To speak, or not… (sorry Shakespeare)

Kia ora koutou! Ko Tracy ahau.*

New Zealand has three official languages, two of them spoken, and comments by a few non-NZ readers of this blog have made me remember that te reo, the language of Māori, NZ’s first settlers, isn’t an everyday part of most people’s lives, and not all our place names are easy to pronounce. When you’ve lived on these islands for almost two decades you become used to seeing, even using, te reo, and it’s become even more prominent in recent years, a push to get more kiwis using it in everyday language in an effort to prevent it disappearing altogether. Most government information is produced in both languages; politicians use it when addressing the public; newsreaders and television presenters introduce themselves and their programmes using it.

It’s easy to forget that I once struggled with how to say words in te reo. When we first arrived here the names of the mountains of the central plateau that now trip so easily off my tongue were like, well, a foreign language to me. And we once became lost because we were so unsure of how to pronounce the name of the place we were heading to (Wainuiomata) we couldn’t stop and ask for directions. I’m a long way from being an expert on the subject (for a start I’m white and not NZ born) but take this as my attempt to give a few tips on pronunciation. I’ll then try and remember to include phonetic spellings alongside te reo words in future blog posts.

Te reo is, for the main part, spoken as it is written, in that nearly every letter is pronounced, with little intonation on one particular syllable. Wainuiomata is actually one of the easiest, six syllables in total: Wai-nu-i-o-ma-ta. Easy as… If you can grasp how to say each verb you’re halfway there.

I – ‘ee’, eg Kiwi – Kee-wee

E – ‘ay’, as in hay

A – long ‘a’, as in barn

O – ‘aw’ as in paw

U – ‘oo’ as in noon

So te reo is tay ray-aw, and the place of my second home, Ohakune – commonly pronounced O-a-ku-ni – should be Aw-ha-koo-nay. A macron (dash) above a letter means that letter is lengthened slightly. Double verbs can be confusing as the rules above still stand but the sounds are usually merged – so our standard greeting, kia ora, is kee-aw-ra, sometimes spoken so quickly it seems like only two syllables with a gulp in the middle! And the city of Taupo – that would be Toe-paw, not T-a-oo-paw, but I can see how the one derives from the other (and it’s certainly never Taw-poh, thank you).

New speakers may well trip up on Wh, pronounced like ph in phone (although with the odd exception). So Whakapapa is Phakapapa rather than Wakapapa (remember the long ‘a’s). And possibly Ng at the beginning of words, where the g is silent, so Ngaio is Nigh-o. If it’s in the middle of a word it could be either way. Sorry, no help there. Finally, the r, which is a soft rolled r, almost like the French r but not as distinctive.

Like I said, this is a basic introduction and using the above you’ll be off to a flying start. Of course, as with all languages, there are exceptions to these rules and I still often mangle the hell out of some words until I hear someone else say them. But I feel it’s at least worth making an effort, usually followed by an apology. And that’s a perfect note on which to end this diatribe and lead you into my next post about the Pou Herenga Tai (Pow Hay-ray-n-gah Tie)…

Mā te wā (until next time)

*Greetings everyone. I’m Tracy.

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