Why North & South has decided to use Māori macrons

by Joanna Wane / 15 January, 2018

A wall display at Bridge Pa School, in Hawke’s Bay, where all the pupils identify as Maori. The school motto is “E anga whakamua ai – Me titiro whakamuri” (“Connect to the past – prepare for the future”).

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Flat lining

He came in the winter, leaning cautiously on a carved wooden stick, his feet in worn leather slippers lined with wool. For 10 weeks, Ānaru Te Tai spent his Thursday nights in one of our boardrooms at Bauer Media, teaching us the basics of te reo Māori.

In our small group were writers, designers, editors and digital content providers, each bringing a particular weave of cultural heritage to the table, with family roots as far afield as Vanuatu, Malaysia and France. Unlike evening classes I’ve done in the past, with their brisk flurry of printed worksheets, this Kura Pō (night school) was a gentler place. As we mangled our kupu and muffed our karakia, Te Tai’s patience and quiet humour never faltered.

Matua Ānaru, we called him, using a term of respect that sits somewhere between “uncle” and “teacher”. He spoke of “wh” as a consonant that “stands on its own mana”, and how there are two different words for “my”, depending on whether it’s an everyday item, like a pen, or something that sustains life, such as food or shelter. And we learned why some words wear a “hat”: a “tohu pōtae” or macron.

That flat line over a vowel makes the sound long, in the same way adding an “e” changes hat to hate, altering not only the pronunciation but also the meaning. For example, keke (cake) can be also written as kekē (to creak), kēke (a wrestling hold), or kēkē (armpit) – so “having your kēkē and eating it” takes on a whole new spin.

It’s 30 years since te reo Māori was made an official language of New Zealand, which means we’re a little late to the party, but from this issue on, macrons will be in place throughout the magazine and its online stories. That’s not as easy as it sounds: three of the five fonts (or typefaces) used in North & South don’t include vowels with macrons, so they have to be designed by hand each time, as individual art works. Ascertaining which words need macrons, and where, can be a fraught business, too. Bear with us, because we won’t always get it right.

And will we, I wonder, need to brace ourselves for the flurry of outrage and vitriol that’s been directed at Guyon Espiner and the team at Radio New Zealand for introducing a phrase or two of Māori into Morning Report? Or, as Otago Daily Times columnist Dave Witherow put it, those “obsequious” media apologists, “prostrating themselves before the holy altar of te reo”.

That defensiveness – the irrational conviction that something is being taken away, rather than added – is a curious response. As someone who works with words, I love the nuances of language and the insights it gives into a world view other than my own.

When I interviewed Bex Skerman, the principal of a low-decile school in Hawke’s Bay with a roll that’s 100% Māori, I asked her what education policies she’d like to see the new government introduce that would have a positive impact on the life of her students. “The right to learn their own language,” she said. “For free.”

Central Otago illustrator Kirsten Parkinson, who’s co-produced a popular series of bilingual baby books, mixes English and Māori at home with her three children, and picked up a smattering of Nihongo when she spent a few years in Japan. A secondary-school teacher, she sees the Māori language as a taonga for everyone, and was disappointed (but, sadly, not surprised) when a student told her recently she’d been advised by her parents not to learn Te Reo because it wouldn’t help her in the “real world”.

“And she wants to become a police officer!” says Parkinson, who hopes younger generations will emerge with a different attitude. “It’s unique to us, and it’s up to us to save it, to keep the language alive and use it every day. What a tragedy if we can’t do that.”

This was published in the February 2018 issue of North & South.


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