Former RNZ journalist Leigh-Marama McLachlan, whose first language is te reo Māori, used to have listeners email her after a story, concerned she was pronouncing her kupu wrong.

Instead of "whānau" for family, with a sharp "F" sound at the beginning, McLachlan would pronounce it "w'ānau".

"I'd get all these listeners emailing in, really concerned, saying, 'Your journalist is saying it all wrong!'"

But she'd take the time to respond, and explain that it was in fact her reo, her mita, or dialect.

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"It was really bad when it was a story about Whānau Ora. But people were generally surprised, but interested."

McLachlan, of Te Ātihaunui ā Papārangi, grew up in Whanganui speaking her mita.

"It's just what we speak here, it's normal," she tells the Herald from Whanganui, where she returned to raise her tamariki among their mita, and work with her iwi.

Mita can involve dropping a consonant, a glottal stop or replacing a letter with another, and are all unique indicators of the country's different iwi.

Mita also include different kupu/words, whakatauki/idioms, tikanga/customs and waiata/songs.

In Northland with Ngāpuhi, instead of hearing whakarongo, to listen - with a sharp "F" sound at the beginning - you are more likely to hear it being pronounced as "hakarongo".

Tūhoe speakers change the "ng" sound into an "n" sound and whakarongo becomes "whakarono".

The Whanganui River. Photo / Eleanor Hughes
The Whanganui River. Photo / Eleanor Hughes

Ngāi Tahu - Kai Tahu - in the South Island change the "ng" sound into a "k" sound and it becomes: "whakaroko".

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In Whanganui they say "ana" for yes, instead of "āe", which is heard across most of Aoteaora.

But the most distinct aspect is the "Wh", which is like a "W" with a really soft almost non-existent "H".

"It's not uncommon for the kaikorero (speaker on marae) to poke fun at us for it. But it is really cool, I love being from Whanganui," said McLachlan, pronouncing the name of her city with a soft H.

The sound is believed to have come from the whisping noise the wind made further up their awa tūpuna, Whanganui, McLachlan said.

So significant is mita, that when the "H" was restored into the official name of city in 2015, Ngāti Rangi historian Che Wilson previously told the Herald "everybody in the room cried".

"Wanganui" has no meaning, whereas "Whanganui" refers to "the long wait", which originated from Te Whanga-nui-a-Kupe, referring to the extended wait for the return of the great Pacific navigator Kupe from his exploration.

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McLachlan said she was really proud to speak it on RNZ, to represent her iwi, and raise awareness.

"Our dialects are so people know where we are from, so Māori from across the motu can identify our roots.

"It acknowledges tūpuna, whakapapa, whanaungatanga - it is our reo"

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University of Auckland Te Puna Wānanga senior lecturer Dr Peter J Keegan, of Waikato-Maniapoto and Ngāti Porou, said mita were becoming less common as there was more mingling.

"The difference between now and, say, the 1700s is that people were very isolated then and didn't talk between each other a great deal.

"Whereas now a lot of people are moving around, living together in urban areas, and there is a levelling of the dialects."

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It was similar to English, with dialects lost over time, and evolving - such as the Kiwi dialect, heavily influenced by Māori.

However within iwi and the regions, mita remained strong.

Keegan said he used mita in formal settings as an identifier, but in general conversation he would revert to a more general reo Māori.

Over time he saw dialects of the Far North and eastern North Island iwi as dominating, as that was where most people came from.

"We have recordings of mita - we are not going to lose them. But for now for me, it is more important to have people speaking te reo, than worrying about mita.

"My advice is learn as much as you can, where you can, and in how you can fit it into your life.

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"Then once you are proficient and want to learn a dialect those doors are open to you."

University of Waikato te reo Māori lecturer Dr Ēnoka Murphy, who has been teaching te reo for more than 30 years and still seen it decline, said the most important thing right now was to learn te reo.

The percentage of Māori being able to speak te reo has dropped from over 25 per cent in 2001 to under 19 per cent in 2018.

While wānanga outside the main centres would likely be teaching in the mita of their rohe, in more urban areas, like Kirikiriroa where he taught, they used a more common reo.

"One we can all understand," Murphy said.

But in his classes he impressed on his tauira the importance of mita, and had fears it would become less common.

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"Mita is everything. So I say to my tauira, when you go home, listen to how they say it, and forget everything I taught you."

Te Mātāwai is an independent entity set up under Te Ture mō Te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Act), which aims to promote the use of te reo in homes and the community.

Its Maihi Māori 2017-2040 Strategy, compiled through hui with stakeholders nationwide, includes high-level objectives to promote te mita o te reo Māori of iwi, hapū and whānau.

Kaiwhakahaere rangahau Ria Tomoana said their organisation provided funding for initiatives to enhance mita, with examples including iwi compiling databases of kupu specific to them.

"Te Mātāwai aims to return the language into a nurturing language, a language you can grow up with, and that locates you to where you are.

"There is a role for standardisation when there is nothing. But now there is a good fabric, and these mita make it all the richer."

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A few mita o te reo Māori, dialects

• In Northland with Ngāpuhi, instead of hearing whakarongo, to listen - with a sharp "F" sound at the beginning - you are more likely to hear it being pronounced as "hakarongo".

• Tūhoe speakers change the "ng" sound into an "n" sound and whakarongo becomes "whakarono".

• Ngāi Tahu - Kai Tahu - in the South Island change the "ng" sound into a "k" sound and it becomes: "whakaroko".

• In Whanganui/Taranaki, the "wh" sound becomes a glottal stop - where the "h" is lost altogether, so whakarongo becomes: "w'akarongo".