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Whanganui’s h-bomb

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol 14 No.37, September 25, 2009, p16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd

Thank goodness for schools. Due in large measure to schools and the efforts of teachers, children grow up learning from critical appreciation of the attitudes and prejudices of generations that have come before. Schools and teachers help give successive generations the freedom to go beyond the limits of those prejudices and practices.

Attitudes to wars, gender equity, relationships with the environment, growing appreciation of the dangers of smoking and of drinking are simple examples of areas in which schools and teachers have played a part (only a part) in shaping changed attitudes and behaviours.

But perhaps the most important change is that related to an understanding of and tolerance for those practices and attitudes related to respecting the language of the first people of our nation, the people of this land, the tangata whenua, Maori.

Not that long ago it was possible for a woman to be sacked in New Zealand for answering a business telephone with the greeting “Kia ora”. Not that long ago it was possible for sports talkback hosts to question why we must have “two national anthems” sung at the start of sporting events. Not that long ago physical battles (such as Bastion Point and the Raglan Golf course) were still being fought for land.

Oh yes, there has been progress but its fragility with regard to language has been well exposed by the events of the past week in Wanganui. The recommendation of the National Geographic Board was that the town called Wanganui to this point, have its spelling brought into line with what the Board accepted as the correct spelling – Whanganui. This is a learned, qualified and experienced group of people who if they were making recommendations in any field other than the emotionally charged area of language, and about anything other than the name of the town of Whanganui, would be taken seriously and with respect.

But not so the National Geographic Board so far as the Mayor of Wanganui, Michael Laws, is concerned. He characterised the group as undemocratic, self-appointed and unrepresentative and so on and claimed that they had in “one foul swoop” committed this grave injustice. I would like to think that he actually and correctly said “one fell swoop” and then cleverly turned it into a pun “for that is what it is – foul!” But I suspect he said “foul” and meant “fell” – pity, it was a good pun! When such issues arises, everyone seems to be an authority and expertise on matters linguistic comes from most unlikely sources.

Language is never fixed, it changes and is dynamic. English is perhaps the most changing and dynamic language of them all and has been so for hundreds of years. So it is little surprise when a language steeped in oral tradition, but much more recently captured in writing, is settling down. Early missionaries approximated what they heard, using English letters to represent the sounds they heard even when those sounds might not have been the same. They didn’t always get it right. The aligning of the name of the city with the name of the river with what is standard and acceptable usage to mana whenua is part of this natural process.

Issues such as whether the beginning of some words in Maori is closer to an “f” in some areas and not in others and to a “wh” as in “where” in some areas and not in others are just that, issues that require the considered views from those who know. Answers to why the “-ere” combination of letters in Maori presents a challenge to English-speakers are to be provided by phonologists and linguists.

What is most helpful to the processes of arbitration in linguistic matters relating to Te Reo Maori is the Maori Language Commission Te Taurawhiri I Te Reo Māori. Rather than criticise it for acting as some kind of language police we should welcome its ability to guide us and to right errors that have crept into usage. It also charts pathways forward as it guides one of our three official languages into pathways for the future.

And changing the name of a city is really such a small issue (let’s not even consider the correction of spelling mistakes!). Bombay becomes Mumbai and the world does not tilt on its axis. Six cities in the north of New Zealand will change their names completely when the super city/state is in place.

Countries even change their names with ease – the Gilbert Islands changed to Kiribati, Ellice Islands favoured Tuvalu, Western Samoa became Samoa – just a few close to home. New national anthems appear and are sung with gusto (e.g. South Afrika) and new flags are flown just as quickly as they can be designed.

Changing a letter in a city name really is about the most insignificant issue in this whole area of identity. Thankfully the next generation will see the fuss for what it is and will be keen to join the big wide world where blilingualism is the norm. Ireland, Canada and Wales are all countries with which New Zealanders feel comfortable and are all diligent in respecting their dual language responsibilities.

Let’s get on with sorting out the wider issues and ask the National Geographic Board to provide guidance on the Maori names of all towns and cities in New Zealand. This would be a process that would correct historical mistakes (perhaps the name of Kaikohe should be Kaikohekohe) where they occur and provide a bilingual option where English names are used. Young people in our schools would love to be involved in such a process and would embrace it.

Not for them the narrow minded linguistic mores of the past. There used to be a joke that if you spoke many languages you were multilingual, if you spoke two languages you were bilingual and if you spoke one language you were English.

And if you drop your aitches?

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