Voiceover artist Dave Ward recently attracted media attention for publicly rejecting a client's request to pronounce Waimate the "white way".

"My voice pays our mortgage and I won't lend it to this," declared Ward in a Tweet.

While the request's phrasing could be considered ignorant at best and racist at worst, this is not the first time the pronunciation of Māori words has stoked the online fires.

Last year, social media commenters forced Dulux back into the studio to re-record an ad featuring incorrect pronunciation of Māori place names; Google initiated an ambitious project to update pronunciation of as many as 8900 place names in its navigation app; and after five decades of anglicisation, Radio Hauraki was phonetically decolonised last year.


These efforts haven't always met with a positive response.

"When we updated the pronunciation of Radio Hauraki, we had a lot of positive feedback but I was also surprised at the amount of negative feedback we had," NZME entertainment director Dean Buchanan told the Herald. "It demonstrated we've still got a long way to go."

In such situations, says Victoria University linguistics professor Miriam Meyerhoff, "there are two sets of norms that are clashing". "You have what people consider most common usage and then you have what people consider to be most appropriate usage." Meyerhoff veers away from describing one pronunciation as "correct" and another as "incorrect," calling that a red herring which detracts from the crux of the debate.

"It's more about what's socially appropriate and how that's changed in New Zealand," she says.

"Even people who are making an effort sometimes misfire ... I find the pronunciation of [the Māori] 'ao' really interesting because the way people feel they have to say it now, it sounds exactly like [the English] 'ou'. They've over-corrected in a sense. Is that right? No. But it's appropriate and it's becoming the norm."

The media didn't necessarily establish the 'white' pronunciation of Māori words as a rule, but they did help to normalise it through generations of radio and television hosts, whose voices always leaned north, toward the Queen's English.

"A lot of the time the media just mirrors societal norms, and as societal norms change, the media changes," says Meyerhoff. "I see it very much as a symbiotic relationship. They feed each other."

It's not just Māori pronunciation that prompts comment. The mockery that sometimes follows Simon Bridges' Westie twang seems to indicate that New Zealand is still getting used to the sound of its own voice in the media.


Margaret Mutu, a professor of Māori Studies at Auckland University, says anglicisation of Māori words historically led to first-language Te Reo speakers not recognising what was being said to them. And that the willingness of broadcasters and media personalities to embrace Māori pronunciation has the dual effect of connecting with first-language speakers and familiarising non-Māori people with how words are said in the language.

"The sooner everyone is in that position where the Māori language is quite comfortable for everybody in this country, there will not be an issue," Mutu says.

In the interim, this might mean a few people in Waimate feel a little uncertain when they hear a reference to their hometown on a radio ad. But this seems a small price to pay for acknowledging New Zealand's heritage and giving our media a uniquely Kiwi voice.