Spoken mana: the history in a name
If you pronounce one of New Zealand’s Ma¯ ori place names wrong, you’re not only making it sound strange – you could be giving it a whole different meaning.
The indigenous names for many locations reflect a rich ancestral history. So when we stuff up the vowels, we’re ignoring Aotearoa’s past.
Or perhaps, we’re just talking nonsense. Kaiko¯ ura, on the east coast of Te Waipounamu (the South Island) is one placename that is often mispronounced.
The name is a shortened version of Te Ahi Kai Ko¯ ura a Tamaki-Te-Raki, stemming from the tale of a famous explorer who stopped in the area to eat some of the plentiful ko¯ ura (crayfish) over an open fire. It should be said ‘‘kye-koh-ra’’.
By saying ‘‘kai-kora’’, you could be talking about eating a spark or small fragment, instead of delicious crayfish – while ’’kaikura’’ could mean you want to ’’eat decorative feathers’’.
Nga¯ i Tahu culture and identity general manager Lynne-Harata Te Aika said many place names are historically significant, so it is important to get them right.
For example O¯ tautahi (‘‘Ohtoe-ta-he’’) – the original name for Christchurch – comes from the name of a chief, Tautahi.
‘‘I think we’ve come of age,’’ she said.
‘‘We’re more aware of the historical significance of some of our placenames. Especially in the current generation of young people, they’ve got more access to knowledge.’’
Earlier this year Kaiko¯ura’s Suburban School pupils made a song to encourage people to say their hometown’s name correctly.
Te Aika said the challenge was now encouraging adults to follow children’s example.
‘‘Fifty years ago we grew up learning place names being mispronounced. But now we have more access to knowledge and the understanding that a name carries with it mana because it’s an ancestral name,’’ she said.
Te Aika said it would be unlikely that we manage to get everyone pronouncing everything 100 per cent perfectly every time.
The goal instead was to become more aware of the language, its origin, its significance – and trying to get it right.
‘‘It’s a national language, it’s an official language,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s just part of developing as a nation. We never sang the national anthem in Ma¯ori 10 years ago, but now we do.’’
Some mispronunciations were so common in the past that they have become an area’s name on the maps. Kurow, hometown of former All Black captain Richie McCaw, was the anglicisation of the area’s name, Te Kohurau.
University of Auckland Ma¯ ori studies professor Margaret Mutu said it is frustrating that a great number of te reo place names are still commonly mispronounced, though Ma¯ ori people had learned to tolerate it.
‘‘If I go overseas and deliberately mispronounce names, people take offence,’’ she said. ‘‘You are in the South Pacific, you are not in Europe.’’
The name of her hometown Whanga¯ rei - was often wrongfully pronounced with a silent ‘h’, as ‘‘Wan-gah-rey’’.
She said it should be pronounced with an ‘f’ sound as ‘‘Fun-gah-rey’’, or ‘‘Whan-gahrey’’ with the ‘wh’ sounding the same as it does in the saying of whale.
Rei is the name of the ancestor who arrived in the town’s harbour, the whanga. But ‘wanga’ does not translate to ‘harbour’ in te reo, so makes no sense.
Whanganui was also often pronounced with a silent ‘h’, Mutu said. She did not blame English-speaking Kiwis for the mispronunciation because the ‘h’ sound in Whanganui was a glottal stop - meaning it could only clearly be heard by speakers of te reo Ma¯ ori.
But taking the time to pronounce a place properly when you can was a courtesy to the local people, she said.
Professor Margaret Mutu, of Auckland University, says getting place names correct is a courtesy to the local people.