Youngsters change shape of te reo Maori

By Yvonne Tahana

Marama, Teina, 3, and Paul Davidson are a family who choose to converse in te reo Maori in their Auckland home. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Marama, Teina, 3, and Paul Davidson are a family who choose to converse in te reo Maori in their Auckland home. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Researchers say te reo Maori could be shedding vowels as pronunciation of the language changes. And while that is troubling for some, they say it is a sign of a living language.

Native speakers have long bemoaned the changing state of te reo. Associate Professor Jeanette King of Canterbury University led a team of researchers comparing Radio New Zealand and TVNZ archival recordings of men born in the 1880s who were interviewed in the 1940s with kaumatua of today and people born in the 1980s, to see if they could quantify changes.

The project found that the long vowel sounds, a,e,i,o,u, which generally are twice the sound of short vowels a, e, i, o, u, were getting shorter. For the three groups the short sound was measured at 60 milliseconds. The long sounds from the 1940s material typically measured twice as long, but the long sounds spoken by modern kaumatua and young people recorded dramatic decreases in length.

Measurement changes for u and i were the most affected.

The analysis revealed that te reo Maori could eventually have only six vowel sounds - the long a is likely to be retained while the rest of the long vowels may go the way of the moa. Losing the vowels was not likely to lead to confusion, Professor King said.

The way second-language learners spoke English was also having an effect on spoken te reo.

"One you always hear, and I get annoyed with my students, is waahi which is said wahi, or timata is pretty much said timata nowadays.

"The point here is that we don't have that short/long distinction in our English vowels. Some vowels are produced a little longer but we just don't have that same sort of pairs of vowels."

Diphthongs, where two vowels are put together for sounds such as ae, and ai, were getting harder to differentiate, so the sounds for ae [yes] and pai [good] sounded the same from some speakers. Rhythms of speech were also changing.

The research paper noted that such was the concern from pockets of kaumatua that some had noted it might be better for the "beautiful" language to die.

"However, the attitudes of older speakers tells us this: If it really didn't matter about how we pronounced a language, older generations wouldn't bother commenting about it. The way we pronounce a language says a lot about who we are."

Professor King said "most of us do like to hear an older person speaking, because we do appreciate the lovely way they sound", but change was a reality for all living languages.

Maori had the capacity to absorb this and thrive, she said, but as a way of positively addressing concerns, her team was developing pronunciation aids modelled on native speakers.

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E ai ki nga kairangahau ka ngaro haere pea nga oro puare o te reo Maori na te rereke haere o te whakahua i te reo, ahakoa he raruraru tenei mo etahi, he tohu ano tenei kei te ora te reo.

Kua roa e amuamu te hunga i tipu ake i roto i te reo mo te rereke haere o te reo.

I arahi te Ahorangi Tuarua a Jeanette King o Te Whare Wananga o Waitaha i tetahi ropu rangahau, ko ta ratau mahi he whakataurite i nga ripene tawhito o Te Reo Irirangi o Aotearoa me TVNZ o nga tane i whanau mai i nga tau o te 1880 i uiuitia i nga tau 1940 me nga kaumatua o enei ra, tae atu ki te hunga i whanau mai i nga tau o te 1980.

I kitea kei te poto haere nga oro puare roa a, e, i, o, u, e rua pu atu tona roa i nga oro puare poto, a, e, i , o, u. I inea nga oro poto o nga ropu e toru ki te 60 mirihekona. E rua pu atu te roa o nga oro roa o nga kaikorero o tau 1940, engari ko nga oro roa o nga kaumatua onaianei me nga rangatahi he tino poto ake te roa.

Ko nga ine rereketanga nui ko te u me te i. I roto i nga tataritanga i kitea ka whaiti mai pea nga oro puare ki te ono, te ahua nei ka noho tonu te a roa, ka mutu ko etahi atu o nga oro puare roa ka ngaro pera i te moa.

Hei ta Ahorangi King, kaore he porarutanga mena ka ngaro nga oro puare.

He panga ano to te ahua o te korero Ingarihi a te hunga ako i te reo ki te reo Maori.

"Ko tetahi mea e tino rongohia ana, a, ka riri au ki aku akonga, ko te kupu 'wahi' kua'wahi' inaianei, me te kupu 'timata', kua 'timata'. "Ko te mea ke kaore taua rereketanga roa me te poto i nga oro puare reo Ingarihi.

"Kei etahi oro puare he ahua roa ake engari kaore he takirua o nga oro puare o te reo Ingarihi." Ko nga ororua, koinei nga kupu e whakapirihia nga oro puare e rua penei i te 'ae' me te 'ai', a, kua uaua ake nei ki te wehewehe, no reira mo etahi kaikorero he rite tonu te tangi oro mo te 'ae' me te 'pai'.

E rereke haere ano te manawataki o te reo.

Hei ta te pepa rangahau ano na te kaha awangawanga o etahi kaumatua ki te ahua o te reo he pai ake pea kia tukuna te reo 'ataahua' ki te mate.

"Heoi, ko te ahua o nga whakaaro o nga kaikorero pakeke he penei: mena kaore he raruraru mo te ahua o ta tatau whakahua i te reo, kua kore nga pakeke e korero.

He whakamarama tenei mo te ahua o ta tatau whakahua i te reo.

Hei ta Ahorangi King, "he rawe ki te nuinga o tatau te whakarongo ki te pakeke e korero ana na te ataahua o tona reo", engari ahakoa te aha ka rereke haere te reo.

Hei tana ano, kei te Maori tonu te kaha ki te whakatutaki i tenei me te momoho haere ano, heoi ko tetahi huarahi pai hei whakatika i etahi o nga awangawanga ko te waihanga a tona ropu i etahi awhina whakahua e whai ana i nga tauira a nga kaikorero tuturu i te reo.

- NZ Herald

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