Getting Māori spellings right: Ten reasons to take your time
Written by Michael Botur, PRINZ member
Many organisations take a lot of care in spelling te Reo Māori correctly and deserve a pat on the back. Plenty of others need to use te Reo Māori better if they wish to keep a very important audience onside. It’s not just about pleasing Māori – it’s about respecting the mana of any language.
Really all we need to do is give te Reo Māori the same respect we give to the French, Latin and Greek words we drop into our English every day. Be observant of the conventions of te Reo Māori, check with authoritative people and websites if you’ve got the convention right, and you’ll be sweet as, bro.
I’m not saying I always get it right. I come from a first generation British immigrant background and I’m still learning. Heck, I once mistook Māori King Tūheitia for Tukuroirangi Morgan and the Herald had to kill my breaking news story. But I know that Māori are a tight-knit, passionate community who love seeing Māoritanga done right, so here are ten reasons to go slow with the reo:
- Because one letter out of place completely changes the word. ‘Moari’ is, er, not quite the word this respected Kiwi bushman brand is looking for.
- Because communications needs to help maintain accuracy. If you’re trying to write journalism about Tame Iti, spelling his name Tama Iti invites the next writer to get it wrong too.
- Because some letters just don’t exist in the Māori alphabet– as Hamilton City Council candidate James Casson found out in 2016 when he published a mihi of gibberish taken from Google Translate, featuring letters such as ‘L’ which aren’t part of the Māori alphabet.
- Don’t feel that words which bother one group of people bother all people. ‘Pākehā’ isn’t an offensive word to everybody, nor is the word Tauiwi (meaning all non- Māori peoples). Tauiwi is a term we used a lot when I worked for a literacy provider called He Waka Matauranga. It’s a very useful word and it gets us out of the habit of describing NZ as “bicultural” country of just Māori and Pākehā. Why not ask your local audience for their preference?
- Also ask your audience, when there are oro puare (open sounds: vowels) does the audience prefer words spelled with tohutō/ pōtae (macrons) or spelled with double vowels? Hamilton City Council has taken the effort to acknowledge what Tainui prefers. But it’s a different case with Counties Manukau DHB whose style guide opts for ‘Maaori.’
- Because you don’t always need to specify the iwi affiliation of people you’re writing about. Sometimes it’s straight-up weird, like the time my local newspaper specified the iwi of a man convicted of a violent crime the whole city was talking about.
- Because a lot of code is buried in a person’s name and if you screw it up, they don’t get the benefit of that historic and cultural association. A word simply won’t come up in search results, or link a person with an organisation, if it’s spelled wrong. For example, last year I helped an organisation correctly label the names of people speaking in videos for a multi-million dollar public health campaign. The names of many people were spelled wrong in the final drafts of the videos before I spotted the errors; the misspellings simply weren’t obvious to the video creators, who weren’t observant of the conventions of commonly-occurring names of whānau. Sometimes the errors were as simple as ‘Aperahama’ being spelled ‘Aparehama’ – but remember, across all cultures around the world, throughout history, a person’s name has always been of the utmost importance.
- Because in a place like Whanganui where iwi had to fight to get what they saw as the best version of the city’s name acknowledged by authorities, there are dozens of brands which haven’t changed their name – the city’s largest newspaper, for a start. This seems to imply some communicators are reluctant to adapt their product for an audience. If you’re in Northland and you won’t change the way you choose to spell and pronounce Parahaki (now Parihaka), ask yourself: am I sending a certain message to the audience?
- A.C.R.O.N.Y.M.S. Not all organisations are happy with their prestigious name being abbreviated. When I worked at He Waka Matauranga, acronyms were considered an insult to an organisation’s name; however, Northland health providers such as NHHT and KAONT seem to embrace their acronym and use it in their communications frequently.
- Speaking of KAONT, if you are writing about an organisation that spells it ‘Ki A Ora’ instead of ‘Kia ora,’ you should stick with the organisation’s spelling. Look at the iwi Ngātiwai, which might seem spelled strangely, but we need to respect that a name belongs to the creator of the name (even Radio NZ is still learning how to spell that one properly.) Besides, you’ll miss out on search engine optimisation if you don’t align your spelling with the spelling which belongs to the brand.
All set to write more respectfully? Fantastic! Here are some of the resources I use all the time: