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Maori language

Maori (Te Reo Māori)
Spoken in: New Zealand
Total speakers: 100,000-160,000 (est)
Ranking: (Not in top 100)

   Eastern Malayo-Polynesian
     Central-Eastern Oceanic
      Remote Oceanic
       Central Pacific
        East Fijian-Polynesian

Official status
Official language of: New Zealand
Regulated by: Maori Language Commission
Language codes
ISO 639-1 mi
ISO 639-2(B) mao
ISO 639-2(T) mri

Māori (or Maori) is a language spoken by the native peoples of New Zealand.



Maori was probably brought to New Zealand by Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands who sailed over in canoes.

In the last 200 years the Maori language has had a very tumultuous history, going from the position of predominant language of New Zealand until into the 1860s, when it became a minority language in the shadow of the English brought by white settlers, missionaries, gold-seekers and traders. In the late 19th century, the English school system was introduced for all New Zealanders, and from the 1880s the use of Maori in school was forbidden (see Native Schools). Increasing numbers of Maori people learnt English because it was required at school and because of the prestige and opportunity associated with the language. Until WWII, however, most Maori still spoke Maori as a native language. Worship was in Maori, it was the language of the home, political meetings were conducted in Maori, and some newspapers and some literature was published in Maori. As late as the 1930s, some Maori parliamentarians were disadvantaged because the Parliament's proceedings were by then carried on in English. In this period, the number of speakers of Maori began to decline rapidly until by the 1980s less than 20% of Maori spoke the language well enough to be considered native speakers. Even for many of those people, Maori was no longer the language of the home.

By the 1980s, Maori leaders began to recognize the dangers of the loss of their language and began to initiate Maori-language recovery programs such as the Kōhanga Reo movement, which immersed infants in Maori from infancy to school age. This was followed by the founding of the Kura Kaupapa , a primary school program in Maori.


The Maori language belongs to the Austronesian family of languages. It is most closely related to the Marquesan language of the Marquesas Islands.

Geographic distribution

Maori is spoken almost exclusively in New Zealand, by upwards of 100,000 people, nearly all of them of Maori descent. Estimates of the number of speakers vary: the 1996 census reported 160,000, while other estimates have reported as low as 50,000. The only other country with a significant portion of Maori speakers are the Cook Islands, which used to be part of New Zealand, but are independent since 1965, albeit still closely associated with New Zealand.

Official status

Maori is one of two official languages of New Zealand, the other being English. Most government departments and agencies now have bilingual names, for example, the Department of Internal Affairs is known as Te Tari Taiwhenua, and bodies such as local government offices and public libraries also have bilingual signs. New Zealand Post recognises Maori place names in postal addresses.

Māori Language Week

26 July1 August 2004 sees yet another celebration of the officially-sponsored Māori Language Week .


The 1894 (Fourth) edition of Grammar of the New Zealand Language (by the Archdeacon of Auckland, R. Maunsell, LL.D., described seven distinct dialects for the North Island alone — Rarawa , Ngapuhi, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, East Cape, Port NicholsonWanganui, and Wanganui–Mokau — but mentioned some variations within some of those)

By 2004, many of the minor dialects have probably declined almost to extinction, and most new students and speakers can be expected to use the official and/or Maori Television standards. However, regional variants are still apparent, on different websites and even between speakers and subtitle-writers on Maori Television.

A Maori phrasebook which is a useful general guide for visitors is here at Wikitravel.

Writing system

Many speculate that the petroglyphs once used by the Maori developed into a script similar to the Rongorongo of Easter Island, however there is only a small body of evidence for such speculation. Missionaries made their first attempts to write down the language in a Roman-based alphabet as early as 1814, and Professor Samuel Lee of Cambridge University worked with chief Hongi Hika and his junior relative Waikato to systematize the written language in 1820. Literacy was an exciting new concept that the Maori embraced enthusiastically, and missionaries reported in the 1820s that Maori all over the country taught each other to read and write, using sometimes quite innovative materials, such as leaves and charcoal, carved wood, and the cured skins of animals, when no paper was available.

External links

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45