The overwhelming case for spelling Māori place names correctly

MartinJenkins
Sep 15 · 6 min read

Senior Consultant Andrew Horwood argues the case for correct spelling of Māori place names to protect Aotearoa’s history, knowledge, and identity.

Photo/NZME — NZME/Stuart Munro

There’s no shortage of reasons for spelling Māori place names correctly. For a start, it shows appropriate respect for te reo and its speakers as Aotearoa’s indigenous population. It encourages correct pronunciation of Māori words and so supports the Government’s goal of having one million New Zealanders speaking basic te reo by 2040. It’s also just good to do things properly.

Any one of those reasons is enough, and all of them together make an overwhelming case. But I’d like to discuss a further reason — that spelling Māori place names correctly is an important part of capturing history and identity.

This article makes a simple argument:

· Māori place names capture significant people, events, and characteristics.

· Preserving history is important for preserving identity.

· Therefore, spelling Māori place names correctly is of the utmost importance.

Former All Black Dallas Seymour put it well when he said of Māori place names: “I think it is part of the real foundation of Aotearoa as a nation. All these place names have a kōrero, story, behind them.” I agree.

Correctly spelled place names capture events

“Tinakori” is still the name of a prominent Wellington road, but was once the name of the hill above the road as well. The hill has since reverted back to its original Māori name, Te Ahumairangi. Ahu-Mairangi means “like a whirlwind”, which seems appropriate for most of Wellington.

However, “Tinakori” was a corruption of “Tina Kāhore”, meaning “without dinner”, according to Wellington City Council. Tina Kāhore refers to the Māori workers who built Tinakori Road working without meal breaks. In this sense, the corruption of the name favours the colonisers, as the misspelling obscures the violation of Māori workers’ rights at the hands of their settler employers.

These days, “Remuera” is known to New Zealanders as the leafiest part of Auckland. However, in a literal sense, “Remuera” is meaningless — it is a misspelling of the original Māori name, “Remu-wera”. As Auckland Council says:

“The name Remu-wera comes from two words: remu meaning edge or hem, and wera meaning burnt. It is said to relate to an incident when a visiting chieftainess was killed and put in an umu (oven), still in her piupiu (skirt).”

The incident described by the name Remu-wera relates to Ngāti Whātua battles with invading parties from Ngā Puhi and Hauraki before British settlement.

Military successes and failures are frequently a key source of national identity. For example, some Kiwis have called for Anzac Day, as a commemoration of the April 1915 Gallipoli landings, to be made our “national day”. Obviously misspelling Remu-wera won’t destroy the sense of identity that Ngāti Whātua draw from events at that place, but it would be nice if this history was acknowledged in the spelling of the place name. And it would be nice if te reo learners could see the meaning more directly from the correct spelling.

The Remutaka Ranges are north of Wellington and separate the Hutt Valley from the Wairarapa. Associated with the mountain range and sharing the name are a pass, a forest park, a stream, and other features. The spelling Remutaka has only recently been corrected from the meaningless corruption, “Rimutaka”.

Rangitāne o Wairarapa Education and Te Ara provide good information about the history of the name “Remutaka”. It comes from Haunui-a-nanaia, who, after pursuing his wife around the lower North Island, climbed a mountain to rest:

“He named the mountain Remutaka — ‘remu’ to ‘gaze about’ and ‘taka’, ‘to sit down’. It could also refer to the edge ‘remu’ of his cape touching the ground ‘taka’ on that spot.”

This history, including the biological and geographical ties to which the descendants of Haunui can legitimately lay claim, are lost when Remutaka is spelled incorrectly. No wonder Rangitāne negotiated the correction of the name as part of its Treaty of Waitangi settlement, made legal in 2016. However, Rimutaka Prison still uses the incorrect spelling.

Macrons (tohutō) are important

One of the best te reo Māori speakers I know once told me that a tohutō or macron (a short horizontal line above a vowel) turns it into a completely different letter, much like comparing an English “s” with an English “t”.

There are plenty of examples where tohutō change the meaning of a word. For example, “tangata” refers to a single person but “tāngata” refers to people plural. This would be relevant when describing how many people came to your birthday party. Yet when explaining what you served, you’ll want to be careful you mention “keke” (cake) rather than “kēkē” (armpit).

In June 2019, the New Zealand Geographic Board Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa made 824 Māori place names official, 307 of which now include macrons (for example, Taupō and Whakatāne). As the Board’s Acting Chair said:

“Applying macrons correctly in written Māori provides the meaning of a name and assists with pronunciation. This is important for all New Zealanders.”

The Board also emphasised that the corrected spelling supports capturing the story behind a name:

“Many Māori place names have important stories behind them, so ensuring the correct spelling will help keep those stories alive. For example, as part of these changes New Zealand’s longest place name, Taumatawhakatangihangakōauauotamateapōkaiwhenuakitānatahu, has had macrons added. The name tells the story of the hill where Tamatea played his flute to his loved one.”

One example of the importance of macrons comes from Māpua, a small town west of Nelson. With a macron it means a place of abundance. However, “Mapua” without the macron means tidal inundation or a kind of crying or sobbing. I imagine the residents would rather live in the former.

An even more stark example comes from Te Tai Tokerau (Northland). “Ruakākā”, armed correctly with macrons, refers to a town named after the burrow of the native parrot, the kākā. But “Ruakaka” without macrons refers to a toilet hole or a pair of defecations. You tell me where you’d rather live.

Place names capture characteristics

Wellington’s largest suburb is “Karori”, a meaningless misspelling of “Te Kaha o ngā Rore”, which means “the place of many bird snares”. The correct name captures the area’s history as a feeding ground for the region’s first inhabitants, reflecting a history and knowledge that are lost through the misspelling.

“Petone”, at the southern end of the Hutt Valley, is a corruption of Pito-one. “Pito” means “end” and “one” means “sandy beach”.

This meaning — an accurate description of “Petone” if ever there was one — is completely lost by the adopted corrupt spelling, which is meaningless.

Whanganui is a town on Te Tai Hauāuru (the west coast) of Te Ika-a-Māui (the North Island). Its name is a compound word comprising “whanga” meaning “harbour”, and “nui” meaning “big”.

To Pākehā ears, the Tai Hauāuru dialect pronounces “wh” like an English “w”, unlike those other Māori dialects that, to Pākehā ears, pronounce “wh” like an English “f” (for example, Te Tai Rāwhiti, the East Coast of the North Island). Therefore, the spelling was corrupted to “Wanganui”, another completely meaningless word.

There are in fact several different pronunciations of “wh” among te reo dialects, and the loud opposition to the spelling “Whanganui” on the basis of the local iwi pronunciation has confused the issues of spelling and pronunciation. As linguist Winifred Bauer wrote in 2016:

“… <Wanganui> was an appropriate English spelling for what the English settlers perceived the local tribes to call this place, but … <Whanganui> is the appropriate Māori spelling for all Māori tribes, regardless of their pronunciation of the initial consonant.”

A duty to restore the mana of Māori place names

Māori aren’t unique in attaching significance to the way they name places — consider how many English place names are derived from the names of prominent individuals. But Māori place names are unique in that:

· they have been botched through laziness, ignorance, or worse for decades, and

· Aotearoa New Zealand and its governments have a distinct duty to restore and protect the mana of Māori place names.

Correct spelling is vital to protect the meaning of place names, and thereby protect the history, knowledge, and impact on identity that the stories and events behind the names convey.

It’s pleasing to see progress in this area but we have a long way to go. Ngā mihi to those making change.

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From the Exosphere is a platform for sharing thoughts from…

From the Exosphere

From the Exosphere is a platform for sharing thoughts from the team at MartinJenkins. The exosphere is the last layer of atmosphere before space, offering an unrivalled view of our blue planet and where we might go next.

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From the Exosphere

From the Exosphere is a platform for sharing thoughts from the team at MartinJenkins. The exosphere is the last layer of atmosphere before space, offering an unrivalled view of our blue planet and where we might go next.