Dear Watties and Burger Fuel: Te reo Māori is a taonga - a treasure - not a plaything

  • Opinion
  • 16/01/2020

By Sharon Holt

OPINION: Last week it was Watties. Apparently, their marketing team lives in a universe where it's the 'Kiwi thing' to poke fun at our place names. 

You can almost imagine the pitch. 

"We need a summer campaign that's light-hearted and fun. Any ideas?" 

"Well, everyone's at the beach. We could do something about all those holiday hot spots. Watties sauce turns every meal into a holiday. Something like that."

"Yeah, na. What about putting our Watties products in the names of those holiday places. Like 'put Watties sauce on your Pie here'. Get it? Pie here? Like the place Paihia, but Pie here!"

"Perfect! We'll change place names around so they sound funny and make new signposts with the new spelling. And people can suggest their own funny place name mashups, and we'll make the best one into a billboard! Genius!" 

Or not. Their idea quickly drew howls of "not a Kiwi thing" from the increasing groundswell of support for correct pronunciation of our Māori place names. 

To their credit, Watties listened and changed part of their campaign.

But the message obviously didn't reach the Burger Fuel marketers because, this week, they've been salivating over the hilarious idea to create a Hoki Dokey burger. 

Hilarious, did you say? Not to me, and not to many of the people like me - Māori and non-Māori who are working hard to revitalise te reo, and to show respect for the language, culture and people by uplifting te reo instead of making a joke of it.

Many New Zealanders don't understand the correct pronunciation of Māori words. 

They don't understand the key is to pronounce the vowels - a, e, i, o, u - correctly, and to put a break after each vowel. In fact, they are so clueless about how to pronounce our Māori place names, that they can often be heard "correcting" tourists who are actually pronouncing the language phonetically and, therefore, correctly.

The word 'hoki' means to return. It also happens to be a Māori word for a type of fish, commonly mispronounced by most New Zealanders to rhyme with 'dokey' - hence the decision by Burger Fuel to name a burger Hoki Dokey.

In the correct pronunciation of hoki, the 'o' sound is pronounced similar to the English word 'or'.

So, from one point of view, the newly- christened burger is more of a 'hoki doki'.

While I don't want to be a grinch, I need to assure New Zealanders that our frustrations with these two advertising campaigns is not PC gone mad. They are the heartfelt objections of people who love the Māori language deeply and want to uphold its mana through correct use and pronunciation. 

Te reo Māori is a taonga - a treasure - not a plaything.

Both companies have now apologised for their unintentional misrepresentation of the spelling and pronunciation of the Māori language.

But what are these two "innocent mistakes" in as many weeks telling us about the state of Māori language in the minds of those who hold immense power over language through advertising and marketing? 

I suggest they have the power to respect or disrespect, the power to uplift or denigrate, the ability to empower or disempower.

We need to make sure that companies that have this much influence get educated about the importance of revitalising te reo. 

Let's harness the power of advertisers for the healthy future of the Māori language.

Sharon Holt is an author of Te Reo Singalong books and teaches pronunciation for te reo Māori via her online platforms.