Advocates have long said te reo needs to be seen and heard outside the classroom if the language is to survive and thrive.

Now, Auckland University Press is bringing out the first te reo book for adults it has published in a decade while our national Māori Theatre Company, Taki Rua, is touring its first adult-orientated play performed in te reo.

It follows Waipū teen thrash metal band Alien Weaponry entering the NZ album charts at number one with their debut album sung in te reo, and, for its last season, Pop-up Globe staged Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream with large sections in Māori.

AUP and Taki Rua say the time is right to take the language into new arenas, with growing numbers of New Zealanders enrolling in te reo classes and more proficient speakers wanting the language in a wider range of settings.

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AUP director Sam Elworthy says he will no longer ask Maori authors to translate their work into English. Photo / Maja Moritz Photography
AUP director Sam Elworthy says he will no longer ask Maori authors to translate their work into English. Photo / Maja Moritz Photography

AUP director Sam Elworthy said it had published bilingual books before but publishing adult non-fiction in Māori is extremely rare and usually stymied because of costs and concerns about sales.

"I've got plenty of history of saying no to projects like this but the time seemed right to say yes," says Elworthy, who believes two books in 10 years is a sad statistic.

In 2010, AUP published educator Poia Rewi's book about Māori oratory which he had written in te reo.

However, Whaikōrero: The World of Māori Oratory was published in English. It won the E. H. McCormick Award for non-fiction at the book awards and has been reprinted several times.

Elworthy said that experience helped convince him there could be a similar demand for books in te reo, without English translations, particularly as language learners become more proficient and seek more immersion in Māori.

He Kupu Tuku Iho: Ko te Reo Maori te Tatau ki te Ao co-author, Wharehuia Milroy. Photo / Supplied
He Kupu Tuku Iho: Ko te Reo Maori te Tatau ki te Ao co-author, Wharehuia Milroy. Photo / Supplied

He says books in te reo won't sell if there are no readers and there won't be readers if there is nothing new — and more complex — for them to read. He says the authors of AUP's latest book He Kupu Tuku Iho: Ko te Reo Māori te Tatau ki te Ao, Tīmoti Kāretu and Wharehuia Milroy, are two of our greatest living exponents of te reo and it would be "pathetic" if they couldn't get their work published in the language.

"Their ideas need to be put on paper; part of what we're getting across is the culture and their expertise or insights into it and part of that is their te reo," says Elworthy.

"The Māori language is the way into the Māori world so it felt to try to do this book in English would be to take something away from it. I'm just not going to ask Māori authors to turn their work into English any more."

He says there are strong advance orders for He Kupu Tuku Iho in which authors
Kāretu and Milroy look into "key aspects" of the Māori language and culture.

He Kupu Tuku Iho: Ko te Reo Maori te Tatau ki te Ao co-author, Sir Timoti Karetu.Photo / Supplied
He Kupu Tuku Iho: Ko te Reo Maori te Tatau ki te Ao co-author, Sir Timoti Karetu.Photo / Supplied

Kāretu, the inaugural Māori Language Commissioner, says people no longer turn their heads when they hear te reo spoken in public and the younger generation, in particular, is more active in the language revival movement. He has a strong message for those who continue to say there is no use for te reo.

"They are entitled to their opinions but in my world, it's the dominant language."

Taki Rua's Wellington season of the play He Kura E Huna Ana was a sell-out. Three years in development, it is the company's first adult-orientated te reo production but it creates and tours te reo productions for children every year.

"I think we're at the point where there's a growing appetite and interest," says Taki Rua kahukura/chief executive Tānemahuta Gray.

"If we don't do something about it, and commit to this as a country, the language could still die out and we will be the poorer for it. It's our point of difference and it's about a way to see the world — a world view that gives you different perspectives and approaches — so let's empower ourselves and grow it."

Gray says He Kura E Huna Ana, written by Māori language advocate Hōhepa Waitoa, is for everyone because it talks about the importance of not losing sight of our origins.

"We want to encourage people to come out and see the play to broaden their experience of the language. I'd like adults who are learning te reo to come along as well as those who are already speakers to hear it in a new setting and I'm encouraging those who don't speak te reo to experience theatre in a different language and challenge themselves to follow the narrative."

He Kura E Huna Ana is directed by well-known actress and theatre-maker Nancy Brunning. She says it's an exciting project because it means more te reo to hear.

"We're always really keen for more opportunities to get the language out there," says Brunning. "The more that New Zealanders see and hear that the language is part of a living culture — and the more we can do to use theatre to reach people from all walks of life — the less afraid people will be."

Anecdotal evidence seems to point to more of us learning Māori. Lecturer in te reo Māori at AUT, Hēmi Kelly told the Herald earlier this year that demand for classes meant there were waiting lists for beginner te reo papers.

Four months on, Kelly, author of the book A Māori Word A Day, says demand shows no sign of abating.

"We've still got waiting lists and people from all walks of life — all ages, different ethnicities, work backgrounds and genders — are coming along," he says. "It's really exciting to see that people are interested in the language and the culture and have started to pursue it."

Kelly says with every university course, there are fewer students as papers progress but he expects to see the numbers start to grow for advanced te reo papers and points out that those students will want more sophisticated resources. He credits the growth of interest, and use, to initiatives ushered in by the Māori Language Act 1987, which gave official status to te reo and led to the establishment of the Māori Language Commission.

"I think all those initiatives and developments are starting to come to fruition."

The most recent statistics, from five years ago, tell a more nuanced story. The 2013 Te Kupenga survey found that 106,500 (or 22.6 per cent of) Māori could speak te reo Māori very well, well, or fairly well. While this was an increase from 72,000 (or 19.8 per cent) from 2001, the largest change was in those who speak no more than a few words or phrases. Most of this group rated their ability to speak as not very well.

Since 2001, all age groups — with the exception of those aged 25-34 years — have experienced declines in the rate of Māori who can speak te reo Māori. The greatest decline was for Māori aged 55 years or above, who dropped from just under a half in 2001 to under a third in 2013.

In 2013, 125,352 Māori (21.3 per cent) could hold a conversation about a lot of everyday things in te reo Māori, a 4.8 per cent decrease from the 2006 Census. This is despite the Māori population having grown by over 100,000 since 2001.

Data from this year's census is still being collated.

Lowdown

He Kupu Tuku Iho: Ko te Reo Māori te Tatau ki te Ao

by Tīmoti Kāretu and Wharehuia Milroy

(Auckland University Press, $60 — released June 30)

He Kura E Huna AnaHerald Theatre, Tuesday, June 26 — Saturday, June 30