Te Reo

Te reo means the Maori language, literally “the language”. When you first arrive in New Zealand, it is a bit disconcerting to realize that virtually every city, town, river and place name is written in this strange language which seems to contain an inordinate number of ‘w’s, ‘t’s and ‘k’s and mouthfuls of vowels all strung one after the other. The words all look the same with their jumble of vowels and consonants and no matter how you say them, it’s invariably wrong and some local Kiwi will correct you, the name of the town spilling off their tongue effortlessly.

“Is this the road to Ma-unga-kar-a-mea?” I ask a gentleman on the street.

“Maungakaramea?” It slips off his tongue like ice. “Well, you have to follow Opotaki Road through Kiripaki then Tikipunga. If you get to Tangiteroria, you gone too far, mate.”

“Okay,” I hesitate for a moment, “thanks.”

Indeed, there is a certain relief when you arrive in a city like ‘Hamilton’ which you are sure how to pronounce.

maori sign

So after being here awhile, I’ve realized I just can’t avoid this language. If I want to get around and since the language itself is incorporated in much of the culture of the country itself, I’ve begun to accept the fact that I have to become more familiar with te reo.

Maori was the predominant language spoken by the Maori in the 1800’s but in the 1900’s its use declined. Fearing the loss of the language, in the 1980’s Maori leaders and the New Zealand government initiated programs to preserve the language and revive its use, and the Maori language officially became one of the three official languages (English, Maori and New Zealand Sign Language) in New Zealand in 1987. Today most governmental agencies have their names written in both English and Maori. There are two Maori language television stations, and efforts are continually made for children (both Maori and European) to learn the language.


Here’s how to speak it.

First there are only 13 letters in the Maori alphabet! Imagine how easy it is for Maori children to sing that ABC song. There are five vowels, a e i o u, and only eight consonants, h k m n p r t w. Along with these, there are two digraphs, two-letter combinations: wh and ng. Easy enough, huh?

Here’s the way you pronounce the vowels:

a          ‘ah’ as in car

e          ‘e’ as in pet

i           ‘ee’ as in me (that’s the tricky one)

o          ‘aw’ as in awesome

u          ‘oo’ as in moon

The consonants are pronounced as are the English consonants. Finally—this is different, so listen up—the digraph ‘wh’ is generally pronounced like a soft ‘f’, which can make for lots of fun. That’s right, so the town near us here, Whakatane, is pronounced ‘fah-kah-tah-ne’. Ng is pronounced like the ‘ng’ in ‘hanging’. Ai is pronounced like the ‘i’ in shine.

Obviously this is a very rough approximation on how to speak the language. There are countless subtleties in pronunciation and in actuality many of the vowels are sounded differently depending what consonant they are next to.

Actual speakers of the language have their own distinct intonation and accent and groups or vowels are more slurred together. And also like any language, they speak it frightfully fast, but I always think that is done in part just to mess with people that don’t speak a given language.

Okay, so let’s try some words.

Kia ora   (key-ah aw-rah) which means ‘be well’ or simply ‘hi’. This is a common official greeting phrase in New Zealand for example at a public function.

Mana (mah-nah) authority, power.

Tane (tah-ne) man.

Iwi (ee-wee) tribe.

Aotearoa (ah-aw-te-ah-raw-ah) – the Maori name for New Zealand meaning “land of the long white cloud”.

Whare kai (fah-re kah-ee) dining room.

Okay, you’re doing well. One final word. How about this one—


Yes, that’s one word. It’s the Maori name for a hill in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. Surprisingly the locals shorten it and just call it Taumata. For what it is worth, it roughly means: “The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one.”

long name



2 thoughts on “Te Reo

  1. How romantic…nobody has ever played a nose flute for me. Just had to laugh about the mountain climber having big knees. So that’s what happened to my knees!
    Valuable information. Very glad, for your sake, you didn’t move to Fah-kah-tah-ne…of course you could always escape the raised eyebrows of folks back in the U.S. by pronouncing the “wh” the way it should be pronounced. So Lake Whatihua is actually “Fah-tee-hoo-ah”? After a few days in NZ I found that the saliva started to pool under my tongue when I attempted to tackle these words…quite the opposite of German which borders on spitting.

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