Te reo Māori is a living, breathing entity, enriched by new kupu (words) every year that foster its growth and evolution.

As a lecturer and translator, words fascinate me, in particular the introduction of new kupu to the language.

Māori is a part of the Polynesian language family and not dissimilar to Cook Island Māori, Tahitian, or Hawaiian. I've had interesting exchanges with elders in marketplaces in Rarotonga and Pape'ete while trying to secure a bargain. Speaking te reo Māori, especially in Tahiti where few people speak English, proved a huge advantage.

Although we were unable to understand everything said to each other, in speaking our respective languages, we were able to comprehend enough to make the transaction more comfortable and have a laugh at the same time.

It's inevitable that my ancestors, at some point, left those sunny shores and migrated south to Aotearoa. Why, I sometimes ask myself.

On arriving here, a large corpus of language was no longer relevant and, importantly, new words were needed.

The word niu (coconut), for example, would have become obsolete along with terms used to describe how it was harvested and prepared. Moa (chicken) made the cut, though, although the moa they stumbled upon here were a lot larger than those they left behind in the islands.

Since Māori set foot on these shores, they have been in the business of creating new words. That business boomed with the arrival of later immigrants, and it's still growing today. 

The green glass bottle introduced by early settlers, for example, was termed pounamu because it resembled our very own greenstone. The liquid I'm guessing it contained, also new to this land, was called waipiro (alcohol), which is made up of two words, wai (water) and piro (rotten or putrid). The round-shaped spectacles early missionaries wore were given the name mōwhiti (ring or hoop), and the book they carried in hand, pukapuka.

These three methods of creating new words are still carried out by Māori-speaking communities today. In looking at pounamu and mōwhiti, Māori developed a name for new technology based on its likeness to something that already existed in their own world.

Waipiro consists of two Māori words merged to form one, while pukapuka is a transliteration of the English word book.

Contemporary examples that follow these methods set in place by the ancestors include umu (oven), the word for the native earth oven; rorohiko (computer), formed by merging roro (brain) and hiko (electric), and īmēra (email), a good old transliteration.

When Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Maori Language Commission) was established in 1987, it was responsible for creating a great number of new words. Today, the responsibility sits mostly with the speakers of the language.

In some cases, we see two or three words organically appear from within the community. Take the word selfie - there's ahau-i, matatahi and kiriāhua. So, who decides which word should be used? From where I'm standing, kiriāhua seems to have trumped its contenders. Ultimately, the Māori-speaking community and the test of time decide.

Words are accepted over time based on how clearly they're understood, how apt and relevant they are and also who uses and promotes them.

Ko tōku reo tōku ohooho, tōku māpihi maurea, tōku whakakai marihi - My language is my precious gift, my object of affection and my prized ornament.

• Hēmi Kelly, is a te reo Māori lecturer at AUT, translator and author. He is Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Tahu, and Ngāti Whāoa

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.