Kia kōrerohia te reo Māori in ngā ara matua o ngā taone katoa o Aotearoa, Māori mai, Pākehā mai.
“Kia ora,” they call out cheerfully as they climb into my cab.
I reply in kind, or with the more formal “tēnā koe”, then ask “pēhea ana?” the short version of “kei te pēhea a koe?” or “e pēhea ana koe?” (how are you?).
That’s usually the end of the conversation. Sometimes it gets beyond “kei te haere koe ki hea? (Where are you going), but not often. Conservative commentators’ and politicians’ fears that Aotearoa is about to be overwhelmed by reo Māori seem unfounded. I believe the reverse is true - that despite many attempts at revitalisation, te reo remains in peril.
We’ve been told reo Māori is in jeopardy since the 1970s. As recently as 2020, a mathematical model seemed to show its use was on a downward path.
One of the study’s authors, the University of Canterbury’s Dr Michael Plank, came to the unsurprising conclusion that language loss could be reversed by “investing in resources, investing teachers, schools and iwi to run their own language revitalisation programmes”.
I went to one of those schools, AUT University. They had night classes that fitted in with my work at the time, subediting for Fairfax Media.
Why did I want to learn reo Māori, despite being a Pākehā?
First, my great-grandfather Cornelius Mahoney, a complex character, emigrated from Australia to New Zealand in 1879 and went straight to a pre-arranged teaching position at Riverton School.
After spending a decade-plus moving about Otago, he became headmaster at Hiruhārama (Jerusalem) in Manawatū, then at Rūātoki in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, in the heart of Ngāi Tūhoe rohe. During those years he became fluent in reo Māori.
Little is known about his time at Hiruhārama. Historian Monty Soutar says he is remembered only as a “stern disciplinarian” - not very reassuring given that harsh treatment was the norm.
My mother recalls being introduced to Guide Rangi, who had been a student teacher at Rūātoki, at a function in Rotorua during World War II. She gave Mum a pitying look. “You’re not married to Cornelius Mahoney’s grandson, are you? He was a terrible man,” she said.
He doesn’t appear in Judith Binney’s Mihaia, despite having been a friend of Rua Kēnana’s, according to family lore. He was frequently drunk and died young. His binges were legendary, and according to family mythology, he was often cared for by Māori whānau.
But he was also sufficiently respected for the names of four of his sons, three of whom were killed during World War I, to be inscribed on the Tūhoe Roll of Honour at Rewarewa Marae, Ruātoki.
So if my great-grandfather could speak the first language of my country, why couldn’t I, I started asking myself?
Through his model I could see it was possible for Pākeha and Māori to co-exist without domination by one culture and that at least part of the Treaty of Waitangi could be upheld.
I could also see that Māori had taken massive steps - sometimes under duress - to accommodate Pākehā, including learning English. Yet there had been little movement the other way.
I wanted to know what place names meant. I wanted to be able to enjoy reo Māori’s poetry, to understand the culture of my country and some of its history. Most of all, for a long time I had wondered why so many Kiwis seemed to think we are part of the United Kingdom, when we so obviously sit in a corner of the Polynesian triangle.
I had told people I was going to study reo Māori for years but never got around to it.
In 2010, another academic paper suggested reo Māori was on the road to extinction. Why would people lament the extinction of animals and plants, yet allow a language and culture to die? That spurred me to make a contribution to te reo’s survival - however small.
I turned up at AUT’s Ngā Wai o Horotiu marae on a Monday evening for my first free night class, full of self-doubt and fear of failure. I positioned myself close to the door of the wharenui so, if I proved incapable of learning aged 60, I had an easy escape route.
For my first few weeks I remained anxious as I struggled with pronunciation, tenses, vocabulary and the complexities of another way of viewing the world, which seemed far more closely aligned to human relationships than the English outlook. With me, with you, over there (tēnei, tēnā, tērā) had to be absorbed quickly. I was obviously miles behind some Māori classmates, who’d had earlier contact with the language through whānau or Kōhanga Reo.
Then classmates started disappearing.
Pronouns seemed too much for many of them.
Me, you, he/she/it (ahau/au, koe, ia), We two, we two but not you, you two, those two (taua, maua, korua, raua) and the similar pronouns for three or more (tatou, matou, koutou, ratou) drove some away. By contrast I was relieved that I finally had a textbook table I could refer to.
But if I had thought pronouns were difficult, possessive pronouns were truly mind-blowing.
Possession comes in two classes in reo (and other Polynesian languages), “a” and “o”.
For instance tākū and tōku, both meaning “mine”, are applied to either those people and things you have power over or those that control you - tōkū tuakana (elder brother), tāku teina (younger brother).
Pupils have to learn which class people and objects fall in. Deciding quickly whether tō matau or tā matau (ours but not yours) applies, or whether to use ō matau or ā matau (for possession of plural objects) takes time and dedication.
Animals, for instance, are in the “a” class and “my cats” is “āku ngeru” but modes of transport are in the “o” class so it’s “ōku hoihoi” (my horses).
At one noho marae (a weekend of learning on a marae) one of my classmates imploded when I explained that the possessive form of a verb was also the imperative. “How can that work?” he asked. “Really well. Try it. You can tell by sentence structure and context.” But he obviously didn’t believe me - and didn’t last.
Miraculously, I finished my first semester with an A-plus.
“Nā te hekenga werawera, ā, nā te whakapeto ngoi, i ako ai te reo Māori,” announced my third-year kaiako (teacher), the formidable Dean Mahuta. It translates roughly as: “Reo Māori is learned through sweat and exhaustion.”
He wasn’t wrong. His class was one of the most challenging experiences of my life - and among the most rewarding. A second-year kaiawhina (assistant) told me she had felt foolish and inadequate throughout the third-year Te Māhuri course. Now I understood.
Towards the end of that year, my grades fell off. I had met (and was living with) a woman I would soon marry. I was working hard at Fairfax and those distractions, combined with the massive demands of the course (six hours of tutorials per week and piles of homework), meant I only scraped by at the end of the year.
I was nevertheless extremely proud to have completed and passed such a challenging course. I could hold relatively long conversations in te reo, understood far more about the world I lived in and could look at the islands of Tīkapa Moana and understand their names and some of the history that goes with them. I hadn’t completed the prescribed 4000-word essay in reo Māori but had produced more than 2000 words.
I had been a lazy, unengaged pupil at school and a university dropout, yet I had stuck to this course and completed it.
Part of that was down to being an adult, the rest to the quality of teaching. I found a co-operative group approach much more satisfying than sitting in a class or lecture room, listening to one person. And I met some great people along to way.
Most of all, I have never felt so supported. My gratitude to Whaea Maaki Howard, Whaea Erana Foster and Matua Dean for their kindness, patience and incredible knowledge.
You won’t learn reo Māori (or any other language) without plenty of work. But it can be a lot of fun.
For Pākehā, the death of reo Māori would be an observed tragedy, for Māori a lived tragedy. But Pākehā can play some small part in averting that tragic outcome. I hope I have made my contribution.
Jim Mahoney is an award-winning journalist who retired to Waiheke Island and drives a cab.