What's that little line? He aha tēnā paku rārangi?

Correct use of tohutō (macrons) is "a significant contribution to revitalisation of te reo Māori", says Ngahiwi Apanui, the Tumuaki (Chief Executive) of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (Māori Language Commission).
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Correct use of tohutō (macrons) is "a significant contribution to revitalisation of te reo Māori", says Ngahiwi Apanui, the Tumuaki (Chief Executive) of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (Māori Language Commission).

OPINION: Kia ora tātou e whakanui ana i tēnei wiki o tō tātou reo.

The decision by Stuff to use the tohutō or macron will delight all those who treasure New Zealand's first language. As we say in Māori: "ahakoa he iti, he pounamu" – "although it seems small, it's of great value".

Tohutō mark long vowels, and help tell which bit of a word to stress. With tohutō anyone can look at a word, even one they have never seen before, and pronounce it.

There's a big difference in sound between a long and short vowel. 'a' is the sound in the English word 'fun'. 'ā' is the sound in 'far' (if you're not from Southland).

READ MORE: Why Stuff is introducing macrons for te reo Māori words

Common Māori words that use the tohutō include hāngi, hapū, hīkoi, kāinga, kātipō, kākāpō, kaumātua, kāwanatanga, kererū, kōwhai, kūmara, kōhanga reo, pā , Pākehā , tūī, wānanga, whānau and wētā.

Many think of tohutō as a novelty but the need to mark long vowels was always seen as important by some. The first publication to use the tohutō was Lady (Mary Ann) Martin's Māori language book Recipes for remedies, food and beverages in 1869.

However, its use was not formalised until the establishment of the Māori Language Commission in 1987 and the decision, led by the first Commissioner, Professor (now Sir) Tīmoti Kāretu that tohutō should be used. This ended (largely) the competing use of double vowels which was favoured by some and are still used widely in Waikato.

Technology was at first a significant problem. Many typewriters could not create a macron. Computers often couldn't either. But now, the macron has triumphed. The Bible has just been published in a new edition, complete with tohutō. It's easy now to set up IT systems to insert them. There's even an online service to automatically add tohutō to text.

We now have 20 years of people graduating from schools using tohutō in their written work. It is as natural to those Māori language users as dotting an 'i' in English.

The use of a tohutō

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* raises the status of the Māori language because people are seen to care about its correct use. This is particularly important for children – their confidence in using te reo Māori outside home and school settings is increased by seeing their language respected.

* indicates which meaning is intended: kākā – parrot; kakā – glowing hot; kaka – stalk or lineage; and kaka – informal word corresponding to 'poo' in New Zealand English.

* shows readers how the word is pronounced and where the stress goes; Kārearea (falcon) has a macron and is spoken as CAR-reh- uh-reh- uh. Karearea is not a word. The Reserve Bank last year came to the tohutō party and corrected this word on the $20 bill.

The Māori language is spoken conversationally by about 130,000 people. 300,000 are learning it at school. There are 10,000 tertiary students. Hundreds of thousands more have learned a little, and use a little. All will appreciate Stuff's addition of the tohutō to stories.

It's a significant contribution to revitalisation of te reo Māori and is as important as the efforts of broadcasters to pronounce words correctly. He rawe! Ngā mihi ki a koutou katoa.

Ngahiwi Apanui is the Tumuaki (Chief Executive) of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, the Māori Language Commission.

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