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Backpacker’s Guide to the Maori Language: te reo Maori

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Kia Ora!

New Zealand has three official languages: English, New Zealand sign language and Maori, more commonly known as te reo Maori (or Māori if we are being perfectionists).

English may dominate the conversation in New Zealand, but you see and hear Maori often – mostly while travelling through the country and seeing all the Maori place names! Those interested in learning about the first culture of New Zealand can take part in a variety of cultural experiences, which usually involves visiting a marae. That’s why we have put together this quick guide to the Maori language so pronouncing those place names will not seem so daunting and you will know some basic words that are often used around New Zealand.

Pronouncing Maori Vowels and consonants

Vowels

There are short vowels and long vowels (macrons) in the Maori language.

The short vowels are pronounced:

  • “a” as in “far”
  • “e” as in “egg”
  • “i” as in “see”
  • “o” as in “awe”
  • “u” as in “to”

A macron is a vowel with a long line above it indicating a long vowel sound, which look like this: ā, ē, ī, ō, ū.

Consonants

h, k, m, n, ng (as in singer), p, r (pronounced as a rolling r), t, w, wh (makes an “f” sound as in “father”).

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New Zealand (aotearoa) Place Names

Much of New Zealand’s towns, cities, regions, mountains, lakes and rivers have kept their original Maori names. You’ll get to know some of them well during a trip in New Zealand and some may even be your favourite place in the world!

We don’t have enough space to name every part of New Zealand here, but we’ll give you a good list to start practicing.

Some Maori place names
  • Whangārei (city)
  • Tauranga (city)
  • Rotorua (city)
  • Taupō (city)
  • Ngauruhoe (mountain)
  • Taranaki (mountain and region)
  • Hāwera (town)
  • Whanganui (river and region)
  • Taumarunui (town)
  • Tupapakurua (waterfall)
  • Kaikōura (town)
  • Aoraki (mountain)
  • Te Ānau (town)
  • Hokitika (town)
  • Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maungahoro nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu (town)

Some New Zealand place names have some funny translations too. Check them out in 10 Funny Place Names in New Zealand.

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Maori words to know when backpacking!

It’s not very likely that you’ll be fluent in te reo Maori after your gap year in New Zealand, but you will take a few words and phrases home with you! Whether you are visiting a marae or reading certain words over and over again on signs, you’ll pick up some words to make even the native English speakers travelling in an English speaking country feel cultured.

Here are some words to get you started and how to pronounce them.

  • Kia ora – key-ora – Hello (general informal greeting) or thank you
  • Aotearoa – ow-tee-a-row-a – New Zealand
  • Ka pai – kap-eye – Good
  • Marae – mar-eye – Maori meeting grounds
  • Haka – ha-ka – A chant and dance to challenge
  • Nau mai – na-u-my – Welcome
  • Tapu – ta-pu – Sacred
  • Whenua – fen-u-a – Homeland, country
  • Hapū – ha-poo – Sub-tribe
  • Iwi – ee-wee –Tribe
  • Waka – wa-ka – Canoe
  • Whānau – fah-no – Extended family

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Just for fun…

Introductions (Mihimihi)

In formal situations like in the marae, people introduce themselves according to Maori custom, which includes naming rivers, mountains, lakes and their marae to show their connection to a certain area. Although we won’t get that complex, here is a basic mihimihi anyone can use to totally wow everyone they know!

  • Tēnā koutou (Greetings everyone)
  • Ko ____________________ taku iwi. (My people/tribe is ________________).
  • Kei _____________________ taku kāinga. (My home is in _______________).
  • Ko ____________________ taku ingoa. (My name is ____________).
  • Kia ora tātou! (Thank you everyone)!

For more Maori culture fun facts, check out 10 Things You Did Not Know About the Maori Culture.

More on the Maori culture…

… and the New Zealand language!

Want to feel like the most cultured individual on the Internet right now? Take a look at our other articles on the New Zealand culture:

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