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.

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