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A Brief Introduction to the Study of Māori Loanwords in New Zealand English

From the time that Captain James Cook made his three voyages to New Zealand in the 1770s, Māori words have been borrowed (called Māori loanwords) into what would develop as a distinct variety of English, called New Zealand English. Why do we document and study Māori loanwords that have entered New Zealand English (also referred to as NZE)? The influence of the Māori language has been one of the most defining features of NZE and provides (both academics and people with a keen interest in language) a valuable insight into the culture of New Zealand.

Our national rugby team the All Blacks have become renowned around the world for performing a haka before their games, while many visitors to New Zealand comment on their confusion when they are unable to decipher terms used by people from New Zealand not only in everyday speech but also in newspapers, television programs and formal contexts. Even the terms that many New Zealanders use to refer to themselves, such as Kiwi (New Zealander) and Pākehā (European New Zealander) are borrowed from Māori. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Māori came close to extinction through competition with English, its use even being banned from schools and other educational institutions until the Māori Renaissance of the 1970s. It was this period in New Zealand culture that signaled a change, not only in how people viewed Te Reo Māori (the Māori language) but also Māori culture, namely as an invaluable cultural treasure (taonga), and it is this view that is reflected in the linguistic habits of New Zealanders today.

Māori loanwords are used in NZE widely for various social functions by New Zealanders within and outside of the Māori community. Some words of Māori origin are used to describe the local flora and fauna of New Zealand, such as kauri, pōhutukawa, pūkeko and tuatara, or to talk about culturally specific items, notions and practices which do not exist in English, like haka (war dance), (Māori fortification), waka (canoe) and mana (power/prestige). Others are used for political and cultural reasons. These include words like kai (food), whānau (family), whakapapa (ancestral genealogy), kōrero (talk), tapu (taboo) and many others. For an example of the use of Māori borrowings in NZE, you can see an article in the NZ Herald Educators back compulsory Māori language or an expanded table of Māori loans here. The use of the distinct NZE variety signals to speakers of other English varieties who New Zealanders are and where they come from, being a distinct people with a local and distinctive way of communicating. These loanwords also act as a form of social and cultural cohesion bringing together a collective Kiwi identity.

A 2001 analysis of the Wellington one-million word corpora (collections) of written and spoken NZE revealed that on average, there are five words of Māori origin for every thousand English words used in spoken language, with a slight increase of six words of Māori origin per thousand in written language. However, another study based on newspapers, Hansards (parliamentary debates), and issues of the School Journal publication (stories written for school-children) found the ratio to be higher, putting it at 8.8 Māori borrowings per thousand words. This not only shows a noticeable presence of Māori borrowings but also the wide range of contexts in which these words are found. By studying the use of Māori borrowings in NZE, we can go beyond mere lists of words and how they are used, and go deeper into understanding how people use them to signal who they are.

These pages are dedicated to the study of Māori loanwords in NZE and to documenting past and ongoing work (around the world!) on this exciting topic. Please get in touch with us if you would like to be part of this or if your project could/should be included here.

This page was written by Matt Bowden.
The site is maintained by Andreea S. Calude (University of Waikato, NZ).