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Maori Language & Culture

The Maori language is a Polynesian dialect. It was first given a written form in the early 19th century by missionaries and British linguists. In the latter part of the 19th century, Maori were forced to adopt the English language in schools, and it wasn't until the 1960s that a strong Maori resurgence began. The Maori Language Act of 1987 really changed things. It made Maori an official New Zealand language along with English, and a Maori Language Commission was set up to create authentic Maori names for government departments and major organizations. Today, there are Maori radio stations and television channels, and Maori is taught in all levels of the education system.

When you visit New Zealand, you will be surrounded by things Maori: Words, place names, and many tourist ventures are all indications of this revitalized culture. No one expects you to be able to pronounce many Maori names - it's hard enough for those who have spent their lives here -- but these tips might make it easier. Some Maori words are both singular and plural and require no s. Maori, Pakeha, and kea are all good examples (like the English words deer and fish). There are 15 letters in the Maori alphabet: A, E, H, I, K, M, N, O, P, R, T, U, W, NG, and WH, and every syllable ends in a vowel. The vowel sounds are of great importance and when two vowels come together, each is given its proper sound. WH is usually pronounced as an F.

In the last decade or so, the inclusion of Maori words and phrases in everyday life has become increasingly common. As a visitor here, you'll come across a number of words that may seem incomprehensible. Kia ora is probably the simplest and the most common. Kai (food) is also in common usage, as are whanau (family), iwi(tribe), and tangata whenua (literally "people of the land" - in reference to Maori).

Tourism New Zealand and many tourism operators have also adopted a number of traditional Maori values as part of their contemporary business practice. These include manaakitanga (hospitality/nurturing), kaitiakitanga (guardianship), rangatiratanga (leadership), and kotahitanga (unity). The two that visitors will come across most often are manaakitanga, which is an all-encompassing sense of hospitality, sharing, and welcome; and kaitiakitanga, which is most used (in a tourism context) in relation to the guardianship of treasures (taonga), and the bounty of the land and its resources.

Maori for Beginners

Here's a list of the most commonly used prefixes and suffixes for place names:

Ao -- Cloud

Ika -- Fish

Nui -- Big, or plenty of

Roto -- Lake

Rua -- Cave, or hollow, or two (Rotorua's two lakes)

Tahi -- One, single

Te -- The

Wai -- Water

Whanga -- Bay, inlet, or stretch of water

These are other frequently used words:

Ariki -- Chief or priest

Atua -- Supernatural being, such as a god or demon

Haka -- Dance (war, funeral, and so on)

Hangi -- An oven made by filling a hole with heated stones, and the feast roasted in it

Hongi -- The pressing together of noses in traditional greeting

Karakia -- Prayer or spell

Kaumatua -- Elder

Kereru -- Wood pigeon

Kia ora -- Hello, Go well

Kumara -- Sweet potato

Mana -- Authority, prestige, psychic force

Marae -- Courtyard, village common

Mere -- War club made of greenstone (jade)

Pa -- Stockade or fortified place

Pakeha -- Caucasian person; primarily used to refer to those of European descent

Poi -- Bulrush ball with string attached, twirled in action song

Tangi -- Funeral mourning or lamentation

Taonga -- Treasure

Tapu -- Under religious or superstitious restriction (taboo)

Tiki -- Human image, sometimes carved of greenstone

Whare -- House

Kiwi Terms & Phrases

Who would have thought the English language could be so confusing? New Zealand may seem like an easy place to negotiate, but it has developed some very distinctive language characteristics. Here's a guide to help you negotiate everyday colloquialisms.

Kiwi/Yankee Terms

Air-conditioning -- Refers to both heating and cooling the air

All Blacks -- New Zealand rugby team

Bach -- North Island term for vacation house (plural: baches)

Bath -- Bathtub

Bathroom -- Where one bathes; bath

Biro -- Ballpoint pen

Biscuits/bickies -- Cookies

Bludge -- Borrow

Bonnet -- Hood of car

Boot -- Trunk of car

Bro -- Slang for "brother"; a friendly term used widely

Bush -- Forest

Chemist shop -- Drugstore

Chilly bin -- Styrofoam cooler (U.S.), esky (Aus.)

Coach -- Long-distance bus

Cocky -- Farmer

College -- High school

Cot -- Crib (place where a baby or toddler sleeps)

Crib -- South Island term for holiday house

Cuppa -- Cup of tea

Cyclone -- Hurricane

Dairy -- Convenience store

Dish -- As in "a bit of a dish"; a good-looking woman

Do -- As in "a bit of a do"; a party

Doona/Duvet -- Comforter, quilt (Aus.)

En suite -- In-room bathroom

Fanny -- Female genitalia; you'll shock Kiwis if you call the thing you wear around your waist a "fanny pack"

Flannel -- Face cloth

Footpath -- Sidewalk

Gallops -- Thoroughbred horse racing

Get stuck in -- Get started

Gidday -- Hello

Grizzle -- Complain

Grog -- Booze

Gumboots -- Waterproof rubber boots (U.S.), Wellingtons (Britain)

Hire -- Rent

Homely -- Homey

Hooker -- Front-row rugby player

Hotties -- Hot-water bottles

Housie -- Bingo

Jandals -- Thongs (Aus.), flip-flops (U.S./Britain)

Jersey -- Pullover sweater (U.S.), jumper (Aus.)

Judder bars -- Speed bumps (U.S.), sleeping policeman (Britain)

Jug -- Electric kettle or a pitcher

Kiwi -- Person from New Zealand; native bird of New Zealand

Knickers -- Underwear, undies

Knock up -- Wake up

Lift -- Elevator

Loo -- Toilet

Lounge -- Living room

LSZ -- Low-speed zone

Mate -- Friend

Mossie -- Mosquito

Nappy -- Diaper

Pakeha -- Anyone of European descent

Private facilities -- Private bathroom

Pushchair -- Baby stroller

Queue -- Line, to wait in line

Rates -- Property taxes

Return ticket -- Round-trip ticket

Rug -- Blanket

Serviette -- Napkin

Shout -- Treat someone (usually refers to a meal or a drink), buy a round

Single bed -- Twin bed

Singlet -- Sleeveless undershirt

Sister -- Nurse

Smoko -- Morning or afternoon break

Strides -- Trousers

Ta -- Thank you

Thongs -- Brief underwear (not the Australian term for jandals -- see above)

To call -- To visit

Togs -- Swimsuit (U.S.), cozzie (Aus.)

To ring -- To phone

Track -- Trail

Tramping -- Hiking

Trots -- Harness racing; in New Zealand the word also means diarrhea

Uplift -- Pick up

Varsity -- University, college

Yank -- American


Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.