The Maori Language in New Zealand. Language Policies in the 1990's and 2000's

Term Paper, 2017

12 Pages, Grade: 2,7



Table of content

1. Introduction

2. Languages in New Zealand

3. Historical Background
3.1 Precolonialism
3.2 The Treaty of Waitangi
3.3 The early 20th century

4. Language policies in the 1990’s and 2000’s
4.1 Changes in language policies
4.2 Importance of Maori language and culture
4.3 Problems

5. Future prospects

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Baram in Nepal, Mapuche in Argentina, or the Cherokee language in the United States. All of these languages are spoken by a minority of people in their country and do not have the status of an official language. They are oppressed by the official languages in their countries and the amount of speakers is decreasing year by year. Like in these countries, New Zealand has a minority with a language that is threatened: the Maoris. For a long time Maori was a language that was doomed to extinctions.

There is no fixed definition for Maori, in a lot of occasions it is someone who is a descendant of a Maori, but it is up to everyone to identify as such (Metge 1976:40f.). Although all citizens of New Zealand have the same privileges and can access government services like education, some Acts make a distinction between a Maori and a non-Maori person. Especially the Acts of the Treaty of Waitangi, which will be explicated later on, that serves the protection of the Maoris. They referred to this document when they started protesting against the discrimination of their ethnicity and language. Only 50 years ago the situation for Maoris started to change when New Zealand citizens and the government developed an awareness of the threat the Maori language faced. The last years of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st century have an important meaning in the fight for the preservation of Maori culture and language. This essay’s aim is to examine this period of time concerning the language policies that were made or changed during that time. The following question shall be answered in the end:

How did language policy concerning the Maori language change at the turn of the 21st century in New Zealand?

In order to be able to answer this question, it is necessary to look at the following topics. Historical background, specifically at precolonial times, at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi as a consequence of the colonization by England, and language policies made and changed in the early 20th century. After this, language policies in the 1990's and early 2000's will be discussed by looking at the policy changes that were made concerning the Maori language during that time, the importance of the Maori culture and language, and the problems language policy might face. In the end, future prospects for the next 50 years will be given.

2. Languages in New Zealand

As of 2016, New Zealand has three official languages. English, Maori and New Zealand Sign Language. In 2013 there were about 4,5 million people living in New Zealand. In a survey carried out by the organization Statistics New Zealand 74 % of the inhabitants identified as Europeans, 14.9 % as Maori, 11.8 % as Asians, 7.4 % as Pacific Islanders, 1.2% identified either as Middle Eastern, Latin American or African, and a remaining 1.7 % identified with another ethnic group.1 As people were allowed to name more than one ethnic group, the numbers do not add up exactly to 100. New Zealand is a deeply monolingual country with 98% of the inhabitants speaking English (Hay 2008:11). The English spoken in New Zealand is considered to be a variety of British English with differences concerning lexicon and pronunciation. 95 % of the vocabulary used there is also used in other varieties, especially in Australian English but there are also some words that New Zealand English shares with US American English, e.g. mufflers instead of the British silencers. Apart from two or three words that made their way into the other varieties, e.g. Maori or kiwi, the other 5 % can be found exclusively in New Zealand English (67). These 5% derive from the Maori language, a language spoken by 4.6 % New Zealand residents (11). The loan words taken from Maori can be divided into two groups: the loan words that were established before 1860 and the ones after 1970. Before 1860 the European settlers tried to learn some Maori and for new objects they found on the Islands they just borrowed the word from the Maori language. Some of these words are still in use, especially the ones concerning plants and animals like kiwi, kauri, or moki, places like Wanganui or Rotorua, and words that were used in relation with Maori culture like hangi. Although a lot of places still have their Maori names, the big cities received new English names like Wellington, Auckland, and Christchurch. The settlers also decided to anglicize some of the words and so the kokopu fish was called cockapully instead (68f.).

Because of the range of ethnic diversities a variety of languages, besides English and Maori, can be found in the country, including Pacific Island languages like Samoan, Tongan, or Tokelauan and international languages like Dutch or, marked by a rapid spreading, Chinese (Kaplan 1994:163). Some of the Pacific Island languages are in danger of vanishing not only in New Zealand but also in their original countries where the people are not aware of the risk. To prevent the vanishing of Samoan in New Zealand, a few facilities like language nests have been installed in the country (165f.).

3. Historical background

In this chapter, at first the origins of the Maoris, precolonization will be discussed, then the content and the consequences of the Treaty of Waitangi, and as a last point the situation of Maori people and their language in the early 20th century.

3.1 Precolonialism

Around 1300 AD the ancestor of the Maori people arrived from Central East Polynesia to Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand. Their language, Polynesian, faced new objects, nature phenomena, and plants and animals, for which it did not have existing words. Through the process of creation of new words a language, different to Polynesian, developed - the Maori. It continued to bloom in the following years and after a short time it became the dominant language of New Zealand. With every year, the gap between Polynesian and Maori became wider (O'Regan 2007:157).

In 1769 Captain James Cook reached New Zealand's North Island and during his travels he kept a journal where he recorded his encounters with Maori. For his descriptions he used the words that were used in Maori for society structures, weapons, and others (Hay 2004:65). In the 1790’s the first settlers arrived in New Zealand, they were mostly British settlers who had lived before in Australia. They lived in small villages at the coast in peace with the Maori tribes and showed no intention of colonizing this new country. After some years the British Crown decided to send Captain William Hobson to New Zealand to clear the situation and to arrange a deal with the local tribes. This resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi which gave the British Crown a colonial administration over New Zealand (38f.)

3.2 The Treaty of Waitangi

A lot changed when 50 Maori chiefs and the British crown signed the Treaty of Waitangi in February 1840. The treaty consists of three articles and its main intention is to protect the Maori and their properties from European settlers. The treaty was written in English and although it was translated into Maori, the chiefs who signed it never received a copy of the treaty and had to trust other people who told them what was written in it (Franklin 1989:293). Through the conditions of the treaty, New Zealand was opened to European settlers who soon constituted the majority of the New Zealand population and made the Maori 'foreign' in their own country (O'Regan 2007:157). The settlers considered the Maori's language and culture inferior to their own and propagated their beliefs so that a lot of people accepted the superiority of the English language and denied the need for survival of the Maori language. They thought that it complicated the process for them to get 'civilized' and to get in contact with the Europeans. Therefore in 1867 the Native School Act was passed, which forbade the use of Maori in schools. The infringement of this Act was under punishment and it was not repealed until the 1950's. As this law was only limited to school grounds, most Maori families, around 90%, uphold the custom of speaking their language at home (158). Although the families put a lot effort into preserving the Maori language, the Native School Act lead to a decline of the proficiency in Maori. Within three generations the Maori population turned from native speakers of Maori to bilingual speakers and finally to monolingual speakers of English (Reedy 2000:158).

The large group of Europeans who came to New Zealand after the signing of the treaty had a negative impact on the size and the rights of the Maori community. In 1840 there were about 200,000 to 250,000 people living in New Zealand that belonged to the ethnic group of the Maoris. By 1900 there were only 42,000 left (157) owed to the diseases that were brought there from Europe and the colonial wars fought between settlers and Maoris from 1845 to 1876 (Brabazon 2000:90). And even tough both, the Maori chiefs and the settlers, had signed the contract that confirmed that land owned by Maori would stay in their possession, in 1892 half of this land was rented to Europeans (Franklin 1989:292).

3.3 The early 20th century

From 1913 to 1955 the rate of the children who spoke Maori dropped drastically from 90 % to 26 % (Metge 1976:96). As already mentioned before, the settlers considered the English language as more important and useful than Maori and encouraged the Maoris to learn their language. A lot of parents agreed, that learning English would be more of an advantage for their children. As a consequence, a great amount of Maori families gave up on speaking Maori in their homes and chose English instead. Especially in marriages between Maori and Europeans the dominant language at home was English (97f.).

In the 1940's the situation of the Maori started to become better. Their housing situation was improved, they got as much money for their pension as the European people, and there were no more differences made between Maori and non-Maori people by employers (Franklin 1989:296). In the 1970's groups of Maori people started to protest against the violations of the treaty that did not respect their culture and language. Their main intention was to establish programs to protect the Maori language, to be able to teach it to others, and to help the ones who already spoke it, to improve it. Their protests were successful and at the beginning of the 1980's a handful of educational institutions were founded to preserve the language. It started with the first bilingual school for Maori and English in 1979, followed by the first Maori university in 1981, the first language nest in 1982 and the first Maori primary school in 1985. The language nests, which focused on early childhood education, had such a huge demand that by 1985, three years after the initiation of the first language nest, there were already 400 nests in the whole country (O'Regan 2007:159). The government donated $ 40 million to support the language nests and in 1989 it was recorded in the Education Act that from now on, the government would support and was in charge of the formation of new educational institutions that serve the protection of the Maori language (Reedy 2000:160).

In 1984 there was an incident called the 'Kia ora controversy' which shows the negative attitude some non-Maori people had towards Maori. A woman was forced to answer her phone at work only with hello, not with kia ora, the Maori term for hello. This lead to a lot of protests, not only by Maori people but also by non-Maoris. It also provoked a discussion in the Waitangi Tribunal in 1985 which two years later lead to the acknowledgment of Maori as an official language of New Zealand. In the same year the Maori Language Commission was established whose aim was, and still is, to “promote the Maori language as a living language and an ordinary means of communication” (O'Regan 2007:160). This was essential, as in 1987 only 12 % of all Maoris had the ability speak the language (O'Regan 2007:160).

4. Language policies in the 1990's and 2000's

In this chapter, at first the changes that happened in language policies at the turn of the 21st century will be mentioned, like the installation of a Maori TV station and the initiatives started by the Ministry of Maori Development. The next sub-points are about the role that the Maori language and culture play in the people's everyday lives and what problems appear and have to be faced when talking about Maoris, their language, and its preservation.

4.1 Changes in language policies

In the 1980's a turning point was reached in the impediment of the decay of the culture and language of the Maoris. The government followed a variety of new language policies to achieve their goal.

In 1995 and the following year the Ministry of Maori Development published various essays on language strategies like language planning, health of Maori language, or language and corpus development. In reaction to this, in 1997, the Cabinet agreed on the following five objectives to preserve the Maori language: the increase of learning opportunities, the improvement of


1 Statistics New Zealand. Np. 03.12.2013. (21.12.2016) summary-reports/quickstats-about-national-highlights/cultural-diversity.aspx

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The Maori Language in New Zealand. Language Policies in the 1990's and 2000's
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Anonymous, 2017, The Maori Language in New Zealand. Language Policies in the 1990's and 2000's, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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