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Number of Speakers: Upwards of 100,000

Key Dialects: North Auckland Maori, South Island Maori, Taranaki Maori, Wanganui Maori, Bay of Plenty Maori, Rotorua-Taupo Maori, and Moriori Maori. North Auckland Maori is considered to be the standard dialect of the language.

Geographical Center: Although Maori is spoken along all coasts of New Zealand’s North Island, its geographical center is the east coast of the North Cape. Other areas where the language is spoken include the central region of the island’s west coast, the southern coast, and the central region of the east coast of the North Island.

Maori is one of the major languages of New Zealand. According to the 1995 Maori Language Commission, of the 500,000 ethnic Maori, roughly one fifth speak the language natively. An additional 100,000 Maori understand, but do not speak the language. All or at least most Maori speak English as a second language.

Maori is an Eastern Polynesian language of the Malayo-Polynesian group of the Austronesian language family. Maori is closely related to both Hawaiian and Samoan and exhibits a considerably high degree of lexical similarity with these languages.

Prior to the 20th century, Maori was widely spoken throughout New Zealand and was largely fragmented into a variety of regional dialects, many of which differed from the standard dialect with respect to lexical and phonological properties. In the last century, however, many of these dialects have become extinct. The dialect of Maori spoken in the Chatham Islands, for example, is one of these extinct dialects. The remaining dialects all appear to be mutually intelligible, however, lexical and phonological differences persist. To date, the various dialects of Maori have not been extensively studied. The lexical/phonological differences previously reported represent the agreed view among Maori linguists.

Maori uses a Roman-style orthography. Although vowel length is contrastive in the language, it is not represented in the official orthography. There is some degree of variation with respect to how this is actually represented, with some writers choosing to use double vowels and others choosing to mark vowel length by means of a macron. Although Maori has a small phoneme inventory, there are only two sounds that do not have a proper single symbol correspondent in the Roman alphabet. These sounds are represented as [ng] and [wh] in the writing system.

The phonetic inventory of Maori is relatively simple, consisting of 5 vowel phonemes and 10 consonant phonemes. Vowel length is contrastive in the language and seven dipthongs are attested. The syllable structure of the language is (C)V(V). Closed syllables (i.e. syllables ending in a consonant) are not tolerated and although double vowels are allowed, consonant clusters are not possible. Main stress falls primarily on the initial syllable of a word.

The basic word order of Maori is VSO. Indirect objects follow direct objects, articles precede nouns, and prepositions are attested, giving the impression that Maori is a head-initial language. Question words appear in sentence-initial position (together with certain preceding functional morphemes), nouns precede their modifiers, and adverbs occupy either sentence-initial or sentence-final positions. The morphology of Maori is fairly complex, but many of the relations typically encoded by discrete word-internal morphemes in many of the world’s languages are carried out by means of prepositional constructions.

A good deal of borrowing from Hawaiian and Samoan has occurred in the Maori lexicon.

Maori is one of the two official languages of New Zealand, English being the second. Maori language education is funded by the national government. In total, there are over 300 government-funded Maori language schools, including institutions for preschoolers. Maori is used in mass media communication such as television, radio, and print. Recently the government has taken an active role in language preservation and revival efforts.

Many scholars believe that Maori has its origins in the Polynesian that was brought to New Zealand by way of the Cook Islands. Up until the middle of the nineteenth century, Maori was the predominant language of New Zealand. However, shortly after the arrival of English-speaking white settlers in the 1860s, the language became a minority language. In the late 1800s, English language education was institutionalized and the use of Maori in schools was forbidden. Consequently, a gradual decline in Maori use took place, hitting an all time low in the 1980s, when less than 20% of the population spoke the language natively. Around this time, language revitalization efforts were initiated. Currently, the status of the language is more secure and the future of the language seems promising.

Bauer, Winifred. 1993. Maori. London: Routledge.

Biggs, Bruce. 1961. The Structure of New Zealand Maori. Anthropological Linguistics 3.3: 1-54.

Biggs, Bruce. 1966. English-Maori Dictionary. Wellington, New Zealand: A.H. & A.W. Reed.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Hohepa, P.W. 1967. A Profile Generative Grammar of Maori. Indiana University Publications in Anthropology and Linguistics, Memoir 20. Baltimore: Waverly Press, Inc.

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