Monday, 8 April 2013

How to speak New Zealand English #1: Maori

"Arohatia te Reo", meaning
"cherish the language"
Before I leave NZ, here's a couple of blog posts about how to speak New Zealand English. Ironically the first part is about how to pronounce Maori words!

Why? Because Maori language has entered mainstream Kiwi culture, media and everyday use, and some words have become inseparable from New Zealand English itself.

Newcomers to NZ are regularly baffled by the array of Maori words and place names on TV, in the newspaper, even on the street. This is especially true for the small proportion of Brits who come to New Zealand believing it to be England 50 years ago. Sorry, that place no longer exists!

Yes NZ retains a lot of British culture and is relatively safe, quiet, parochial etc. But today New Zealand is a vibrant multicultural society that has embraced Maori culture, at all levels from government to casual language. Maori language and culture is unique in the world, and most New Zealanders are rightly proud of it.

So, to speak New Zealand English, first you need a good handle on how to pronounce words in Maori.

Note that many of these count for Pacific words and places too, e.g. Samoa is pronounced "SAA-moa", not "S'moa"!

Vowel sounds

a - aa, ah, ar (e.g. market)
e - eh, e' (e.g. enter)
i - ee (e.g. cream)
o - o', or (e.g. pocket, door)
u - oo (e.g. do, you)

Other sounds

wh - is pronounced ff or tf, e.g. whanau (family) is pronounced "ffaa-noe". This is very very important and trips up many foreign visitors!

r - Roll your r's at the front of your mouth. Or, if you can't (like me), try making a soft sound halfway between r, d, and l, e.g. pronounce Māori as "maaow-dlri". (But soft, and quickly!)

macrons - e.g. ā, ō, etc. These basically make the vowel sound longer. Note, the vowel sound itself is still the same.
Macrons are used to write Maori words correctly, but are often not written for simplicity. You'll notice I've been very slapdash with them in this blog post, apologies. (They can also cause havoc online with web code!)

ng - The "g" is always soft in Maori. Sometimes "ng" will appear at the start of a word, e.g. Ngaio (Wellington suburb) - just use the same nasal sound from "ing".

Breaking up words

Some Māori words and place names are confusing at first glance. The trick is to know how to break them up. Sometimes this is easy, because words/names are often made of smaller words/sounds put together. E.g.:

Paraparaumu (small town outside Wellington) = Para-para-umu
waiata (Māori song) = wai-ata
Waitakere (Western Auckland badlands) = Wai-ta-ke-re
Ngaio (Wellington suburb) - Ng-ai-o

Running vowels together

Maori often has 2 vowels sitting next to each other, which will make a different vowel sound to what you might expect. The best approach is simply to say each vowel slowly, in order. E.g.:

Taupo (lake town in centre of North Island) = Ta-u-po
Pronounce it slowly = Taa-oo-poh
Speed it up, and it sounds like "toe"-"paw".

The quickest way to learn these vowel combinations it to hear local Kiwis say it themselves. (Remember though that many Kiwis pronounce Maori words and names wrong, just like many English people are bad at English!)


Maori words are usually emphasised on the first or second syllable, e.g.:
Majoribanks (street in Wellington) = MAA-joribanks
Waitakere (West Auckland) = wai-TA-kere

Sometimes it'll be the first or second syllable of a sound later in the word, although this is not so crucial, e.g.:
Paraparaumu (town outside Wellington) = para-para-OO-moo

Common phrases in mainstream use

aroha - love
haere mai - welcome
iwi - tribe, people, society
kai - food
kia ora - hello, thank you
koha - gift, donation, present (sometimes optional, e.g. a small suggested fee for an event or party)
marae - Maori meeting house (note, like churches these can be modern or traditional in appearance)
o - of
pakeha - white/European people (mostly referring to white New Zealanders)
powhiri - ceremonial welcome (usually onto a marae but sometimes for important staff at a new workplace)
te - the
Te Reo - "the word", i.e. Maori language
tane - man (e.g. male toilets)
taonga - treasure, cultural artefact (mostly historical Maori items. although sometimes referring to anything of important cultural heritage)
tapu - sacred, untouchable, taboo (e.g. some places like particular springs and hot pools will be tapu and restricted from visitors, or certain historical items will be restricted from touch or sight)
wahine - woman (e.g. female toilets)
waiata - song (usually Maori song/singing, often as part of traditional ceremony)
waka - boat (usually traditional Maori longboat/canoe)
whanau - family, extended family
whare - house

Bonus phrases

ka pai - excellent, awesome
tumeke - "too much", as thanks or compliment (e.g. someone is being "too" kind, or is "too" good at something)
kia kaha - stay strong

Guidelines, not rules

Like most languages, the rules are more like guidelines, and many words are simply a case-by-case basis. For example:
  • "whanau" is very commonly pronounced "ffaa-now", by both white and Maori New Zealanders, but the same "au" sound in "Taupo" is always oh/oe (i.e. "toe-paw") in correct pronunciation.
  • occasionally the letter a is pronounced like an O, e.g. waka (boat) is pronounced more like "wokka" than "wakka".
But these are mostly individual cases, rather than a pattern you can work out.

Anyway I hope this is useful, or at least interesting, and that my Kiwi friends don't find too many mistakes or things I've left out. For 4 years in NZ, I could've done a lot better learning Te Reo, but I feel I'm at least not totally ignorant!

For a better and more comprehensive guide, try this page at, or just browse around the Korero Maori ("speaking Maori") website.

Coming up, part #2: the weird and wonderful English part of NZ English!


  1. I remember discussing on the tour bus the debate over Whanganui, and how the the river is 'wh' but the town/city is 'w'. I seem to recall it is very easy to get Maori words spectacularly wrong without the basic info - could have done with this a while back ;) Nice guide though!

  2. Fabulous post, Jez, one that deserves to be widely spread around the web.

    Only thing is 'Majoribanks' isn't Maori, it's English (as in, from your fair land):,_1st_Baron_Tweedmouth
    (And I always heard people say it "Marjerybanks").

    It's so helpful learning the basic building blocks of Maori, too, just as it is with Welsh ('llan' and 'aber' in Welsh, 'wai' and 'whake' and so on in Maori).

  3. Thanks T - funny about Majoribanks, I think I'll leave it in there as a "deliberate" mistake!