, American, Patagonian, Aborigine or Maori....."

Completely untrue. In the German education system received pronunciation (Oxford English) is the standard, and on these grounds native speakers of English from Australasia and Africa, who have teaching qualifications, have been turned down for English language teaching positions in favour of Germans teaching English with a 'so-called' mid-European accent.

A similar state of affairs with regard to accetn exists in the Netherlands, and some states in the middle East.

The New Zealand accent is considered "inferior" throughout Europe, by comparison with southern UK accents.

by william blake on July 03, 2009
william blake

Don look at my post again please; I said you were a racial suprematist not a 'racial suprematatist'. Worryingly you don't seem to reject the label, just the spelling.

I have a funny feeling that your self indugent posts will be ignored in future.

by Don Donovan on July 08, 2009
Don Donovan

Mr Blake: I put the extra syllable in to emphasize the incorrect spelling. But I guess heavy irony is best spoken, not written.

by stuart munro on July 16, 2009
stuart munro

Well. I thought Don's piece was a perfectly fair argument - for all that it is not the majority one embraced in educational or political circles.

I presently reside in Korea, and one of the many pleasant features of this country is that entire weeks go by without broad brush accusations of racism and sexism flying everywhere.

Function is quite an old critique of Maori (or any other minority language) learning. But it is not so much the language as the culture which the language preserves that is the reason for the local revival of Maori language.

But it is no longer permitted to critique Maori culture, which is unfortunate, since the same folk who once were warriors, were also once, as our European ancestors once were too, cannibals. Every culture makes mistakes of taste.

Cultural critique is necessary, and ultimately, inevitable. The climate of political correctness only serves to drive such discourse underground.

That Don should find Maori language something other than an unmixed blessing is perfectly reasonable, and that he should say so is perfectly appropriate.

It requires something a little stronger that a less than enthusiastic embrace of Maori language to constitute a white supremacist. It may be that those respondents who don't like Don's post follow the Christain exhortation to love their neighbours strictly. But for ordinary persons it is sufficient that one does one's neighbour no harm. There is no harm in considering Maori language irrelevant to one's life, any more than choosing not to embrace any other popular enthusiasm.

And it is astonishing that educated people should choose to pretend otherwise.

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