MYour sisters and I are the first generation out of nearly 50 generations of our family who did not grow up speaking Maori te reo as their first language. At first glance, this fact seems surprising – a dramatic break with our past and the language that gives it shape. We are only three generations of Maori monoglot ancestors, ordering their lives and their world in a language almost foreign to their 21st century descendants.
But this split between the language our ancestors spoke and the language we speak – English – is the typical Maori experience: only one in five Maori can hold a conversation in their ancestral language, and in the last three surveys national, this number has decreased. This makes us anglophones a solid majority in our aboriginal population.
It’s not surprising. From the time Cook’s Endeavor sighted land in 1769, Captain and Gentleman Botanist Joseph Banks began to give English names to landmarks and features they “found”. My own ancestral mountain, Pūtauaki, has become “Mt. Edgecumbe”, perhaps in honor of John Edgecombe, a naval sergeant on the Endeavor. It would take another hundred years for my ancestors to discover that their ancient mountain, as well as their sacred rivers, had other names. Yet settlement stories tend to focus on invasion and conquest – British red coats take hold and sooner or later the country falls – which clearly omits how almost every conquest begins with a new English name.
From these name changes, the English language and the settlers who spoke it spread across New Zealand. Less than a century after Cook’s landing in the 18th century, the Pākehā (white New Zealanders) were the new ethnic majority and their language quickly became the lingua franca of government, commerce, and the media.
In the 20th century, my grandparents and great-grandparents were torn by the value of Maori as the mother tongue of their grandchildren. Particularly indifferent scholars understand language as a mere means of encoding information, but I know my grandparents understood it to be more than that: language is a relationship between speakers, encoding their shared culture and, for Maori, incorporating them into a common whakapapa (ancestry). This is something all grandparents would love to pass on. But, when the future tense speaks English, do you choose te reo?
For many Maoris, sometimes by choice but mostly by circumstance, the answer was no. Even in my lifetime, the proportion of fluent speaking and speaking Maori speakers continues to decline. After moving to Kawerau in 2019, I was struck by how barely the language was spoken outside of the marae and formal settings (council events, wānanga graduation, etc.). When I was a kid in the 90s and 2000s, the Maori language was everywhere around me – at school, in stores, to some extent at home, and certainly in the wider whānau (family). Where did he go?
During the decade that I was gone, English cut huge tracks in my small Maori community. It does this wherever it goes, a juggernaut absorbing other languages - the “juggernaut” itself is borrowed from the Indian subcontinent – in what we know today as modern Standard English. As a language of expression, as a means of describing the universe and our knowledge of it, English is probably unmatched. But that’s not my language – it was anchored in this earth at the end of a musket. Like any other Maori person without an ancestral language, I aspire to te reo rangatira (the Maori language). I want the past to which it gives access, and the shape it gives to my future and that of my partner and that of our child.
Where I get away from a lot of these same Maoris without the language is that I think it is vital that the Pākehā speak it alongside us. For that reason alone, Lorde’s five tracks, the Maori-language accompaniment to her new album, Solar Power, is a pop culture milestone we should salute. And yet, on social media, the reaction, at least on the part of many Maori, is caustic. On Twitter and Instagram, users wrote about the album triggering the language loss trauma they are carrying. Aside from the oddly psychoanalytic tone of this accusation, it is certainly happening. Hearing the tongue, especially in the mouth of a Pākāha person, is a reminder of its absence in yours. This kind of cognitive burden is punitive.
The more persuasive critics take a slightly different point of view (which does not center on individual feelings) in arguing, as did a well-respected tōhunga (expert) in Maori dance, that the album amounts to a “symbol. “. One can appreciate this argument, as well as the discussions of trauma, but the implications are ominous for the future of the Maori language. If you have to wait for perfect circumstances to speak or sing te reo rangatira – nobody’s trauma is triggered, no symbolic signs are detected – you might as well sign the death certificate with the tongue. Fighting for Maori radio, Maori television, Maori language education and more, Maori language activists of the 70s and 80s knew that for the language to survive it must act as a functional, deployed language. through both Maori and non-Maori institutions, media and communities.
The great rangatira (rulers) who brought Lorde’s Maori-language album to life – Dame Hinewehi Mohi, Sir Tīmoti Kāretu, Hana Mereraiha and Hēmi Kelly – probably share the same point of view.
English is the world’s first language. For reasons of empire, of course, but also for reasons of culture: English is the language of Hollywood, the main language of pop music, increasingly the language of science, and the preferred language of commerce and diplomacy. If the Maori language is to survive against it – and the predictions are bleak – we must allow non-Maori to speak and sing it. Children need a pop culture and a social network that speaks Maori. Lorde was instrumental in this, and under the guidance and supervision of some of our greatest language champions. As a speaker of a second language, I recognize this as a public good.