My sisters and I are the first generation in almost 50 generations of our family who didn’t grow up speaking te reo Māori as a first language. At first, that fact seems startling – a dramatic rupture from our past and the language that gives form to it. We are only three generations removed from ancestors who were Māori-speaking monoglots, ordering their lives and their world in a language almost foreign to their 21st-century descendants.
But this break between the language our ancestors spoke and the language we speak – English – is the typical Māori experience: only one in five Māori can hold a conversation in their ancestral language, and in the past three national surveys this number has fallen. That makes us anglophones a firm majority in our Indigenous populace.
This isn’t surprising. From the moment Cook’s Endeavour made sight of land in 1769 the captain and the gentleman botanist Joseph Banks set about conferring English names on the landmarks and features they “found”. My own ancestral mountain, Pūtauaki, became “Mt. Edgecumbe”, possibly in honour of John Edgecombe, a sergeant of marines on the Endeavour. It would take another one hundred years for my ancestors to discover that their ancient mountain, as well as their sacred rivers, went by other names. Yet the histories of colonisation tend to centre around invasion and conquest – the British red coats move in and sooner or later the country falls – which neatly omits how nearly every conquest begins with a new English name.
From these re-namings, the English language and the settlers who spoke it spread across New Zealand. Within a century of Cook’s 18th century landing Pākehā (white New Zealanders) were the new ethnic majority and their language quickly became the lingua franca of government, commerce, and media.
Come the 20th century my grandparents and great-grandparents were torn about the value of Māori as their grandchildren’s first language. Particularly passionless scholars understand language as merely a means of encoding information, but I know my grandparents understood it as more than that: language is relationship between speakers, encoding their shared culture and, for Māori, embedding them in a common whakapapa (ancestry). This is something every grandparent would like to pass on. But, when the future speaks English, do you choose te reo?
For a good number of Māori, sometimes through choice but mostly through circumstance, the answer was no. Even in my lifetime the proportion of fluent and conversational Māori speakers continues to decline. After moving home to Kawerau in 2019 I was struck at how the language was scarcely spoken outside the Marae and formal settings (council events, wānanga graduations, and so on). As a child in the 90s and 2000s the Māori language was all around me – at school, in shops, to some degree in the home, and certainly in the wider whānau (family). Where did it go?
In the decade that I was gone English cut huge tracks into my little Māori community. It does so wherever it goes, a juggernaut absorbing other languages – “juggernaut” itself is a borrowing from the Indian subcontinent – into what we know today as modern standard English. As a language of expression, as a means of describing the universe and our knowledge of it, English is probably without peer. But it’s not my language – it was embedded in this land at the end of a musket. Like every other Māori person without their ancestral language, I yearn for te reo rangatira (the Māori language). I want the past it grants access to, and the shape it confers on my future and my partner’s future and our child’s future.
Where I depart from many of those same Māori without the language is that I think it’s vital that Pākehā speak it alongside us. For that reason alone Lorde’s five track, Māori language accompaniment to her new album, Solar Power, is a pop culture landmark we should welcome. And yet on social media the reaction, at least from many Māori, is caustic. On Twitter and Instagram users wrote about the album triggering the language loss trauma they carry. The strangely psychoanalytic tone of that charge aside, it’s certainly happening. Hearing the language, especially in the mouth of a Pākāha person, is a reminder of its absence in your own. This kind of cognitive burden is punishing.
The more persuasive critics take a slightly different view (one that doesn’t centre individual feelings) arguing, as one well-respected tōhunga (expert) on Māori dance did, that the album amounts to “tokenism”. One can appreciate that argument, and the discussions of trauma as well, but the implications are worrying for the future of the Māori language. If we must wait for perfect circumstances to speak or sing te reo rangatira – nobody’s trauma is triggered, no tokenism is detected – we may as well sign the language’s death certificate. In fighting for Māori radio, Māori television, Māori language schooling, and more the Māori language activists of the 70s and 80s knew that for the language to survive it must act as a functional language, deployed across institutions, mediums, and communities both Māori and non-Māori.
The great rangatira (leaders) who brought Lorde’s Māori language album to life – Dame Hinewehi Mohi, Sir Tīmoti Kāretu, Hana Mereraiha, and Hēmi Kelly – likely take the same view.
English is the first global language. For reasons of empire, obviously, but also for reasons of culture: English is the language of Hollywood, the chief language of pop music, increasingly the language of science, and the preferred language of commerce and diplomacy. If the Māori language is to survive against it – and the forecasts are grim – we must allow non-Māori to speak and sing it. Children need a pop culture and a social media that speaks Māori. Lorde contributed to that, and under the direction and supervision of some of our greatest language champions. As a second language speaker I recognise that as a public good.