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Cheese armpits: Why macrons matter for te reo Māori

Whakaute scrabble tiles
Posted August 6, 2019

This year Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa - The New Zealand Geographic Board (NZGB) moved to make 824 Māori place names official, including macrons. So why the fuss over the little lines?

WM gets some wisdom from Donovan Farnham, Kaiako Reo Māori (Māori language teacher) in Tāmaki Makaurau, about why macrons in te reo Māori are important​.

How can a tiny line above a vowel make so much difference?

Surely Māori words like keke and kēkē can’t be that far apart in meaning, just because of the macrons? I remember having a kai tahi - a shared lunch - at The University of Auckland. I invited one of my Māori language lecturers for some kēkē tīhi. He started giggling.

Now, I thought that I was asking him if he wanted some cheesecake - keke tīhi.

I was in fact inviting him for some cheese armpit - kēkē tīhi

Adding a macron (a line above the vowel) indicates a long vowel sound. As you can see, macrons completely change the meaning of a word!

Insect or excrement? Read between the lines!

Weta Workshops is a great example of the importance a macron has.

  • Wētā is an insect
  • Wēta is a loan word for ‘west’
  • Weta is excrement

Patu means to hit, while pātū is a wall. Kākāriki means green, while kaka riki is a small amount of kaka. English is no better: we have ‘affect’ and ‘effect’; ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’; ‘here’, ‘hear’, ‘hare’ and ‘hair’! It can be tricky, and unfortunately the only way to learn the difference is to learn each one.

Helping us learn te reo Māori

Websites like māoridictionary.co.nz are invaluable for learning. Type any te reo Māori word and the results will show the differences with macrons, and without. 

It is also worth mentioning teaching etiquette, while correcting someone less proficient in te reo Māori than you. Letting people know that their pronunciation or use of macrons is erroneous can add discomfort, especially with someone who’s genuinely trying to give it a go. The last thing we want is to put people off learning (and cheese armpits!).

Instead, try ‘recasting’. Recasting is repeating what someone has said back to them, but with the added corrections. If the person is someone with whom you have a good relationship, find a discreet time to let them know their error and learn together.

Just remember that we are all still learning, and appreciating that everyone is at a different part of their learning journey is paramount.

 

WM thanks both Donovan Farnham for his wisdom, and Captain Hana Seddon for her advice on the topic.