Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Te Reo, a struggling language
I heard a fascinating and slightly depressing talk about the state of the Maori language yesterday.
The presentation began with an address in Maori, a beautiful language when uttered by a fluent speaker, sing-songy, passionate, hard, but with a gentle lilt. I must admit that, having found myself hypnotically watching Maori TV and even listening to one of the dozens of Maori radio stations, I had supposed the language was in better shape than it actually is.
Turns out it's on life support and running the real danger of becoming nothing more than a ceremonial language used to prettify formal events and high school hakas. And nothing more. There are about 660,000 Maori in New Zealand, making up roughly 15 percent of the population. While there are literally no pure blood Maori left anymore, that is not important as, say, it is for Native Americans. One is Maori if one can trace ones roots back to certain ancestors. In addition, there are said to be about 100,000 Maori living in Australia.
While official census numbers state that about a quarter of the Maori people speak the language, known as Te Reo, to some degree, it is to what degree that is important. We were told yesterday that, in reality, there are perhaps only 33,000 fluent Maori speakers. Perhaps twice that number if you count people who are highly proficient.
Worse still, the Maori language is adapting to the modern world and evolving into an anglocized form that the ancestors would not recognize. While the speakers did say that government could do more, this was not a "give-us-stuff" session; much of the fault, the speakers said, was due to a lack of time in a busy world, laziness, and a shortage of action to match the much-stated passion of many Maori to keep the language alive.
So much of New Zealand's cultural identity is based on the Maori that it would be a tragedy if, at this tipping point, the language was allowed to atrophy. To understand the culture, to keep it vibrant and alive and out of the museum, you need the language.
It is true that as far as indigenous cultures in once-colonized countries go, New Zealand is leaps and bounds ahead of most other nations. The Treaty of Waitangi, the document that governs the relations between Maori and the state, is a cherished constitution, but still a matter of some controversy, with claims regularly heard before a tribunal. Maori rights and spheres of interest are still evolving - almost weekly, it appears to me during my year in New Zealand.
The Maori culture is respected and embraced. Its symbols, from the moko tattoos to the haka, are known all over the world. Still, if the language dies, the heart of the culture goes with it.
Arohatia te reo. Love the language, and give it some help.