It's how we speak, but shortening place names can be disrespectful

Last updated 05:00 08/10/2017

Skyline Rotorua has accepted the "RotoVegas" nickname.

Hohepa Thompson and Tracey Doyle in front of the changed sign, following their discussion about the Ōtaki nickname "Brotaki".
Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull accepts "Dunners" as the city's nickname but thinks Māori names should be respected.
Dr Tony Fisher said abbreviated place names were a sign of affection but it destroyed the meaning of Māori words.
Māori language teacher Dennis Ngawhare said names hold meaning and all names in every language should be spoken correctly.

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New Zealanders just love to shorten words.

Breakfast is "brekky", Jessicas often go by "Jess", and Wellington is referred to as "Welly". Kiwis affectionately nickname towns and cities – "RotoVegas" for Rotorua, "Gizzy" for Gisborne, and "Toke" for Tokoroa.

But is this play on words an acceptable practice with Māori language or are we dismantling a significant message behind the word?

Massey University linguist Tony Fisher said the practice of shortening names is an act of endearment for English speakers. But it's also anglicising the phrase, which brings a "a hint of colonialism with it", he said.

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The shortening of place names has a term: it's called hypocoristic.

"It's generally done when you're part of a community and you regard that place with affection," he said. "There's also an element of efficiency about it."

People know Mt Maunganui as "The Mount" or jokingly call Hamilton "The Tron" – it's a seemingly innocent practice to quickly communicate a location, however minuscule that time-saving act may be.

"But the problem is when Pākehā do that with Māori place names, it's taking a different culture and applying the same rules we apply within our own language."

Māori words tend to be longer with multiple syllables "which is a lot for English", Fisher said, so abbreviating these names makes them easily pronounceable.

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However, that strips away the "very specific" meaning behind Māori place names.

For example Paraparaumu: "parapara" means "scraps" or "gifts" and "umu" means "earth oven". But when shortened to "Pram", a meaningful name becomes nothing more than a child's pushchair.

Kerikeri, when shortened to "Keri", is far from inspiring: it just means to dig. 

And then there are place names that refer to an ancestor such as Taranaki, which comes from Rua Taranaki – the first ancestor of Taranaki Iwi.

Taranaki not only represents a tribe but it also describes the region and its maunga (mountain). 

When people say "The Naki", Māori language teacher Dennis Ngawhare said the gravity of that name is shattered.

"It's a beautiful name, it's a famous name – why butcher it?"

Ngawhare said Māori place names tell a story, describe a resource in the area, or recognise an ancestor.

And by shortening, altering or even mispronouncing them, "it's a bit tacky" and "hurts our ears".

"If Queen Elizabeth II came to town, you wouldn't say, 'Lizzy is in town', would you?

"If someone mispronounced your name, you'd correct them."

But that's not the case for Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull, who has accepted the city's nickname "Dunners".

"These things are what they are and I think we should embrace as just being a bit of fun," he said.

However, Cull agreed that Māori place names should be left as they are and treated with respect, "especially if the name is tied to a significant event".

But Ngawhare believes all place names across all languages should be spoken correctly because "a name has meaning, a name has worth".

"Shortening is what's easy, but what's easy isn't always right."

The shortening of names is hardly an isolated practice. Fisher points to other countries that play with place names.

The 60-letter city name of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (which translates to St Mary's Church in the Hollow of the White Hazel Near to the Rapid Whirlpool of Llantysilio of the Red Cave) in Wales, for an example, is shortened by locals to Llanfairpwll.

​"And in the United States there's Los Angeles, which is a Spanish word already mispronounced, and is often just called LA."

Hōhepa Thompson of Ōtaki knows all too well about playing with Māori language and has embraced the practice.

But Thompson said this is because he comes from both perspectives.

"I know the reo and the importance of the reo, but for me I have no problem with it."

The artist opened Hori Gallery in 2012 - a name which takes a derogatory word associated with Māori and gives it new meaning.

"I suppose because I'm Māori, I can take ownership of something that's bad and make real positive stuff out of it."

Recently Thompson caused a stir when a sign above his shop read: "Brotaki".

At least one local spoke up about the word's disrespect for the town's name but the two came together and found a mutual understanding.

He said having a play with place names is acceptable, so long as those using it understand the cultural significance of its true name.

"But people just need to take a break."

While Fisher said place name play diminishes the meaning and the sacredness of the word, people will ultimately say what they like and it's up to individual communities to have a conversation about what is or is not acceptable.

"And that could work to build a sense of a closer community."

* Comments on this article have been closed.

- Sunday Star Times


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