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What’s wrong with Wongamatar?

By Mackenzie Dyer

Have you ever felt too “kiwi” to pronounce a Māori place name correctly?

How about disrespected when someone can’t be bothered to say your hometown properly?

Or do you just not care?

Māori Language week always revamps the discussion of whether we incorporate Te Reo Māori enough into modern kiwi culture. An on-going example of these conversations surrounds how our pronunciation of Māori place names does not sound like Te Reo at all, and whether it is a negative that the English way of saying Matamata, Taupo and Pakuranga have become more popularised and accepted than the correct way.

The main argument to explain why we so often hear Māori places said incorrectly is laziness. Rolling r’s and changing vowel sounds is deemed too much effort for some kiwis, and instead they are happy to completely transform how our place names sound. Many people see the lack of effort as extremely disrespectful to Māori culture, especially since Te Reo is an official language of our country and the number of those learning to speak it fluently is declining.

Hana Botha, founder of the Facebook page BTCHN, which is dedicated to creating a conscious culture in New Zealand, agrees that it’s laziness. She says speakers of Te Reo do not try to make English place names (like Gore) sound Māori by rolling their r’s and changing their vowel sounds, so we shouldn’t disrespect their language by saying Māori places in English.

A rebuttal to this is that some of our place names are particularly difficult, and can be tempting to say in English. Some people genuinely can’t roll their r’s making even less complex Māori place names like Rotorua and Putāruru all the more difficult. Then, on top of that, you have names like Ngaruawahia, and of course Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu, which, even for fluent Te Reo speakers, is obviously a bit of a mouthful.

However, it is the lack of effort that disgruntles the opposing side of the argument. Even without the ability to roll r’s, it is made quite obvious when a person’s “Whangarei” is a “Wangeray” that there is an absence of effort to say the name in Te Reo.

President of Te Waka Ō Ngā Ākonga Māori, Ezekiel Tamaana Raui, says that the issue goes beyond our place names.

“I think Māori words – not just Māori place names should be pronounced properly not only to be respectful to Māori as an ethnicity and indigenous culture of this country, but also to be respectful towards New Zealand/Aotearoa and it’s foundation.

“As a result of a partnership between Māori and Pākehā we have an amazing country and to honour that we should do our best to embrace it but contribute equally.”

Raui says Te Reo should be taught at primary schools, so kids are encouraged to not only say place names properly, but to naturally incorporate Te Reo into their everyday language.

However, is pronouncing these places in English a bad thing if it connects people? It’s no secret that speaking the way your peers do creates solidarity. For example, on Massey’s Albany campus, the word Takapuna is not even said with the wrong pronunciation in full, and is simply called “Taka-town” (said “Tackar” rather than the correct “Tuka” in English pronunciation).

It would be hard to say there are disrespectful intentions here or even laziness, as they are very similar in their amount of syllables and letters. It merely groups the North-Shorians together and creates a sense of locality. This idea is important to consider, especially if we think about going to a new area ourselves, and how adopting the way of the locals is much easier and more comfortable than calling their place something different from them.

But does the need for solidarity make saying “Wonga” for Whangamatā and “Too-a-cow” for Tuakau okay?

“Normally as a Linguist I would say variety is very important as language has social meaning,” says Massey University Linguistics lecturer Victoria Kerry.

“For example, since English is spoken world-wide, if we ignored different accents, we would be ignoring differences in social groupings,” she says.

“The standard New Zealand English accent separates us from those who speak standard British English. However, Te Reo is an endangered language that requires the dominant English speaking group’s support. We need to learn the standard Māori pronunciation to protect the language.”

With an endangered language on our hands, the answer seems simple: do your best and make the effort to pronounce our Māori place names correctly.

But, if it is that easy, why aren’t we doing it already?

It is difficult to un-stick people from their ways, as we are all creatures of habit after all. But a conscious attempt at normalising, teaching and learning to articulate Māori place names does not explain why, after years of discussion, nothing has changed.

So, maybe a more explanatory answer would be fear.

As ridiculous as it sounds that we would be afraid to pronounce the names of our own land correctly, the divide between English and Māori culture has created the fear of looking too try-hard for many to want to try and break these norms. Saying it consciously wrong but in the mainstream fashion may feel safer than to try and be unsuccessful.

So to break this argument down, yes, New Zealand has some difficult names to pronounce correctly in Te Reo Māori. Is it understandable that people may be reluctant to change the way they have been saying these place names? Yes. With this in mind, a more productive way forward then is to stop calling each other racist, backward or insensitive, but instead recognise that a culturally rich aspect of New Zealand culture may have the potential to become extinct. Surely we can all care enough about that to help each other get there.

We’re all kiwi after all.

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