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May 8, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

How do you spell that? The Little Known Effects of Mispronunciation

(Ordering a coffee in Whanganui-a-tara, Aotearoa)

Can I please have a mochaccino please?

Sure, what is your name?


Natalia? Atalia?

No, A-ta-ri-a.

Oh okay… uhh… how do you spell that?


Thanks! Your coffee will be ready soon.


A number of political parties have recently commented on compulsory te reo Māori in schools. Perhaps one of the key benefits would be an improvement in the correct pronunciation of Māori words. In New Zealand the pronunciation of some categories of Māori words is not a choice; for example names of places and people. However, according to Julia de Bres from the University of Luxemburg, people do have a choice as whether to “pronounce a Māori word using anglicised pronunciation or based on how it would sound if used in the context of the Māori language.” But why is the correct pronunciation of te reo important?

In 1840 te reo Māori was the primary language used for communication, customs, and culture in Aotearoa. At that time Margaret Mutu estimates that Māori “outnumbered Pākehā by 70,000–90,000 to 2,000” and many settlers were bilingual in both Māori and English. Fast forward 177 years — past the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (including 135 years where the Treaty was conspicuously absent from New Zealand legislation) — to 2017 where, surprisingly, a large number of New Zealanders are not bilingual in both te reo and English.

To make matters worse, many New Zealanders do not know how or choose not to pronounce Māori words correctly. To illustrate this point, the Human Rights Commission has a webpage titled “Commonly Mispronounced Te Reo Māori Place Names” featuring Māori land names such as Tauranga and Taupō. Māori place names hold significance both culturally and through whakapapa. Therefore, when they and personal names are pronounced incorrectly (irrespective of the reasons for it), as suggested by Rita Kohli and Daniel Solorzano from Santa Clara University and the University of California, these subtle acts can become “layered insults that intersect with an ‘othering’ of race, language, and culture.”

According to Derald Wing Sue and colleagues from Columbia University, racial microaggressions are brief, daily, and common indignities that communicate negative slights to people of colour. The University of Minnesota has a handout with examples of racial microaggressions and it includes situations such as when a person of colour is told “you are a credit to your race/you are so articulate” which could send the message “people of colour are generally not as intelligent as Whites,” or when a college or university has buildings that are all named after white heterosexual upper-class males sending the message to everyone else that “you don’t belong/you won’t succeed here.”

In 2012, Kohli and Solorzano conducted an American study of Black, Latino, Asian American, Pacific Island, and mixed race participants. The study found that the effect of cumulative racial aggressions led participants to believe that racism was a burden of their culture. Participants shared stories of disregarding their own name for a new name, embarrassment towards their identity and culture, and wishing their families were more like the dominant culture.

When the names of people of colour are pronounced incorrectly, Kohli and Solorzano suggest, this can lead to the internalisation of the worldviews, values, and beliefs of the dominant culture. It could even have an impact on the love and aspiration that groups have for their own culture. Within the context of historical and current day racism it can be argued that the mispronunciation of Māori words and language is a racial microaggression that may have a lasting impact on self-perception and worldview. The realisation for many Māori that their name is on a daily basis pronounced incorrectly in the only place they call home, their tūrangawaewae, is surely an accumulative form of verbal indignity that could send the message that “your language, your culture, and perhaps even you; are not valued here in New Zealand.”

As is stated by Trinity Thompson on her blog Fruit From the Vine: “I wish my friends knew that saying Māori words properly really makes a difference to me. It makes me feel like my culture and language is valued.”

Although at first glance seemingly minor, the mispronunciation of Māori words and names is arguably and unexpectedly linked to a range of wider issues and tangible negative effects for Māori as a whole. For example, the New Zealand Health Survey in 2002/2003 suggested that high rates of racial discrimination are directly linked to poor health outcomes, including poor physical functioning, cardiovascular diseases, and poor wellbeing. Māori in this study were ten times more likely to experience discrimination compared to Pākehā, and findings showed that an experience of discrimination was significantly associated with poor health. Research into the health survey data by Ministry of Health, Massey University, and University of College London researchers Ricci Harris and colleagues highlighted a need for “racism to be considered in efforts to eliminate ethnic inequalities in health.”

I recently tutored an introductory Māori Studies paper which anecdotally seems to have a high intake of exchange students from places as far afield as the UK, America, and Canada. All the students had to do a presentation where they were marked on their pronunciation of Māori words. The exchange students (the majority who may have only been in New Zealand for a few months) had overwhelmingly excellent pronunciation, which I think could be due to the hard work and perceived importance they put into practising the indigenous language of their host country. I had exchange students meet with me before and after tutorials to help them practise their pronunciation, and even specifically request that we covered pronunciation in the tutorial. It was heartwarming to see this dedication to te reo.  

So why is the correct pronunciation of Māori words and language important? Well firstly I think it is important to acknowledge the existence of, and cumulative effects of, racial microaggressions and subsequent negative health outcomes. Furthermore I believe that all New Zealanders have an opportunity to recognise our shared history of bilingualism and to take up the challenge as set by the Waitangi Tribunal in the 1986 te reo Māori claim to“put the language, and therefore the culture, onto a pedestal so that our tamariki will see being Māori as something to be proud of, not something to be treated as worthless.”

On this basis I believe that together as New Zealanders (and even those who are just visiting New Zealand) we can all begin to challenge the mispronunciation of Māori words and names and in doing so counter majority language domination.


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