Voice Over Sydney: In the last 200 years the history of the Māori language (te reo Māori) has been one of ups and downs. At the beginning of the 19th century it was the predominant language spoken in Aotearoa/New Zealand. As more English speakers arrived in New Zealand, the Māori language was increasingly confined to Māori communities. By the mid-20th century there were concerns that the language was dying out.
Major initiatives launched from the 1980s have brought about a revival of te reo. In the early 21st century, about 125,000 people of Māori ethnicity can speak and understand te reo, which has an official status alongside English and New Zealand Sign Language.
Voice Over Sydney: One land, many dialects
The Māori language evolved in Aotearoa over several hundred years. There were regional variations that probably widened because local populations were relatively isolated. These variations had their origins in the fact that the ancestors of modern Māori came by canoe from different villages and islands in eastern Polynesia. Māori had no written language, but the symbolic meanings embodied in carving, knots and weaving were widely understood.
Voice Over Sydney: Māori: a common means of communication
For the first half-century or so of European settlement, the Māori language was a common way of communicating. Early settlers were dependent on Māori for many things and had to learn to speak the language if they wished to trade with them.
As more settlers arrived, the need for written communication in Māori grew. Missionaries first attempted to write down the Māori language in 1814. Professor Samuel Lee of Cambridge University worked with the chief Hongi Hika and his junior relative Waikato to systematise the written language in 1820. Literacy and expanded numeracy were two exciting new concepts that Māori took up enthusiastically. In the 1820s missionaries reported that Māori all over the country were teaching each other to read and write, using materials such as charcoal and leaves, carved wood and the cured skins of introduced animals when no paper was available.
Up to the 1870s, and in some areas for several decades after that, it was not unusual for government officials, missionaries and other prominent Pākehā (European New Zealanders) to speak Māori. Growing up with Māori youngsters, their children were among the most fluent European speakers and writers of Māori. Particularly in rural areas, interaction between Māori and Pākehā was constant.