Mispronouncing Te Reo 'like physical blow' to Māori - language teacher

A conversation recently caught the ears of Kiwis around the country, leaving many considering whether it's acceptable these days to overlook the traditional way New Zealand's native language is spoken.  

It was spurred after two women, Mary and Nikki, spoke to Newstalk ZB host Marcus Lush in late October, and openly voiced their refusal to honour the correct pronunciation of Māori place names. 

In the wake of the audio clip going viral, Hamilton local Sharon Holt joined the discussion by sharing a video to her Te Reo Māori Challenge Facebook page, explaining the importance of correct articulation of the language and what it stands for. 

Like the two callers, Holt is Pākehā. She can recall a time when she too pronounced Māori place names incorrectly like Mary and Nikki do today.  

While growing up in Auckland in the '60s and '70s, Holt says if she did hear the correct pronunciation, it was a Māori person talking. Eventually, she came to realise, there's not an English way and a Māori way of pronouncing a Māori word.  

Seventeen years ago, Holt began learning te reo Māori.

As soon as she realised the difference between accidental disrespect and ignorance of traditional pronunciation, and what the words stand for, she made a choice to change her ways. 

Today, she is the author of the Te Reo Singalong books and has become a passionate advocate for the correct pronunciation of te reo Māori.  

Now 60, she has a deeper understanding of the respect needed for the history of place names, the meaning behind them and the people who introduced the name.  

She told Newshub why it matters. 

Accidental disrespect vs willful ignorance 

Holt encourages everyone to make a change by simply giving the correct pronunciation of Māori place names a go.  

A lack of knowledge, few good role models and just plain bad habits fuel behaviour that is disrespectful to Māori. 

She says many Kiwis of European heritage don't often grasp the huge impact that mispronunciation of indigenous names, place names and words has on Māori.

"It's actually like a physical blow." 

Māori studies lecturer at Wellington's Victoria University Dr Vincent Olsen-Reeder told Newshub for a lot of Māori speakers, there is that notion. 

He says it creates and fuels racist undertones that exist in society when correct pronunciation is purposely ignored. 

"I think one of the key things we can do some effect to the way that we want to live as a nation, and good citizens of the country, is to give it a shot," he says. 

"That doesn't mean that everyone has to achieve native-like pronunciation, it's the intent behind giving it a shot versus the really sad notion that there are quite a few people around the country that will deliberately over mispronounce to give effect to their way of thinking."  

Holt says she understands from others who admire her work that poor pronunciation is like saying to Māori "you don't matter to me, your language doesn't matter to me and your culture doesn't matter to me".

"It’s about respect. Names are a taonga, a treasure. Names matter. They are significant. And they were chosen for a reason."

Dr Olsen-Reeder says the insult is hearing people who are so stuck in their ways not bothering to attempt actual pronunciation or even over accentuate a European manner. 

He says there's a section of society "that don't like being told what to do" who were likely around before the revival in 1980 and more inclined to a "racist kind of thinking".

"When you get to a certain age, you're less likely to want to revisit how you think and feel, and change the way you think and feel." 

Holt, now 60, began learning te reo Māori 17 years ago.
Holt, now 60, began learning te reo Māori 17 years ago. Photo credit: Sharon Holt.

Māori place names have a history and a meaning behind them, telling stories of real people who did great things, and they are people who held great prestige. 

When the place names are mispronounced, the history and meaning is not honoured.  

Because Māori culture is a very spiritual culture, the places, the land, the rivers, the mountains are all hugely significant. 

"They're so much more than just grass, dirt and water," Holt says. 

"Those places deserve the respect of having their names pronounced correctly, just as people deserve the respect of having their names pronounced correctly." 

She believes it's also important to pronounce Māori place names and other words correctly to be a good role model for others.

"As a child, I grew up with incorrect place name pronunciation being role-modelled to me. 

"Fortunately, that is mainly changing in our education system for the children of today. Many teachers in schools and preschools are very aware of the importance of correct pronunciation of te reo, and they are making efforts to get it right, so they can be good role models for children."

The next generation will have a chance at pronouncing te reo Māori correctly after the Government made New Zealand history compulsory in schools from 2022. 

Holt says making an effort to pronounce place names correctly is a good chance to take up the gift they offer us to understand the pronunciation of all Māori words. 

So when we see those Maori language signposts all around us, we can practice the pronunciation out loud, getting better at it by osmosis. 

"The signs around our towns and cities are a free lesson in te reo, to help us with our pronunciation." 

Why has the language struggled to survive? 

In the early 1800s, the Māori language was first written down by Europeans.

Before that, it was an oral language, with stories being told and history being kept via storytelling, song, dance, carving, weaving and many other artistic and creative forms. 

When the first Europeans arrived, they learned to speak the Māori language so they could communicate and trade with Māori people. 

By the mid-late 1800s, many of the people living in New Zealand were bilingual in their oral and written language. 

However, the English language eventually became more dominant as more and more Europeans arrived. 

Te reo Māori was still spoken in Māori homes and used widely by Māori, but English became the dominant language in the education system once the missionary schools were replaced by state schools. 

By the early 1900s, there was a strong move away from Māori language in schools, and children were even physically punished for speaking Te Reo in the classroom and the playground. 

Many Māori families agreed with putting English first in the school setting because they wanted their children to be educated. 

Holt added her voice to a nationwide discussion after two talkback callers told a radio presenter they refused to change the way they say Māori place names despite being corrected.
Holt added her voice to a nationwide discussion after two talkback callers told a radio presenter they refused to change the way they say Māori place names despite being corrected. Photo credit: Sharon Holt.

They didn't believe in punishment for speaking it, but they wanted their children to learn to read, write and speak English well. 

They believed in keeping te reo Māori alive but thought that speaking it at home would be enough. 

For the children in schools at that time, it was devastating to be physically punished for speaking their language. 

Sadly, the impact of that was passed on to the next generations. 

Holt has spoken with many Māori whose parents and grandparents were punished for speaking te reo Māori. 

Their experience was so traumatic many of them refused to support their children's efforts to keep te reo Māori alive, because they had such terrible memories of what happened when they spoke it. 

They wanted to protect their own children and grandchildren from the distress they went through. 

"Many of those people tell me that they hold that trauma suffered by their parents at school, inside them as well," Holt says.

In the '70s and '80s the revival began, and te reo Māori has survived with help from Māori initiatives such as Te Kohanga Reo (Māori language pre-school), Whare Kura (Māori secondary schools) and Kura Kaupapa (Māori primary schools) with help from government support for the Māori language. 

Māori was made an official language of New Zealand under the Māori Language Act 1987. 

How to correct others

Holt says when it comes to trying to help others with their pronunciation it's "a tricky one".

She finds it difficult to correct people - her own family members included - who pronounce Māori words and place names incorrectly. 

"I don't want to disrespect people by correcting them, especially in public. 

"My preferred method in that situation is to role model the correct pronunciation in a gentle way, as a natural part of the conversation. I sometimes feel like it's a cop-out for me, but then I do as much as I can in every other way, through my work, to promote correct pronunciation." 

Over the years she has met people who have had a bad experience of having someone criticise them for their pronunciation, so they never want to try again.

"I don't want to be someone who turns another person off the Māori language forever." 

Everyone is on a Māori language journey - even if they don't realise it - and everyone is at a different point along that journey, she says. 

While Holt would love to hear everyone pronouncing our Māori place names correctly, she isn't sure criticising them is the solution. 

As well as being a good role model for correct pronunciation, Holt takes every opportunity she can to help people who want to learn. 

She says pronouncing place names correctly when we know how to do so adds to the number of times that other people hear the correct pronunciation.

Holt's Facebook page has gained interest from all around New Zealand as she embarks on a mission to help others with pronunciation.
Holt's Facebook page has gained interest from all around New Zealand as she embarks on a mission to help others with pronunciation. Photo credit: Sharon Holt.

Many people tell her that they know how to pronounce the place names correctly but they feel shy or scared to do so, because of what others might think. 

"They don't want to stand out, or be seen to be different. And they don't want other people to say, where's that? Or people might say 'oh, you really mean...' and start an argument about it." 

Holt believes it's particularly important for people under a spotlight or in professional roles to attempt correct pronunciation of te reo Māori, so that the rest of New Zealand will hear those place names consistently pronounced correctly in public. 

Many Māori speakers tell her they would love to hear their personal names pronounced correctly by people like doctors, pharmacists, nurses, teachers, lawyers, accountants or social workers.

As well as the tools like her Facebook page, books and learning website, Holt has presented workshops and is committed to steering change, offering help to anyone who wants it. 

"I am more than happy to share that knowledge with any other groups who would like to get on board. 

"If they can't afford to pay me to do that, I will do it for free."