Facts About Māori: Dialects, Vowels, and no Writing System

Māori is the indigenous language of the Polynesian Māori people of New Zealand. After the Second World War, Māori was at risk of dying out entirely due to efforts to remove it from official situations like school and newspapers in favor of English.

However, thanks to revitalization efforts, it has been an official language of New Zealand since 1987, and efforts toward its revival have had a resurgence since 2015.

The following facts cover some of the most interesting information about the origin, history, demographics, and structure of the Māori language – a language which has risen again.

Facts about the Truly Amazing Māori Language

1. Māori people also know their language as Te Ro

This literally means “the language”.

2. Only about 4% of the New Zealand population report some level of knowledge in the Māori language

Even within Māori communities, only around 50-60% are confident enough in their use of their indigenous language to hold a conversation.

3. There is a large Māori language revival initiative both in New Zealand and in countries with significant numbers of Kiwis and Māori expatriates.

The Māori Renaissance, as it is called, has resulted in Māori-language television and radio broadcasts, wider recognition of Māori art and culture, Māori immersion schools, and proposals to offer Māori to all Kiwi students in schools. It’s even become a popular mainstay of recent tourism and business ventures.

4. There was no writing system in indigenous Māori

Since the 1810s and 1820s, Māori has been written using the Latin alphabet. Since the distinction between long and short vowels is important, long vowels (like ā) are marked with a macron (the line above), while short vowels are not marked. In older texts, longer vowels were doubled: Maaori. 

5. An interpreter must always be available at the New Zealand Parliament in case someone wishes to address in Māori.

Most government organizations, street signs, postal addresses, and public buildings carry bilingual names in both English and Māori.

6. Māori is an Eastern Polynesian language in the Central Eastern language group, which consists of two further subdivisions

Māori’s parent group is Tahitic languages. The linguistic siblings of Māori include Cook Islands Māori, Tahitian, and Rapa. Tahitic’s sister group is Marquesic languages. Within this group lie Māori’s closest linguistic cousins: Hawaiian, Marquesan, and Mangareva.

7. There are 15 letters in the Māori alphabet (including two diagraphs) and every vowel has a long form marked with a macron (or doubled in old style or some modern variants) 

The table below includes all letters and their pronunciations in alphabetical order.

LetterIPASounds like
A / Ā Short: /a/At
Long: /a:/Balm
E / ĒShort: /e/Red
Long: /e:/Bay
H/h/Hat
I / Ī Short: /i/Beet
Long: /i:/Bee
K/k/King
M/m/Man
N/n/Not
O / ŌShort: /o/Bot
Long: /o:/Lawn
P/p/Patrick
R/r/Ring
T/t/Tea
U / ŪShort: /u/Lute
Long: /u:/Boots
W/w/Will
NG/ŋ/Ring
WH/f/Frog

8. The vowel differences are extremely important!

Words spelled the same except for the short/long vowels usually mean completely different things.

  • Papa (earth) and pāpā (father)
  • Keke (cake) and kekē (creak) and kēkē (armpit)
  • Pipi (a shellfish) and pīpī (baby bird)
  • Koko (shovel) and kōkō (a fat tūi bird)
  • Ruru (a morepork owl) and rūrū (handshake)

The good news is that, unlike English, Māori is pronounced and written entirely phonetically.

9. Māori works mostly on a VSO word order (verb-subject-object)

This is in contrast to the English SVO (subject-verb-object) structure. An SVO sentence would say “[I] [am learning] [Māori]”, whereas a VSO version of the same sentence would read “[Māori] [I] [am learning]”.

10. There are three ‘numbers’ of pronouns in Māori, singular, plural, and dual.

TypePronounEnglish equivalentRefers to:
SingularAu / AhauI or meSpeaker 
KoeYouAddressee 
IaHe/she/it/them (singular)Another person
Dual – only two peopleTāuaWe/us (inclusive)Speaker + addressee
MāuaWe/us (exclusive)Speaker + third person
KōruaYou (plural)Addressee + third person
RāuaThey/them (plural)A third + fourth person
Plural – more than two peopleTatouWe/us (inclusive)Speaker + addressee + others 
MātouWe/us (exclusive)Speaker + others
KoutouYou (plural)Addressee + others
RātouThey/them (plural)Others

10. As well as in New Zealand, there are several groups of Māori speakers in Australian territories

PlaceMāori-speaking population (approximate rounded, to nearest 10 or 100
New Zealand186,000
Queensland4,300
Western Australia2,900
New South Wales2,500
Victoria1,700
South Australia220
Northern Territory180
Australian Capital Territory60
Tasmania50

11. New Zealand has started incorporating Māori names for places and landmarks in either a preferred or bilingual manner

  • New Zealand -> Aotearoa
  • Eastern Reef -> Ahuru
  • Sutherland Sound -> Te Hāpua
  • Thames -> Waihou
  • New Zealand Geographic Board -> Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa

12. There used to be two main dialects of Māori, but one has since become extinct

North Island dialects are the only existent forms, though there is considerable variation in sounds between them. The South Island dialects is officially extinct. However, authorities in the Southern regions have started to encourage its official use on signs and documents once again.

13. The days of the week and months of the year were originally based on English names for these days. 

Officially, weekdays have now been changed to Māori words which are reflective of the etymology of the English version. Meanwhile, month names are now based on a traditional Māori lunar calendar.

  • Monday -> Mane -> Rāhina (based on hina, moon)
  • January -> Hānuere -> Kohi-tātea

14. Several Māori words and phrases now exist in New Zealand English

This includes biology names and casual conversation.

Final Thoughts

A fundamental part of Māori culture is tracing genealogies through past to present – not just of people, but of all living things in nature. The way these genealogies are studies emphasizes the constant renewal of all life – just as the Māori language, almost gone, is once again thriving.

Leave a Comment