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Te reo maori

Te reo Māori is the language of the Māori people of New Zealand. Te reo Māori is an official language in New Zealand, along with English and New Zealand Sign Language. It was made official in 1987.

Māori is a Polynesian language, and part of the Austronesian language family. There are three major dialects – eastern North Island, western North Island and South Island Māori. 

Story Summary [taken from Te Ara]: 

Pākehā [New Zealanders primarily of European descent] encounter te reo
The first Europeans in New Zealand had to learn Māori to communicate. Māori was not a written language before Europeans arrived. Early spelling was varied, but became more standardised from the 1820s. Missionary William Williams published a Māori dictionary in 1844. Writing in Māori became important as Pākehā tried to buy Māori land. 

English spreads
As European settlement increased, there were more English speakers. Māori communities mostly continued to speak Māori. In the later 19th century laws specially affecting Māori were translated into Māori, and interpreters were appointed to Parliament. Missionary schools had operated in Māori, but from 1847 children had to be taught in English.

Language decline
By the early 20th century more Māori spoke English as well as Māori. Over the 20th century the education system promoted English, many Māori men died in the world wars, and urban migration increased contact with Pākehā. English became the main language spoken in Māori homes, and many people saw it as the language of success and advancement.

New initiatives

In the later 20th century Māori studies courses were set up in universities. Some students became aware of issues such as land rights and language loss. In 1972 over 30,000 people signed a petition asking for te reo Māori to be taught in schools. Efforts to secure the survival of the Māori language stepped up a gear in 1985, when Māori was made an official language of New Zealand under the Maori Language Act 1987.

Read the whole story of Te reo Māori here.

Pronunciation guide

There are five vowels and ten consonant sounds in the Māori alphabet.

  • five vowels: a, e, i, o, u

  • eight consonants: h, k, m n, p, r, t, w

  • two digraphs (two letters that combine to form one sound): wh, ng.


While there are five vowels, combinations of vowels (diphthongs) are common. You should regard the set of vowel sounds as a much larger group than simply the five vowels themselves.

A vowel can be long or short. A long sound is shown by a macron (a bar appearing over a vowel to indicate it is lengthened during pronunciation: e.g. ‘ā’ as in motokā). Orthographic conventions advise when a macron is used.


Māori language doesn’t have consonant clusters (a group or sequence of consonants that appear together in a syllable without a vowel between them).

Consonants are mainly pronounced as they are in English. The exceptions being:


Varies depending on which vowel appears after it. When succeeded by an ‘a’, ‘e’ or ‘o’, it’s pronounced with little or no sibiliant (s) sound.

When followed by an ‘i’ or ‘u’, it includes a slight sibilant sound, however not nearly as much as an English ‘t’.


Commonly called a ‘rolled’ or ‘liquid’ r. If you’re able to imitate the purring sound of a cat, you’ll know exactly what’s required to pronounce the consonant correctly. Failing this, the sound you should aim for is something similar to an English ‘d’ – but softer.


The ‘ng’ digraph (representing the combined sound of two consonants) is pronounced as it sounds in the English word ‘singer'. A common mistake is to pronounce it as it appears in the word ‘finger’.

The ‘wh’ digraph is usually pronounced as an English ‘ f’ sound.

Listen here how the vowels, consonants and digraphs are pronounced. 


Local place names

To find a full list of local place names and associated stories visit the Ngāi Tahu Atlas to see over 1,000 traditional place names in Te Waipounamu.



Waitaki River = Tears of Aoraki

Te Kaihīnaki [Moeraki Boulders] = Te Kaihīnaki are the round food-baskets and water-carrying gourds of the Ārai Te Uru canoe that capsized further down the coastline at Matakaea

Matakaea [Shag Point] = The name Matakaea recalls the tradition of the Ārai Te Uru canoe

Ōmarama [Omarama] = Place of Light

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