The Māori Language
For the early missionaries to New Zealand to be successful they had to master te reo Māori (the Māori language). Samuel Marsden hosted Māori guests at his farm at Parramatta and may have gained some knowledge of the language there, the first missionaries were really required to gain this knowledge on the job. This was especially the case for Thomas Kendall, the best educated of the missionaries who was to take on the role of schoolteacher. Learning the language was important for several reasons. Europeans were a tiny population at this time and Māori was likely to be New Zealand’s primary language for some years to come. The missionaries were also settling amongst, and trading with Māori who were deemed to be potentially violent and dangerous: being able to speak the language effectively was vital for survival. Communication was also important if the ultimate aim of the mission was to be fulfilled, the conversion of Māori to Christianity.
The missionaries also needed to devise a writing system for te reo Māori. This would give in-coming missionaries a resource, but these Protestant evangelists also believed that good Christians should be able to read the Bible. If Kendall, the schoolmaster, could teach reading and writing, and if the missionaries could translate the Scriptures, the Māori would be more likely to convert. However, creating a new orthography for a language was not easy. In March 1814 Kendall, and fellow missionary William Hall, made an exploratory visit to the Bay of Islands, and it is from this trip that Kendall compiled a vocabulary list, contained in the Marsden Collection.
Kendall collected over 300 “useful” words: body parts, numbers, natural features and phenomena, animals and plants, verbs of movement, and other sundry objects, as well as a few phrases. He was aware of his shortcomings, writing ‘I have no doubt but I shall find it necessary to make many alterations in the above words when I get better acquainted with the Language’. Kendall spelled the words as his English ear heard them, for example: “Haere mai” (come here) was rendered as “Iremi”; “ringaringa” (hands) as “Dingha Dingha”; “ihu” (nose) as “Eshoo”; and “iwi” (bone) as “Evee”. His spelling also signals to how the Ngā Puhi dialect of the Bay of Islands may have been spoken at the time, with consonants such as D, SH, and V not used in written Māori today.1 One can imagine Kendall pointing at objects, perhaps miming actions, or asking “he aha?” (what is it?). A suitable response to the question would be “he” followed by a noun or a verb. This can be seen in the way Kendall transcribes many of his verbs, such as “Heerookoo” for “he ruku” (to dive).
The inconsistency and lack of rules on how to write Māori inhibited Kendall’s work. In 1815 he sent to Marsden for printing, a language primer A Korao no New Zealand, subtitled An Attempt to Compose some Lessons for the Instruction of the Natives. This slim volume of just 54 pages contained an alphabet of 22 letters, a vocabulary list, and a variety of sentences of a religious nature. It is clear Kendall was learning the language, but the spelling was still eccentric. In 1820 when Kendall, accompanied by Ngā Puhi chiefs Hongi and Waikato, went to Cambridge University where they worked with the renowned linguist, Professor Samuel Lee, to produce a workable orthography for te reo Māori and A Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language of New Zealand. While their writing system was not perfect and would undergo subsequent modifications, it was sufficient to allow a new crop of missionaries to translate the Scriptures effectively, which in turn spurred Māori interest in literacy and Christianity from the late 1820s. While Māori-language texts do not feature much in the Marsden papers, the collection does point to the difficulties the first CMS missionaries had rendering the Māori language into written form.
Word meaning in the Māori language would not have changed whether an individual sounded a D and R, SH and H, or V and W, and these may have been used interchangeably. This is similar to way that there is no distinction between L and an R in the spoken Japanese language.
1Word meaning in the Māori language would not have changed whether an individual sounded a D and R, SH and H, or V and W, and these may have been used interchangeably. This is similar to way that there is no distinction between L and an R in the spoken Japanese language.