Te reo a treasure
OPINION: Another Maori Language Week has come and gone with the usual enthusiastic efforts of a growing number of supporters to keep the language alive and the usual outpourings of ignorant bigotry from those who see no value te reo Maori.
I count myself among the very small number of fortunate non-Maori with anything like a working knowledge of the language.
Those who don't speak Maori assume that I am a fluent speaker, but those who are genuinely native speakers, and there are not many now, know that I am not.
My Maori language came from my schoolmates, starting at Kawhia in 1949, and from a number of very patient tutors and mentors throughout most of my life ever since.
The language I speak is generally known as archaic Maori, simply because that is what my schoolmates spoke at the time.
My father and all my uncles were genuinely fluent. Although none were Maori, they were born and grew up in the predominantly Maori community of Kawhia from the very early 1900s. In spite of that fortunate beginning, we never had the advantage of formal lessons. We did not really need them. The language was all around us in our formative years and we picked up bad habits as well as good with equal efficiency. Now well past my allotted three score and ten years, I still get gentle chidings from native speakers today for my poor grammar. That they even bother tells me something about those who speak the first language of our nation. They are accommodating, generous with their knowledge and very patient.
It has always disappointed me that many of those who object to any suggestion of making Maori language compulsory in our schools offer no sound reason for that objection. The common objection seems to be that there is nothing of any professional or commercial value in speaking an archaic native language which is not understood anywhere else in the world. I recently had the real pleasure of speaking to a class of senior secondary schoolgirls, at the invitation of their teachers, who were studying the language. None were Maori but their enthusiasm and ability was truly impressive. They gave me hope.
Not everything we learn or treasure needs to have a commercial value. If that were the case, we would not enjoy opera, which for the most part is sung in one of the European languages few New Zealanders fully understand. We enjoy opera for the beauty of the music and skill of the singers. Few of us who have heard the Welsh singing their national anthem in their own native language prior to and during an international rugby match have not been impressed with the beauty and passion of the language. The same thing can be applied to ballet and most of the other performing arts. We enjoy and value them simply for what they are.
Spoken Maori has a beauty and a poetry like no other and to sit and engage in gentle conversation with a group native speakers is one of the real, but sadly now very rare, pleasures of my retirement years.
How is it, then, that there is such a deep resentment of spoken Maori, particularly by native-born Pakeha New Zealanders? I have struck this many times in many places from seemingly intelligent people who seem astonished that I actually speak the language, to a degree, and object to their ignorance. It is, after all, one of the languages of their country.
In my past professional life as a journalist, having an understanding of spoken and written Maori opened many doors for me that were closed to non-speakers. This was very evident during the Ngai Tahu hearings before the Waitangi Tribunal in the 1980s. Those of us with the language had a huge advantage over those journalists who did not.
In a recent visit to a hunting and fishing equipment shop, I became engaged in a conversation in Maori with the owner, who was born in Manchuria. He spoke several Asian languages, French and Spanish, which I do not. He was amazed that those around us did not understand us.
I have a hope that one day all New Zealanders, Pakeha and Maori, will take ownership of this most enjoyable language as something that makes them unique and special.
Pakeha people are in fact more Pacific Islanders than many understand or even accept; Pacific Islanders with a still strong Anglo-Saxon heritage, perhaps, but Pacific Islanders nonetheless. For there is no rule in nature or law which dictates that Pacific Islanders can only be Polynesian, Micronesian or Melanesian.