Editorial: Not for Mayor to decide on river city's 'h'

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Wanganui, or more correctly Whanganui, is a town divided by the "h" in its name. Yesterday's ruling of the New Zealand Geographic Board that the place has been misspelling its name for 170 years is unlikely to end the dissension. The board has invited public submissions on whether it should officially designate the change.

It should. Its research has shown that the town's founders intended it to take the Maori name of the river, which was officially declared Whanganui a decade ago. The river city, as it describes itself, did not oppose the river's change and consistency demands it follow suit.

Mayor Michael Laws calls the decision "historically and morally wrong" and promises it will be fiercely resisted by the district council and the "vast majority" of the citizens. He can point to a referendum in 2006 that found 82 per cent of the residents preferred the status quo.

But it is not for the Mayor or district council to argue that local Maori pronunciation has no need of the "h", or that it would be an imposition on what Mr Laws calls, "the culture, the mana, the heritage of my people". If Mr Laws' city wishes to continue to use a Maori name, it needs to respect the culture it is borrowing.

Among Maori there has been a desire for a different spelling for 20 years and a local iwi group, Te Runanga o Tupoho, referred the question to the Geographic Board. The board has consulted the Maori Language Commission and accepted that consistent modern use of the language would require an "h" in Wanganui.

Yet the board clearly remains nervous about foisting change on a city. It is one thing to alter the name of a mountain, river or other geographic features, another thing to amend the identity of a community, even as slightly as this. It runs the risk of being ignored. If the council, the newspaper and civic organisations continue to drop their "h", there is nothing the naming authorities can do about it.

At the same time it would leave the city with one version of its name on the buildings and letterheads of Government agencies, as it is already on the district health board, and a slightly different version on those of local government and independent establishments.

If the citizens of Whanganui are aggrieved at the change asked of them, they should look at the proposals Auckland is facing from a royal commission on its governance. The commission's report, released on Friday, wants all parts of the region to be known by their Maori titles.

Manukau and Waitakere will survive as names of local councils but the isthmus council would be Tamaki-makau-rau and North Shore would be renamed Waitemata. The commission could not find Rodney's Maori equivalent. It wants the district to adopt one.

Many will wonder why Maori placenames have acquired such importance lately, and why they need to be so correct. Tamaki-makau-rau would be a mouthful for most residents, who should be forgiven if they shorten it to Tamaki. And Waitemata seems an inadequate name for area that extends far north of the harbour, as far as the Hibiscus Coast on the commission's plan.

But there is value in recognising Maori names of localities. They are a mark of respect for the pre-colonial heritage and a symbol of social inclusion, as well as having more local meaning in most cases. Who was Rodney?

And where Maori names are in use, they should be correct. A little deference to the proper spelling and pronunciation of a language is not much to ask. Whanganui would soon wonder what in "h" it had resented.

- NZ Herald

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