Lost languages to be rediscovered with Wellington choir Supertonic

Wellington choir Supertonic are performing Vanishing Voices, a concert performed in languages that are endangered, or at ...
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Wellington choir Supertonic are performing Vanishing Voices, a concert performed in languages that are endangered, or at risk of it, on Sunday, May 21.

Seven endangered languages will get the rare chance to be heard in song in Wellington this month.

Wellington's 56 person choir Supertonic is performing in Aboriginal, Inuit, Navajo, Welsh, Nahuatl, Guanche, and te reo Maori for Vanishing Voices, a concert at Te Papa and Pataka museums.

Choir director Isaac Stone, 28, spent four months finding music to allow people to experience different languages.

Choir director Isaac Stone says he wanted to give voices to people who didn't get their stories told and whose languages ...
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Choir director Isaac Stone says he wanted to give voices to people who didn't get their stories told and whose languages don't get performed often.

"I wanted to give voice to the people who didn't get their stories told, whose languages don't get performed very often," he says.

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The concert features six new waiata written by Stone and Vincent Olsen-Reeder, a researcher and lecturer at Victoria University.

Supertonic will perform in Aboriginal, Inuit, Navajo, Welsh, Nahuatl, Guanche, and te reo Maori.
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Supertonic will perform in Aboriginal, Inuit, Navajo, Welsh, Nahuatl, Guanche, and te reo Maori.

Olsen-Reeder, who wrote the lyrics, produced a PhD about Maori language, which he wrote in the language – a first for the university.

"Isaac carefully crafted music around the message and intent of each song," says Olsen-Reeder.

Stone says the aim of Vanishing Voices was to honour and celebrate the languages.

"We wanted to look forwards for the te reo Maori work by having new poetry by someone who is of our generation or younger, to celebrate their music."

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Stone's interest in how languages develop and decline began while studying the sociolinguistics of te reo Maori.

"In most cases it's the same," he says.

"When another language with more social power and wealth comes along, government policy, economic need, and the desire for parents to raise their children with the best possible options, means that people wind up speaking the dominant language more."

One song in Guanche, the dead language of the Canary Islands, tells a harrowing story of invasion by the Spanish in 1402.

"The lyrics in the piece are saying how they are full of terror, but have to now marry their conquerors otherwise they will die along with their families," Stone says.

"That's the story of all the languages. In the end, people have to submit to survive."

Stone says Maori revitalisation should be a government priority.

"If I were the government I would be trying to use music as a way to allow people to experience language in an authentic context."

While still an endangered language, te reo Maori is a world leader in language revitalisation.

Dr Nathan Albury, a former language policy advisor to the New Zealand government says Hawaii and Scandinavia have learned from New Zealand.

"[The Kura Kaupapa movement] began with the Kohanga Reo that Maori communities initiated when revitalisation began. Other indigenous policies have taken this concept and applied it in their countries," says Dr Albury.

However, Dr Albury's research found te reo may not be as safe as it looks.

"Many people think it is not endangered because we see it on public signs, because it is an official language, and taught in schools," he says.

"Just because we can see it, doesn't mean people are using it in conversation, or passing it onto their children."

* Vanishing Voices, Sunday, May 21 at Te Papa Marae at 6:30pm. Tickets $19 waged and $14 unwaged from Eventfinda.

 - Stuff

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