Māori All Blacks perform the Haka prior to their match against Canada. Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

How sports commentary can normalise te reo Māori

When the Māori All Blacks play Fiji this month, MP Peeni Henare will be in the commentary booth calling the match in te reo. Don Rowe reports on an initiative to normalise te reo through the medium of sport.

Around 500 years ago, in 2011, Māori TV broadcasted all 48 games of that year’s Rugby World Cup free-to-air, smashing viewership records before doubling them again. The organisation assembled 27 commentators across two channels, providing full coverage of the tournament in both English and te reo Māori. Now, eight years later, Sky TV is bringing two of them back for two games only as the Māori All Blacks take on Fiji in July.

Peeni Henare, MP for Tāmaki Makarau and minister for youth and Whānau Ora, will be calling the games alongside broadcaster Te Arahi Maipi. Henare said he was excited to be approached by Sky earlier this year, saying sport was a natural vehicle for promoting language.  

“When Māori TV won the rights in 2011 to the Rugby World Cup it really, in a big way, boosted the reo. I was fortunate to be a part of it,” he said. “Now I find myself eight years later back in the booth.” 

“We’ve got an ambitious goal nationally – and I say this with my government hat on – to normalise te reo Māori to increase the numbers of te reo Māori speakers. This is just one of those ways that we can do it in a medium that most of our people understand. We’re a rugby-mad country and with the huge number of Māori involved in the sport itself, this gives us another opportunity to not only communicate with that particular cohort of people, but also make our language more normalised with something that we all take for granted in rugby.” 

While the broadcast remains an “alternative commentary”, Henare said the opportunity to work with Sky TV and their enormous captive audience couldn’t be passed up. The stream is a chance to push the kaupapa, Henare said, with the potential to reach the reo-curious as well as fluent speakers. It’s a chance, too, to have a bit of fun with his own reo. 

“That’s the beauty of te reo Māori. For example in te reo Māori, if you wanted to describe somebody who has basically ran out of gas, I can say ‘kua huri ngā rakaraka’ which technically translates as ‘the pig has turned up and its testicles are in the air’. I couldn’t say that in English, but it’s a well-known expression that means someone has just had it. 

“That always gives a certain flavour to Māori commentary that you just won’t get in English, and I think if anything that’s probably where the fun is had when we talk about calling a game in Māori. You can call the game as you see it, but more importantly, we’re able to use our language to paint a picture for our people.”

In 2011, Māori TV broadcasted all 48 games of that year’s Rugby World Cup free-to-air, smashing viewership records before doubling them again. (Photo: Stewart Baird)

Where the reo is too cumbersome, however, commentators will sub in transliterations in the name of brevity. A maul, for example, could be called a ‘noneke’ because it resembles a turtle wrestling back and forward – or it could be transliterated as ‘moro’. A player like Nehe Milner-Skudder could be a ‘waewae hutihuti’ or hot stepper, or just someone with a flash ‘stepe’. Then there are the players themselves, said Henare.  

“There’s always a balance between an understanding of the old language and the new language. And there are so many new talents coming through it’s always a little bit hard to figure out who these people are – that’s where I’ve gotta brush up. Who are some of these young bucks, and what are their stats?”

Henare, who was the country’s first ‘kōhanga reo baby’, said the normalisation of te reo through mediums like sport is a continuation of the work started under his father Erima Henare at the Māori Language Commission.   

“He was hugely supportive and he was always of the opinion that Māori couldn’t do this on their own in terms of language revitalisation,” said Henare. “We needed more and more people on board. And so even if people were just picking up words, they don’t have to be fluent in te reo, but just to know that rugby is ‘whutupōro’, or whatever, we’re just normalising terms with the general population then we’re going to achieve far more than we would on our own.” 

“It’s also clear that we’ve got a generation of young kids coming through [in mainstream schools now] who already understand [words like] whānau, aroha, kaupapa, manaakitanga and mahi. They already have that vocabulary, so all we need to do is enhance that and provide more opportunity for them to use it.” 

More broadcasting in te reo is also a branding and marketing triumph both at home and abroad, said Henare, adding a cultural dimension to the 100% Pure slogan. 

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“You know, when we think of Brand New Zealand offshore we’ve got the vision of 100% Pure New Zealand. Well, it’s become quite clear over the past decade that there’s a cultural component to that. A lot of tourists are coming here to experience our culture. If we can show them that our biggest game is rugby and we embrace the culture as we do with the New Zealand Māori and the haka and also with te reo Māori commentary, I think it just adds another feather in our cap. It shows we’re serious about our language revitalisation and our people.”

The government is currently rescoping the role of te reo Māori in broadcasting under the Māori Media Sector Shift review, Henare said, and there are encouraging signs of increased competency in the mainstream media. Fluent broadcasters like TVNZ’s Maiki Sherman are able to secure access to different stories through their reo, and small changes like an uptick in macron usage all have a role to play. But those steps, and this month’s Māori All Blacks games, are only a beginning. 

“I’m reminded of the words of my grandfather: we’ve come too far not to go further, and there’s lots more to be done.” 


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