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The author, her partner and their child
The author, her partner and their child

ParentsMay 15, 2018

Stop butchering te reo Māori pronunciation – our kids are listening

The author, her partner and their child
The author, her partner and their child

Children are sponges, they say. So why, asks Emily Holdaway, won’t radio give some thought to the kids who are adopting the incorrect pronunciation they hear on a daily basis?

I stand in the kitchen, doing the dishes. I can hear Mum reading to Ziggy in the lounge. She’s reading to him the story of Baby Honu as he hatches from his egg and makes the dangerous trip from the dune to the seas, avoiding the hungry ōhiki and the screeching Iwa, taking shelter under the pōhuehue leaves.

Mum’s voice glides effortlessly over these words, no hiccups, no stumbles. Being Hawaiian words, many of the sounds are similar to Māori and, as a teacher, Mum has always learned how to pronounce the basics of many languages. How else do you properly give a child named Fale Lea’aetalafo’ou his certificate? Looking at my mum, you see no sign of Māori heritage. Her parents are Pākehā, as are their parents. You have to go six generations back to find Parapara Kurekure who links us to Ngāti Kahungunu. This link wasn’t a strong influence on my siblings and I in childhood, but we’re exploring it more now we’re adults.

I finish the dishes and start getting his lunchbox ready. He calls out to me “Mum, what you doing Mum?” “Just making some kai for Playcentre,” I call back. And he snuggles closer to my mum on the couch.

Then we get in the car, turn on the radio and there it is: “99.4, Waikato. It’s The Breeze.”

Waikato. Why-cat-oh.

“Why-cat-oh,” my son parrots. Why-cat-oh. Not “Why-cut-or” (Waikato) as he has learnt from his father and me, but the butchered version of this beautiful word that is used by the radio presenters, and by the lady in the advertising jingle. ‘Why-cat-oh’.

My son is two and a half years old. He is a blank parchment, ready to absorb the ink of words as they form around him. He can say simple words like truck and clock. He can say less simple words like menstrual cup. He can say kōwhai and whero, though he still trips up over ‘rima’, which sounds more like ‘lima’. But he’s only two and a half. We read him Watercress Tuna and The Children of Champion Street and he parrots ‘pareu’ and ‘ula’. He asks for “the kūmara and kete” book, and we read to him The Kuia and the Spider.

And then we turn on the radio or TV and our efforts are eroded by airwaves full of mispronounced Māori words. Why-cat-oh. Tauw-poh. What-a-what-a.

And my son’s absorbent brain soaks it all up.

I don’t know if it is an unwillingness to learn, embarrassment, a fear of getting it wrong, a ‘why bother’ attitude, or what, but it’s not good enough. Te reo Māori is one of two spoken official languages in this country and if it is your job to use our language on the radio, or on TV, then it should be done right.

Many news presenters have been making a real effort over the past few years to improve their pronunciation and it shows. I feel proud of them, these people I don’t actually know but who come into our homes every day through the TV, proud that they have made the time and effort to improve themselves.

But so many more make little or no effort to learn. They gloss over the bare basics. Mangle five simple vowels. Butcher place names, butcher people’s names and reinforce an incorrect pronunciation to their many listeners.

Well that was what I thought anyway, until I saw an article on The Spinoff about a voiceover artist who was asked to purposefully mispronounce a Māori place name. A professional with perfect pronunciation – whose correct pronunciation of this place name could have been heard by impressionable children all over Aotearoa, children like mine who are learning how words sound – was asked by his client to say it the ‘white way’.

It’s not good enough. It just isn’t. If you are a business addressing places in Aotearoa in your advertising, then you bloody well make sure you are giving the respect those places deserve, by pronouncing them correctly. Show respect to this country by speaking her languages correctly. Do not add to the butchery and the whitewashing of these beautiful words.

I wish I could turn on the radio and have my children hear te reo Māori pronounced correctly. I wish that Taupō was toe-paw, not -tau-poh, that Whatawhata  was fa-ta-fa-ta, not what-a-what-a, that Waikato was said as it is meant to be said.

We are far from a bilingual household. The reo I know, I’ve brought into my adult life from a childhood raised in the Far North, from Form 2 Māori and from the bits and pieces I have learnt along the way. One thing we have, one thing we are proud to pass on to our children is pronunciation. Correct pronunciation. That was what I heard as a child, growing up in a tiny dot on the map in the Far North. My ears heard, and then my mouth spoke.

Maybe it’s too late for some. Their brains have finished wiring, and the pathways are closed to change. But our children are young and absorbent and learning. What they hear around them is what they will emulate.

Pronunciation is key. From that platform you can build a language.

As our sons grow, we will ensure they add more voices to the chorus of those saying it the ‘right way’.

Emily Holdaway is the mum behind the popular Kiwi blog Raising Ziggy. Follow her at

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