We’re not being too PC about te reo Māori. We’re worried

New Zealand’s first language is endangered. We can’t afford to normalise misspelling and mispronunciation any more than it already is, writes Māori Language Commissioner Rawinia Higgins.

If it really was just a joke, then why did some respond with racism?

One of our most well-known food companies, Watties, launched a campaign recently that deliberately misspelled place names, in te reo and English. It drew the ire of business owner Anton Matthews and other reo champions as it normalises the misspelling and mispronunciation of a language already under siege. At the very least: it’s really unhelpful.

While he received a lot of support, Anton also faced online critics who told him to stop whingeing and start laughing. They told him he was too PC, too precious. He needed to get a sense of humour. But when staff at his popular restaurant Fush answered the phone with “Kia ora”, his business also faced anonymous, racist responses.

Anton’s experience isn’t new. Last year young Auckland waitress Mia Griffiths  told us the moment she correctly pronounced Māori words on the menu, people at the table she was serving began mocking her. They were triggered by her correct pronunciation. Triggered. She had a decision to make: mispronounce the Māori words so they would leave her alone or keep pronouncing Māori words correctly. The teen chose the latter and faced a barrage of racist abuse.

So while I don’t believe Watties were trying to offend anyone, quite the opposite, the reality is that here in New Zealand deliberately misspelling or mispronouncing te reo just to have a go at Māori people is a thing. To borrow the name of the Watties campaign, it’s been A Kiwi Thing for many, many years. While I’m confident those kinds of voices are on the decline and we have more supporters than opponents, they’re never far away and they’re voices we need to understand if we are going to have any success in saving te reo Māori.

This issue came hot on the heels of a study saying te reo is on a “pathway towards extinction”. My immediate response is that te reo has been endangered for a long time; this is not new. The study’s analysis however is spot on: we must up our game and we need policy makers to take this study, and others like it, very seriously. Its authors compared our Māori language policies with Welsh language revitalisation efforts in Wales. However, there’s one big difference we mustn’t forget. Welsh people are a majority of the population in their own lands and have been for a long time.

Here in Aotearoa, Māori New Zealanders are a minority in our own whenua. We have been for more than a century – in 1916 of the total 1.1 million population, Māori made up barely 50,000. And because of this crucial difference, we know that for our reo to survive, we can’t just leave it to Māori people to cherish our language. We need to invite and encourage all New Zealanders to see te reo as part of our identity as Kiwis and as something that brings us all together. When she sung our anthem in Māori before an All Black test at Twickenham during the ill-fated (for us) Rugby World Cup 1999, Hinewehi Mohi did not realise her decision was about to change the culture of our country. Now 21 years later, singing our anthem in te reo is normal and takes place in our schools, ceremonies and of course, before All Black tests.

Back in the late eighties when the Māori Language Commission began, Māori language activists were often seen as separatists. People who wanted to divide our country. Thirty years later, as you will see from this video we made to thank our supporters, Māori language activists are children and elders, millennials, students and middle aged mums. Māori language activists are Māori, Pākēhā, Sāmoan, Indian, Chinese, Somalian. We live in our biggest cities, as well as our smallest towns.

We live in one of the most ethnically diverse nations on earth so it makes sense to encourage our children to celebrate our unique identity and understand our history. We want young New Zealanders to speak te reo, English, Sāmoan, Mandarin, Hindi, Tongan, Spanish, French. In the future we want to see monolingualism replaced by multilingualism. This could be the edge we give young New Zealanders as they seek their place in the growing global economy.

Our team at the Māori Language Commission is small but behind us are language champions who’ve dedicated their lives to revitalising te reo. We’ve been helping build a better future for Aotearoa for more than 30-years. A future where language brings us together and is part of our national and personal identity. We’ve come a long way since 1987 – from protest to parade – we’re excited about where we’re heading: but we need all your help to get there. For te reo Māori to not just survive but to thrive we need to bring everyone with us on the journey towards Aotearoatanga.

Kia kaha te reo Māori!



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