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Marcus Lush is on the right side of history. Mangling Māori names is no longer ‘the way it is’

Calls to Marcus Lush’s Newstalk ZB show defending the incorrect pronunciation of Māori place names in Otago have been captured and shared by angry listeners. Should we despair at the callers’ attitudes, or celebrate the popular response, asks Māori Language Commissioner Rawinia Higgins

It’s the way it is.

These are the words a caller to Newstalk ZB used to defend her right to mispronounce the Māori names of the places she grew up in during an extraordinary exchange with broadcaster Marcus Lush.

The truth is that “the way it is” has been changing for years.

Generations of Māori New Zealanders who were determined to change “the way it is” is how the Māori Language Commission came to be. In 1985 a Treaty claim successfully called for te reo to be made an official language in its own land and after a Waitangi Tribunal recommendation, Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori was born.

The mammoth challenge facing the first Māori language commissioner and his staff was promoting a language where only decades earlier, schoolchildren had been beaten for speaking it out loud and assigned new names that were more acceptable to English speakers. It was a time when te reo was barely heard on our radios and televisions or seen in our newspapers. Editorials argued that making Māori an official language would divide us.

Thirty years later, they have been proven wrong because te reo brings us together. Māori Language Week 2019 saw tens of thousands marching in seven parades across Aotearoa, millions engaged with us online and hundreds of initiatives were celebrated nationwide. Our prime minister told the nation that te reo is part of our identity as New Zealanders.

Marcus Lush is on the right side of history, and on the side of the historic revitalisation of te reo Māori we see around us. I would like to pay tribute to him and other non-Māori influencers – people like broadcaster Guyon Espiner, Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy (two of our Māori Language Week Ambassadors for 2019), Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, presenter Jack Tame and actor Jennifer Ward-Lealand – who are helping to shift attitudes. Te reo brings us together as New Zealanders, whatever our background. And our common effort to learn a little and use a little, to learn more and use more is how we start.

At one time a bank occupied the ground floor of the building where the commission is based and one day, the then Māori Language Commissioner was waiting in line when he began speaking with the man behind him, a Waitangi Tribunal member and revered scholar. A bank teller shouted at the men and told them to speak English or go somewhere else. The men did go somewhere else: they went to complain to her manager. 

When it comes to attitudes to te reo Māori, while the centre of gravity has changed since the 1980s, some attitudes have stayed the same.

The reality is that colonisation did not just affect Māori New Zealanders, it affected everyone. Those callers to Newstalk ZB may have grown up in a world where Māori language and culture wasn’t valued by New Zealanders: but that world has gone forever and it’s not coming back. They are victims of an education and social system that taught them it was more important to learn how to pronounce the name of a cheese from northern France than the name of their own town. 

The caller was quite right to say that these were the pronunciations she grew up with. But that does not make those pronunciations the best choice. While we can’t ever get our voices entirely away from the way we were brought up, we have a choice.

Some argue that pensioners are too old to learn how to change but that’s not true for everyone (even though the infamous ZB caller was only 43). My friend’s 75-year-old migrant mum recently signed up to learn te reo at a community course in Wellington. A retirement home in Auckland has seen mostly Pākehā elders learning Māori, while kaumatua in Wairarapa are learning to speak their own reo for the first time. The future for te reo Māori looks bright and it’s not just our young ones leading the charge.

A country where we deliberately mispronounce Māori words because they’re Māori words, or where we reprimand people for speaking Māori, is not “the way it is”. It is the way we were. And it is not the way we are heading.

Kia kaha te reo Māori!


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