Growing te reo awareness

Last updated 12:33 05/07/2013
Pupils at Birchwood School
PUAWHANANGA: The native clematis will soon be flowering across the region. Plant in cool, moist soils where it can climb to get plenty of sun to promote good flowering.

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Once, when walking down the street, I was stopped by someone wanting me to sign a petition calling on the Government to allow Maori language to be spoken on radio.

Lost for words, I couldn't believe I lived in a country where we had to sign a petition asking permission to use the indigenous language on state broadcasting.

And, kia ora, what a long way we've come.

Thankfully, the petition incident was a long time ago in what seems like another world. And by now, everyone should be aware that this is Maori Language Week, Wike o te Reo Maori 2013.

Some of you will be pleased (as I am) to see that the Government has plans to make learning te reo compulsory for secondary school teachers. While I know teachers already have a lot on their plate, and some people think learning Maori is an irrelevant exercise, I long ago came to the conclusion that only by making it compulsory for all children in this country can we hope to really understand each other and get ahead together.

Language and communication, as key anthropologists can tell you - and not just the adze, for example - are the hallmark of evolutionary progress. English may be the international language of commerce and the internet, but this is the only country where Maori is indigenous.

So, for those who say learning the language is a lost cause, take a look to the language of plants, Latin, to understand how important a language can be.

Latin may be dead to some, but to botanists and gardeners it's the universal language of understanding and is very much alive.

And I love the logic of it. To me, it's more logical than English.

It's only because of spellcheck and my constant old-fashioned companion, the dictionary, that I can forge my way through English, a bewildering language at the best of times with its absurdly illogical spelling and pronunciation. I hated spelling at school, and being made to learn a list of words every evening. I much preferred doing the dishes.

But give me the binomial (two-part) system (of genus and species) of Latin plant names, as introduced in the 1700s by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, and I'm in a comfortable habitat of logical description and derivation.

And, like Maori, Latin names are poetically descriptive.

Kowhai means yellow in te reo but also, according to some Maori, the flowers "sprang from the shreds of the cloak of tohunga Ngatoro-i-rangi of the Te Arawa waka".

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For others, it was under the bare branches of a kowhai tree in the month we call August that a young tohunga asked a girl to marry him. To impress the girl, he made the tree burst into a golden display of kowhai flowers.

In Latin, the two common species are named Sophora tetraptera, "four-winged" (seed capsule) and Sophora microphylla, "small-leaved".

Another Maori native plant name I love is the lyrical putaputaweta, Carpodetus serratus. A small riparian tree commonly found growing alongside streams, including the upper Maitai River, putaputaweta has marbled leaves and a spreading, evergreen canopy. It also makes a beautiful home garden shade tree, with small, fragrant, starry white flowers in spring.

Both the Latin and Maori names are descriptive. Carpodetus means "seeds bound together" with a sticky residue, while the generic name serratus refers to the serrated leaf margins.

In the North Island, the white, smooth-grained wood of the tree is favoured by puriri moths, whose caterpillars burrow into it.

The holes they leave behind are then inhabited by - you guessed it - weta. Hence the Maori name putaputaweta, essentially "hole of the weta".

And I love to roll my tongue around the Maori names of our flax plants - the beautiful-sounding harakeke, Phormium tenax, "holding fast", with strong, upright leaves; and wharariki (pronounced "farariki"), Phormium cookianum, the mountain or coastal flax.

Producing nectar-filled flowers, wharariki is one of the best native plants to bring the nectar-feeding birds to your garden in summer.

Elsewhere in the world, of course, flax is a name given to what we otherwise know as the Linum plant, which is used to produce linseed and linen.

This is what makes common names instead of Latin botanical names so confusing when communicating with plant people everywhere.

What the Latin names and binomial system give us is a unique language to universally understand and describe plants. And likewise for me, te reo belongs uniquely to Aotearoa.

To understand and truly communicate about plants, and to avoid misunderstandings, it's essential to know their Latin names.

To me, it's also obvious that to truly understand and communicate Maoridom and avoid misunderstandings, it's essential to know the language.

I'll be the first to admit that my own te reo isn't good enough. But I've learned a lot more than I grew up with. As anyone who knows about languages can tell you, childhood is the ideal time to learn.

And I keep trying to absorb and learn the language in everyday life, and learn as many Maori names of our indigenous plants as I can. Some words have no translation equivalent - and, not surprisingly, some native plants that originate in inaccessible mountaintops etc don't have Maori names.

But any one of us can learn the te reo names of our indigenous garden plants. If nothing else, for those of you not versed in te reo, using Maori plant names is a good start, and might give you the confidence to learn more.

Many of the common ones you already use, such as kauri, rimu, matai, nikau, totara and pohutukawa.

Have a look at the list above and give the Maori names a go. You might just get to like them. Ka kite ano.

- Nelson

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