Kelvin Davis wants to waste a lot of money. Nothing odd about that. Davis is a politician and politicians have been wasting money since Adam was an orchardist.

But the money that Davis wants to waste is your money and mine, and since I can explain precisely why he would be wasting it, I believe it is my duty to do so. Though I doubt it will make any difference.

Davis has a dream. It is that the children born in 2018 become as fluent in te reo as they do in English and that as adults they flick easily from one language to the other. To this end he would like to see vast sums of money poured into the teaching of te reo in schools.

It's a pretty dream. It's one that I would be delighted to see come true. But it will not come true.


Even if the Government were to dedicate every tax dollar it collects to the teaching of te reo from this day forth and even if it obliged every teacher at every school to teach in te reo and nothing else from dawn to dusk on pain of being beaten to death with moa bones, it would still not come true. For it defies the undefiable. It defies evolution.

Maori carvings at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands. What's causing the extinction of languages is global communications. Especially the internet. Getty Images
Maori carvings at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands. What's causing the extinction of languages is global communications. Especially the internet. Getty Images

Languages are like species. Exactly. They evolve to suit an environment. And they all eventually die or evolve into something else. It's how the blind truth of evolution runs.

Currently we are undergoing a mass extinction of languages just as we are of species. There are about 6000 human languages and one dies every few weeks. And when it does, that's that. No language has ever returned from the dead, just as no species has.

What's causing the extinction of species is human expansion. We're changing the environment. Species can't adapt fast enough. They die. What's causing the extinction of languages is global communications. Especially the internet.

The big internet companies are American. They beam images of Western prosperity and ease. To most people in the world the wealth is stupendous. It lures them, fills them with desire. And the key to that life, the key that opens the door to prosperity, is, or appears to be, English. Not French, not the yodelling language of the Swiss Alps, not Algonquin, and not te reo. English has become the language of global power. So other languages die.

The process has been seen a million times before but never on this scale.

Consider Gaul, which is now France. When the Romans conquered it, it was a mass of little local languages. Where are they now? Gone. Why? Because Latin became the language of power. If you spoke the language of the conquerors you had access to their society and their wealth. So the little languages died. It didn't take that long. The language we now know as French is just a bastardised form of Latin. Precisely the same is true of Spanish. It is Latin corrupted.

Spanish then went and did the same thing. It sailed the Atlantic and displaced the little languages of South America. It became a monopoly power on the continent.


English too evolved from conquest. When the Angles, Saxons, Danes and co arrived in Britain the local tongues were Celtic. The invaders seized power and drove the local languages into the remote and mountainous parts where thy didn't bother to follow. Hence the residual Celtic tongues of Welsh and Scots and Irish Gaelic, and also Cornish which died a couple of hundred years ago.

In turn the Anglo-Saxons were overwhelmed by the Normans in 1066 and Germanic English had to adapt or die. It adapted, absorbing vast quantities of Latinate French. To the point that 500 years later Shakespeare could write of blood that would "the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red". The long words are Latinate, the short ones Germanic and they say the same thing.

English is a hard language to speak well. But because it is syntactically simple it is easy to speak badly. Which suits it well to becoming the first global tongue. Anyone with aspiration or ambition will want it, and will take no interest in a language that doesn't help. And there's nothing that Kelvin Davis can do about it.

Te reo, along with most of the 6000 languages around the world, is dying. Its environment has changed. No amount of teaching or well wishing or immersion in schools or anything else will ever do more than keep the language on life support. That's not a political statement. That's a statement of observable linguistic fact. Believing otherwise is like believing that kakapo will once again waddle down Queen St.