This time last year I made a vow. Whenever possible, to the best of my ability, I would pronounce Māori place names correctly.
Writing that down now, it seems a bit ridiculous. As a New Zealander, why wouldn't I identify my country's regions, cities and towns properly? If you love your nation, respecting its identity should hardly be something you need to make a resolution about.
I was reminded of my pledge this week, when the Kapiti Coast District Council announced its plan to name stretches of the new Kapiti Expressway after prominent Māori tūpuna (ancestors). It didn't take long for some locals to label the new names "unpronounceable" and "meaningless".
I can't say that I was surprised. My commitment to pronouncing Māori names correctly has turned out to be an enlightening experience. These days, when I tell New Zealanders I've just met that I'm from Rotorua, I often receive a blank look. A few seconds pass, as I watch the cogs turning. "Oh, Row-tah-rua!" they finally exclaim.
The same thing happens when I talk about Tauranga, Waiheke, or even Taupō, which is perhaps the most baffling, as it's one of the easiest Māori place names to remember the correct pronunciation for: Toe-paw. Often, when I refer to places in New Zealand by using their real names, people look at me like I'm from Mars.
Enough. It's time for some tough love. In 2017, there is no excuse for mispronouncing te reo place names anymore. No matter what age you are, or where you were raised; if you're still mangling Māori place names in this day and age, you're either wilfully ignorant, lazy, obtuse, fearful, obstinate, racist or a mixture of all six.
Sorry. The truth hurts, but it's high time that we acknowledged the double standard in our vernacular. Of our official languages, only English is afforded the respect it deserves.
Imagine going down to "Gaw-reh" or heading east to "Nah-pee-eh". We wouldn't dream of mispronouncing Gore or Napier, so why do we think it's okay to butcher Pukekohe, Whakatāne and Paraparaumu? Why do we simply accept people saying "Pookacaughey", "Wokatarnie" and "Paraparam" without so much as raising an eyebrow?
Because swimming against the tide, particularly in New Zealand, can be scary. The fear of standing out as the only person in a conversation making an effort to use the Māori language correctly was what held me back. I was concerned that some people might snidely judge me, or interpret my pronunciation as a kind of political statement. In hindsight, I suppose it was.
The message I was trying to send was that Māori language matters at least as much as English. Te reo Māori is the one language that is unique to New Zealand. It is ours in a way that English never could be. It deserves to be loved, nurtured and most of all spoken. Pronouncing Māori place names correctly is an important first step.
For many Kiwis - some Māori included - I suspect that a fear of attempting to pronounce a place name correctly and getting it wrong stops them from giving it a go. No one likes to go out on a limb to have it thrown back in their face. Whakamā, or shame, can be a potent deterrent.
But it shouldn't be. The basic key to pronouncing te reo correctly is relatively simple. If you learn the five vowel sounds, you'll be able to sound out most te reo words. Anyone who's ever sung 'Mā is White' as a child will know them already, but there are lots of simple phrases that can similarly act as memory aids. Take 'Large pets need more food', for example, and you have a quick and easy way to roughly remember the A-E-I-O-U sounds in te reo Māori: ah-eh-ee-or-oo.
I'm no expert, but I've found that once you've mastered the vowels, the language starts to become accessible. Add in three important rules - that 'wh' is almost always pronounced 'f', r's are rolled and a line over the top of a vowel (called a macron) signifies a longer vowel sound - and you're good to go. The next step is to simply open your mouth and try.
No one expects immediate perfection. I know myself how difficult it can be. I don't always get it right, and I sometimes fall back into old habits, but after a few anxious months of taking leaps of faith I noticed that te reo names began to roll off my tongue with relative ease. It's amazing what a bit of conscious effort can do.
Ensuring that te reo Māori was taught in all New Zealand schools would fix all this, of course, but for now protecting the dignity and mana of New Zealand towns, cities and regions is in our hands. The names Māori gave to places around the country are often steeped in history and deeply meaningful. When we learn how to use the language of our land, we are getting to know our own stories.
We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. As proud Kiwis, why wouldn't we give it a go?