Favourite Māori Words

One of my favourite classes this term was Introduction to Conversational Māori. And yes, please note the use of the past tense — I’m done, but for exams. I’d wanted to take at least one class in New Zealand that I couldn’t take anywhere else, Māori seemed to fit the bill, and I’ve always loved languages, so I was a keener from the first lecture.

Māori is completely different from any other language I’ve studied (read: French and Old English). It’s from the Polynesian group of languages, which may or may not be derived from a distant branch of the Indo-European “family tree” that encompasses a huge number of languages. Grammatically, it’s both relatively simple and surprisingly complex. Whereas in English and French, verbs are conjugated to show tense, number, and mood (I run/he runs/we ran; je vais/je suis allée/vous iriez), Māori uses particles:

I am running: Kei te oma ahau.

I ran: I oma ahau.

I will run: Ka oma ahau.

Easy, right? Sure, except that Māori compresses an awful lot into each word. Consider the difference between “tēnei ngeru” (this cat here by me), “tēnā ngeru” (that cat over there by you), and “ērā ngeru” (those cats over there, away from both of us).

Or, “Ka hoki mai ahau ki te awa” (I will return (as in “come back here”) to the river) versus “Ka hoki atu ahau ki te awa” (I will return (“go back there”) to the river).  

So, obviously, I love it. But that’s enough of a grammar lesson: Māori has some great words, and I wanted to share some of my favourites.

 

More coolness. The taniwha: a water spirit, typically a guardian.

KāingaPlace where the home fires are kept burning

The āi diphthong makes kāinga a fun word to say, but I love the literal translation. In Māori, there’s a sharp distinction between where you are from, and where you currently live. Kāinga refers to the latter; I’m from Toronto, but right now at this moment, my kāinga is in Dunedin. That being said, it’s one of those words that can be interpreted metaphorically, so I could technically say that my kāinga is in Toronto, which would tell you a lot about my feelings, ties to home, and so forth.

WhakapapaFamily tree/genealogy

Whakapapa is another important concept. Where you come from and who you come from greatly influences who you are. It’s also the name of a town on the North Island. Fun fact about  Māori: wh- is pronounced like the English f. “Hang on,” you say. “Doesn’t that mean that whakapapa would be pronounced like…”

Yes. Yes, it is, which is why I was greatly amused when my flatmate, while booking her post-exam travels, exclaimed, “Sweet as! I’m taking the Naked Bus to Whakapapa!”

Tamariki Children

Many words in Māori sound like what they mean. Maybe it’s just me, but I think “tamariki” sounds like a perfect word for children. Same thing for puku (stomach) and waiata (to sing/song).

PīwhiBeef

However, many words are loan words from English. Not sure if anyone’s noticed this, but New Zealand is kind of isolated. When the Europeans arrived, they brought a lot of things for which no words existed in the Māori language, so extensive borrowing of words occurred.   Māori also has about half the consonant sounds that English does, which leads to some really cool patterns in transliteration.

Beef is a perfect example. There’s no B in Māori; it tends to become P (as with Britain – Piritene, bread – parāoa, and bus – pahi). The long ī is the same sound as “ee.” Wh, as we’ve discussed, sounds the same as f. Thus, “pīwh,” but since you can’t have a word of one stressed syllable ending in a consonant, the unstressed i gets tacked on the end to create pīwhi.

Cool, eh?

KanikaniTo dance/a dance

Following those sound laws, we take the unstressed i’s out of kanikani, change the k back to a c, and get “cancan.” Considering the abundance of gold prospecting and settler towns that sprang up in New Zealand through the latter half of the nineteenth century, I can only imagine what the Māori were thinking.

TumuA safe place to dock one’s canoe

My favourite word in the whole language. The Māori/Pacific/Indigenous Studies Building is called “te Tumu.” Finding “safe places” seems to have been a predominant theme over the last year or so. Maybe that’s why the concept resonates with me so much. Certainly, it seems to be cropping up in my fiction more and more.

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Posted on May 31, 2012, in Travel, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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