Holding Maori Language Week in the chill of winter somehow makes the challenges that Te Reo face seem that much bleaker.

It's certainly a tough world out there for minority languages, especially those battling against the relentless onslaught of English. Of course, no language can remain an island entire of itself, and from the late eighteenth century, Te Reo joined the continent of all languages, but not as a fraternal member so much as an unexpected arrival vying for survival. From that point on, it has been locked in a ruthless Darwinian-type contest of natural selection.

If it sounds all red in tooth and claw, it should. The last century has seen more of the world's languages perish than at any previous time in human history, and if anything, that trend is accelerating.

In the case of Te Reo, the reassurances of revival - which a generation ago were being aired so confidently - continue to be rehearsed. However, increasingly, there are doubts lurking behind hyperbole, with some of the measures that once promised revitalisation now looking more palliative than rejuvenating.


Yes, the language is the cradle of the culture, but maybe we need to look beyond that idea if there is to be any real chance of saving Te Reo from a terminal fate.

While language is cultural, in a more fundamental sense, it is biological. If you think of languages as organisms, then the problems Te Reo is confronting suddenly appear in a new light.

The innate trait of any viable organism is not just to exist but to expand, and this expansion is vital. As Nietzsche noted when comparing cultures to living entities, "attempts to give an organism duration without the goal of reproduction destroy it."

And when it comes to reproductive virility in languages, none comes close to English. It spreads out swiftly into new territories, where it sinks its roots and eventually becomes part of its adopted linguistic landscape.

Yet, even while it is establishing itself in one location, English continually seeks out new areas to colonise. Neither regulation nor stubborn cultural resistance has so far proven able to stop it.

In nineteenth-century New Zealand, this expansion occurred partly because of the enormous self-confidence of English speakers. In the early 1840s, for example, when Europeans made up just around five per cent of the country's population, they had already succeeded in making English the language of government, most commerce, the judiciary, the civil service, and all the other tributaries of national power.

And despite the initial paucity of the number of its speakers, English reproduced rapidly in New Zealand during the 1800s, gradually displacing Te Reo and cloning the values of its speakers throughout the colony.

So how does Te Reo fit into this biological-type linguistic struggle, where extinction, not survival, is the norm? Perhaps some of the traits that English possesses contain clues to its success, and could be adopted by Te Reo.


Firstly, English has no single culture attached to it, and so can be spoken by and belong to anyone, and is malleable enough to fit just about any society. The speakers of Te Reo, by contrast, are overwhelmingly Maori. The language has yet to breach the ethnic border that so far has hemmed it to a limited community of speakers.

Secondly, there is little emphasis on the purity of English's pronunciation. Culturally, English spoken with an American accent has been the most influential form of the language globally in the post-World War II era, whereas English spoken with an Indian accent is now the single most popular form of pronunciation.

English is also shameless about its mixed paternity. Its vocabulary is a chaotic amalgam of other languages, and it continues to create and absorb words to enrich itself.

In addition, English has a perceived value that leads to parents in many non-English-speaking countries choosing it as the preferred second language for their children to learn. Few of these parents would be as motivated for their offspring to learn English is the main reason was to prevent English from disappearing as a living language.

Each of these features would involve some compromise - some of them possibly painful to purists - if they were to become characteristics of Te Reo, but when something is at risk of extinction, all avenues for survival should be explored.

Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology.