Te Reo: Use and Relevance of the Maori Language

A 1930 edition of "First Lessons in Maori" by William Leonard Williams, Bishop of Waiapu from 1895 to 1909. It was first published in 1862.

The Waitangi Tribunal fears for the future of te reo, the Maori language that has its roots in Bronze Age Asia.

According to historical linguists, te reo traces to the languages known as the Proto-Austronesian, which originated on the island of Taiwan some 5,000 years ago. As they moved eastward with the great migrations, the languages of the Pacific evolved and differentiated into numerous groups and sub-groups as they went.

Te reo Maori only became distinct from the languages of other Polynesian cultures as its people settled Aotearoa New Zealand, adapting their tongue to fit the new social and physical environment. Te reo did not depart from its antecedents so much however, as to lose its strong linguistic links to the languages of neighbouring cultures, particularly Rarotongan, Hawaiian and those of French Polynesia.

Early Development of Te Reo Maori

In a mere five centuries te reo developed as a rich and distinctive language, fully functional in the transmission of all the knowledge the Maori people had of their world. With no written language system, Maori culture embraced a wide array of stories, songs and proverbs to pass the traditions and values of the ancestors down through the generations. It fell upon the grandparents to educate the mokopuna (their grandchildren) in the ways of the tangata whenua (people for the land).

European settlement of New Zealand had little immediate impact on the use of te reo. For some decades following the arrival of the first sealers and whalers in the wake of Captain Cook, Europeans simply went about learning the language in order to communicate with the local people. Missionaries used it in their sermons, and there was a natural progression towards a written form of te reo. Dr John Savage’s first attempts in 1807 were later followed by the work of missionary Thomas Kendall, who in 1815 produced the first book published in te reo Maori, He Korao no New Zealand, in 1815.

A Written Maori Language

Those early efforts at creating a written te reo were beset with challenges due to the variations in natural sounds between Maori speech and English. Kendall continued to work towards a definitive written language, visiting England in 1820 and collaborating on the task with Professor Samuel lee of Cambridge University.

By 1830, the te reo orthography in use today was largely established, and the Bible and important government documents could be produced in the language. William Colenso established his first printing press in the Bay of Islands in 1835. His main customers were the missionaries, with their religious instructions printed in the language of the native people. The mission schools taught their pupils to read, and young Maori people developed literacy and bilingualism skills that were impressive for the day.

In 1862 the first Maori language newspaper was being printed. Te Hokioi was produced by advocates of the Maori King Movement (Kingitanga), printed on a press that had been given to the Tainui people by the Austrian Emperor. By this time however, the Maori population was in decline. Te reo became a minority tongue, and not just for reasons of population. The government was now fully engaged in applying its colonial mastery to the social fabric of New Zealand.

English Replaces Maori

Even then, English was the language of business and education, and to take their full part in society the Maori had no choice but to use it. The trend to an English-based culture accelerated in the aftermath of the New Zealand Wars, and English began to dominate an education system that had previously had room for te reo. Most Maori were still living in their tight-knit rural communities, and there te reo lived on as the language of day-to-day usage.

By the early 20th century there was still a considerable degree of bilingualism among Maori. Maori leaders of the day promoted the ideal of a society that had the skills to do business in English while preserving the native tongue through its use on the marae and in the local community. But what they did not foresee was the impact the drift of Maori to the cities would have on te reo. The integration of Maori into a dominant European society led to the loss of traditional ways at many levels, not least in the use of the native language.

Te Reo Under Threat

So with urbanisation and social fabrication of New Zealand along European lines, te reo entered a period of serious decline – a language largely restricted to the marae and spoken by the elders. In the latter part of the 20th century, serious steps were taken to reverse this trend, with action right at the grassroots. Kohonga reo (Maori language pre-schools) were established as a precursor to an increased use of Maori throughout the school system.

Public policy in support of te reo has seen some increase in the use of Maori by young people. However the practical realities of just how people need to communicate to get on in modern New Zealand society keep it subordinated, of consequence to the wider population only for protocol and occasional formal use. Despite being an official language of New Zealand, day to day communication in te reo Maori is confined to a small number of Maori themselves, not generally seen as relevant in a society that is becoming increasingly multi-cultural.


  1. Tetaurawhiri.govt.nz, Maori Language Commission
  2. T M Ka’ai et al, Ki Te Whaiao, An Introduction to Maori Culture and Society, Pearson, Auckland, 2004