In the 12 years during which I have had the privilege and pleasure of learning te reo Māori, my appreciation of its depth and beauty and my understanding of how much the language is fundamentally connected to the natural world has grown. There is no doubt about it, I feel infinitely more settled in my own skin for having climbed aboard this waka reo.
I have noticed this in particular with the use of kupu whakarite, or metaphor in te reo, and the way the characteristics of birds, trees, stars, the sea or the land become analogies for the behaviour of people. For example: "He manawa tītī" - "the heart of a tītī/ muttonbird" - which is a beautiful expression for someone who sticks at something no matter what, so-called because the tītī are spectacular long-distance migratory birds.
One of my favourites is: "he hoe kōnukenuke" - a crooked paddle, an expression for an unreliable person because when you're in a boat with a crooked paddle you'll end up going round in circles. Another one I think we can all relate to is: "he whakarongo tai" - a speaker who drones on and on - so it is literally like "listening to the waves". There's a reason we generally sleep well to the sound of the sea, right?
Imagine if these sayings were just everyday expressions in Aotearoa.
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They are uniquely of this country and are entirely relatable to any person born here. As New Zealanders nobody lives far from the sea, we love the bush, some of us sail or climb mountains - we are renowned for being a nature-loving country. And although some of these kupu whakarite are of ancient times and referencing species no longer with us, for example, "he puku moa" - the stomach of a moa, meaning someone who is a glutton, most of them are referring to things we see every day.
Who do you know who is a songbird? Then this person is "he korokoro Tūī", the throat of the Tūī. Is there someone in your life who is an excellent proofreader, someone with an eye for detail? Instead of saying they are sharp as a tack, or eagle-eyed, you could thank them for being "he kanohi hōmiromiro", meaning the (sharp) eyes of the miromiro bird. In the same way we use the expression "an empty vessel makes the most noise" we could also use "he kākā waha nui" - the loud-mouthed parrot. Maybe the child who has ants in their pants would prefer to hear that they are "he tou tīwaiwaka" - the flitting tail of a fantail. All of these expressions stem from the keen observations by tīpuna who lived and breathed in the natural world.
I truly believe that te reo Māori is a pathway for Pākehā to connect to and express our "Aotearoatanga", our lived experience of growing up in New Zealand, without us resorting to claiming the Māori culture as our own. I see New Zealanders proudly wearing taonga pounamu as a sign of where we're from but if we're prepared to be curious, and take a moment to download the Māori dictionary app, there are so many more opportunities to have meaningful engagement with te ao Māori, and right on our doorstep.
Ko te reo Māori te kākahu o te whakaaro, te huarahi i te ao tūroa (nā Tā Hēmi Henare, 1984). The Māori language is the cloak of thought and a pathway to the natural world.
Jennifer Te Atamira Ward-Lealand is New Zealand of the Year 2020, actress, director, and a champion of te reo Māori
Colour me in
Parewai Pahewa Johnson, a pupil at Te Kura Kaupapa ō Te Kōtuku, has drawn this illustration depicting te reo Māori at the heart of everything. Click here to open a larger format that can be downloaded.