English (il)logic to blame for Māori pronunciation difficulties

Finding the pronouciation of Māori place names a bit tough? This way to Translator Road...
Fairfax NZ

Finding the pronouciation of Māori place names a bit tough? This way to Translator Road...

Blenheim, Foveaux, D’urville. Three New Zealand place names with ridiculous spelling - "unpronounceable" even.

True blue locals must have had a meltdown seeing those. "Auē, te hē mārika o ngā ingoa nei!" ("Geez, what ridiculous names!") they must have said.

But New Zealand still did it, and those locals still learnt to say them. The world didn’t burn and no haywire eventuated.

Sadly, place names are fickle things for a few - proper nouns for "problematising". Whether it’s a macron in Ōtaki or Taupō, or an 'h' in Whanganui, the moment a place name is up for debate the muskets come out.

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A recent article suggests proposed Māori place names are “unpronounceable”. The names, tipped for SH1 additions in the Kāpiti area, have taken a knock from locals in Paraparaumu.

Pretty ironic for a town with a name as long as any of the proposed additions.

Sure, pronouncing words in a language you don’t know can be tough (if te reo was compulsory in schools we’d have solved that long ago, but that’s another story). Luckily, New Zealand English (NZE) contains all the sounds necessary to pronounce Māori words.

What that means is, every NZE speaker is capable of pronouncing Māori words correctly, and every Māori place name is actually pronounceable.

Diphthongs: two vowels joined together (for example: 'au', 'ou') offer great insight into this issue. Most diphthong sounds heard in Māori also appear in English. However, the spelling of these vowel couplings in English changes, and they can sometimes be pronounced in multiple ways.

"Caught" and "court" can be pronounced in very similar ways, as can "draught" and "trout". "Caught" and "draught" though, are spelled with the same diphthong ('au'), as are "court" and "trout" ('ou'), yet their pronunciation is so different, it’s ludicrous.

If anything is unpronounceable in this world, it’s most certainly English!

The diphthong 'au' in "whānau" is a great example. 'Au' is complex for some monolingual English tongues.

When pronouncing the word "whānau", many NZE speakers will return a "far-now" instead of a correct "far-know".

This is because there aren’t many English words, if any at all, that require speakers to produce this diphthong in this way.

Remember though, that a diphthong is merely two vowel sounds joined together. If an NZE speaker breaks any Māori diphthong up into single vowels, they can pronounce those vowel sounds - they’re the same old sounds in both English and Māori.

To give examples here, any NZE speaker can pronounce the words "pup" and "ooze". The 'a' in "whānau" is no different from the vowel sound in "pup". The 'u', no different than in the word "ooze". When you run these vowel sounds together, they sound similar to the word "know". So, if you can say "pup", "ooze" and "know", you can pronounce "whānau".

The spelling of those sounds are different, sure. But English is hardly consistent in its spelling, so no English speaker could argue that’s an insurmountable problem.

I acknowledge it may be complex, but pronouncing Māori words well is absolutely and entirely possible for all NZE speakers.

My advice is to take the insane English logic out of the equation by learning the pronunciation of Māori words aurally, and without looking at the spelling.

Learn the spelling independently of the pronunciation, and practise them while you’re driving down our beautiful state highways.

Vini Olsen-Reeder is a language lecturer at Te Kawa a Māui, Victoria University of Wellington.

 - Stuff Nation


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