Local Government Magazine

You say tomāto and I say to-mate-o

kiwi accent Maori Language Commission te reo

With a long career in journalism and communications, Alan Titchall reviews communication within two of our three official languages as our enunciation and grammar drift into an uncertain future.

I am at a conference lunching with a table of overseas visitors from South America. The subject of conversation drifts to languages and how immigrants and visitors to our fair country cope with the way we Kiwis speak ‘Unglush’.

One of them says that, for the first three months, it’s like trying to understand a room-full of drinking Irish on St Patrick’s Day.

It’s our problem with managing ‘vowels’ and the babbling speed at which we clip-words. When was the last time you heard a Kiwi pronounce the ‘land’ in New Zealand, the ‘kia’ in kia ora, the ‘ern’ government, or the difference between ‘Maori’ and ‘mauri’?

My lunch companions also tell me that, in Spanish-speaking South America, the Columbians speak the clearest ‘colonial’ Spanish (equal to Mexicans), while the Chileans speak the worst.

So, we are not alone in the endless pronunciation-morphing of official languages, but I am sorry to add, as a career editor of four decades, this country’s written communication skills are not much better.

Around 109 countries have official bodies that regulate their official languages in terms of spelling, meaning, and pronunciation. We sport a Maori Language Commission, but not an English one and, in my experience, we desperately need one.

I, and our editorial contractors, spend many expensive hours rewriting Kiwi-communications into a style and clarity that makes sense and at least is ‘consistent’.

On that last word, two examples: ‘Well-being’ and ‘percent’. Both words are written by Government agencies and private communicators three different ways. Can we please possibly agree to just one, or at least have all Government departments agree?

As ‘well’ is an adjective and ‘being’ is a verb, to form a noun, they must be hyphenated; well-being is not a compound word. That’s why the hyphenated ‘well-being’ is the standard form of this noun and has been since the 16th century.

I notice different Government departments have grammar ‘style sheets’, but there doesn’t appear to be a national one.

I spent many years writing in Australia where American spelling has reigned for some decades. The ‘u’ is usually dropped in words with ‘our’. We might not agree with it, but at least it is consistent.

Increasingly, I am now receiving communications in written English with American spellings, especially the word programme/program, and ‘license’ as both a noun and a verb.

It is also worth raising the matter of communication content ‘angles’, which have a losing battle between an exercise in journalism and public relations, where the latter appears to have won.

I would be very surprised, as both a ratepayer and a publisher, if I stand alone in cringing at the blatant ‘branding’ and ‘green-wash’ many council communications are packaged in these days. A bit like watching a safety video on Air NZ where a simple IATA-obligatory, pre-flight welfare message to a captive audience can appear as a sanctimonious plug for NZ Inc.

Please, when serving up council and corporate communications, think of it as serving a diner prime piece of protein and serve it plain. Leave the reader to add their own condiments, if any.

Lastly, to those agencies and non-Maori authors that, in a platitudinous way, refer to “consulting the local community and iwi” – which simply translates to ‘tribe’. As Maori are part of our ‘communities’, please name the Crown recognised Maori tribe being referred to and, preferably, explain how and why.

Communicating in Maori

My Father worked for the old Ministry of Works and the NZED. As a ‘dam-brat’ I was raised in a large extended family in small rural communities with a very high Maori social and cultural presence.

Through local Maori families (mostly of Ngati Tuwharetoa connection) and relations, I learnt much about local Maori culture and viewpoint.

As a journalist, later in life, I also worked with Rarotongan, Samoan, Tongan, and Niuean cultures, and learnt more about communicating as a Kiwi in a country with the largest Pacific population in the world.

I am still learning to communicate in a society made up of 15 percent of numerous different Asian cultures. In the suburb in Auckland, which I share residentially with the Prime Minster, that percentage is way higher.

While the Crown and general media like to generalise about a collective ‘Maoridom’, I grew up appreciating a country of different tribes and sub-tribes with distinct territorial interests that were defined by the Crown back in the 19th century.

In my job as a writer (and on a social level) I still approach any iwi and hapu around the country differently with that respect. And, as much as possible, I try and communicate face to face, or kanohi ki te kanohi. This is good practice in general and the reason why the conference and meeting business has never been made redundant by internet access and communication, as once predicted.

Communicating with iwi

This advice by Mahanga Maru, of Maru Consulting, Wellington, was originally written for, and published in, Energy NZ magazine.

Five tips to help inform iwi/Maori consultation plans:

1. Clarity of purpose – be clear about the purpose of your iwi consultation and what you want to achieve.

2. Take time to consult – allow sufficient time to engage and present your proposal to the iwi. And give them time to respond. The iwi may need to hold a number of hui with their people to inform their response. This will take time.

3. Make sure iwi is fully informed – depending on the complexity of your proposal you may consider holding workshops to develop iwi knowledge and understanding. This will help inform their response. In most RMA consent applications a Cultural Impact Assessment report prepared by the iwi (or a consultant nominated by them) is the minimum response you can anticipate.

4. Keep an open mind – Both parties must approach consultation in this way.

5. Know Te Reo Maori and Tikanga expectations – most, if not all, iwi and hapu have an expectation that consultation will take into account or acknowledge the Maori language and protocols that relate to that particular iwi. Don’t assume that one generic approach will do. This will not be well received so the delivery team will need to develop an appropriate level of knowledge and understanding prior to engaging and be open to learning more.

The biggest challenge is which hapu or iwi do you consult with? This is the most challenging aspect of iwi consultation. You should critically assess the impact and or effect of your proposal or project. Take advice from local Councils, independent advisors and prepare, prepare, prepare.

Good planning and preparation in relation to iwi consultation does pay off. I was at a contentious iwi consultation hui with my client a few years ago. At the end of the hui a local Kaumatua stood up and said “thank you for coming today to talk to us, you came as strangers but you leave as friends”.

Has the use of macron and trying to be prescriptive about the Maori language, both verbal and written, made things

Written Maori

The Maori language was written in phonetics during the early part of the 18th century by Europeans.
Kerikeri, for instance, was written kiddee kiddee – probably a more accurate Maori pronunciation, in my view, of the township usually anglicised to ‘Kerry Kerry’.

On the subject of Anglicans, Cambridge University in the UK during the 1820s, with the help of visiting missionaries and a couple of upper North Island Maori, prepared the first orthography of Maori using most of the letters of the Roman alphabet, and English vocabulary and grammar.

This early work was developed by the Church Missionary Society in the 1830s (and French Catholic interests) to, mostly, spread God’s word. And who can possibly be a God denier in a nation whose two national anthems are: God Save the Queen and God Defend New Zealand?

One hundred and fifty years later, in the 1980s, the newly set up Maori Language Commission argued that this written interpretation didn’t distinguish between long and short vowels in spoken Maori (which can change the meaning of some common words), and suggested marking the long vowels with a macron (and good on them for trusting most Kiwis to know what a macron and a vowel means?).

Prior to the macron use, long vowels in Maori words were sometimes marked with double letters, such as ‘Maaori’, as the Waikato Regional Council uses in its communications.

Over the past five years the use of macrons (a straight bar on top of a letter) has become common, but not necessarily accurate, in the attempt to turn a reading exercise into a ‘pronunciation’ lesson (which is perhaps not a bad idea to apply to our written English to improve Kiwi Unglush?).

Not all Maori tribes agree with the use of macrons and nor do some publishers, it does make for a messy, eye-sore, page of type for anyone to read.

Interestingly, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which is the world Latin standard alphabetic system of phonetic notation, used by linguists, speech-language pathologists, singers, actors and translators, uses the macron to indicate a ‘mid-tone’. The official sign for a long vowel is, instead, a triangular colon.

What also complicates the use of macrons (and any written Maori for that matter) are differences in regional tribal dialects and even different spellings. Tipuna on the East Coast might call a fantail a tiwakawaka, other tupuna elsewhere piwaiwaka.

Another dialect area to consider is the digraph (combination of two letters representing one sound, such as  ph) ‘ng’. I have always been told it is pronounced like the English word ‘singer’, which doesn’t make sense until you realise the English west midlands and northern dialect pronounces this word as ‘singga’, which rhymes with ‘finger’. Over my lifetime, I have heard also heard the ‘wh’ diagraph go from being pronounced like the ‘wh’ in whisper to a ‘f’ sound and strangely, over the past year, heard whanau being pronounced ‘wanau’.

So, did those God-fearing Anglican Englishmen and Catholic Frenchmen get written Maori right in the 1830s? Has ‘g’ in written Maori words become silent?

Over the past year, I have heard so many different pronunciations of te reo Maori spoken among so many different community members, officials and media, that I am completely confused with words that were so natural in my childhood.

Has the use of macron and trying to be prescriptive about the Maori language, both verbal and written, made things worse?

Is it time for the Maori Language Commission to review written te reo to something more phonetic, agreed between Crown, Maori and linguistic academics?

What about our other official language? Is it also opportune for the Crown to review the way English is written and spoken here, before spoken Kiwi English has to be sub-titled for the rest of the world to understand?

On the other hand, are we ever going to get Kiwis to pronounce and write English and Maori to a standard that everyone agrees on? Without a common language, it is impossible to have a coherent discussion?

Or, do we just give up trying to be language-uptight and leave both official languages to become a moving, morphing feast of communication always spoken with a different accent, as languages are all around the world.

On that note, I have to say that I rarely hear a native from the UK pronounce an English word the same way, yet I can still understand them. However, they all share the same spelling of English words.

Meantime – please remember – it is spelt ‘well-being’, or oranga (or could that be ‘orana’?).

This article was first published in the February 2020 issue of Local Government Magazine.

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