Swap the first vowel in your name with the letter u. If the first vowel in your name is u, swap it with the letter a.
Now, imagine you’re sitting in class on your first day at a new school. You wait as the teacher reads the roll. You’re ready for your chance to chime in “here” but the teacher doesn’t say your name. They call out something close to it, the version with the swapped vowel. Then again, a mangled, nearly version of you. An awkward silence hangs in the air. Nobody else answers and in the knowing quiet you realise they’re calling you. All the other kids get the names their parents gave them but you get one made up by someone you’ve just met.
“It’s pronounced like this,” you say, drawing out each letter. “It’s an old family name.”
A couple of children start saying your name correctly, but the teacher keeps using their made-up version so most of the class does too.
After days of correcting them and continuing to be ignored, you stand up and shout. “That’s. Not. My. Name.”
You get sent to the principal’s office.
The principal peers at you from behind her desk. “What’s your name?”
You reply with your name.
“Nice to meet you, *not-your-name*, they say.
You take a deep breath, try to be as brave as your parents said your grandparents were and explain, “That’s not my name, ma’am.” You repeat the name your parents gifted you.
“Sorry, it’s too hard for me to say that,” the principal says. “Now, remember, it’s rude to shout at teachers and your classmates, we all deserve respect don’t we?”
Eventually, after years of trying to correct teachers, friends and others, you give up and start introducing yourself as the name your teacher and classmates made up for you.
In isolation, that might seem a small thing.
As a result of government policy to remove ‘all that Māori nonsense’ from the freshly colonised people of Aotearoa, two generations of my whakapapa didn’t speak te reo Māori. Thousands of whānau experienced the same. It was intentional, not accidental. The British Empire was well practised in colonisation by the time they reached Aotearoa’s shores and people, and assimilation was a big part of the playbook.
So, like many, I’ve spent the last few years studying in night classes and weekends to try and bring te reo Māori back into our whakapapa at least to the point of being able to support my children to speak their language at home. At the moment, this means online zoom classes after work and all-weekend wānanga Friday to Sunday night. Ask any Māori re-learning their language and they’ll tell you it’s hard. It’s mentally challenging like any adult learning after a day at work but it’s not only hard because learning a second language after the age of 10 always is, and it’s not just the days away from whānau and lack of downtime. The process is emotionally exhausting, embarrassing and often traumatic. There isn’t a year I’ve studied where I haven’t had tears in my eyes. Sometimes in the car or my room after, sometimes in the classroom.
Because our language isn’t just to communicate words. Our language is a connector to each other, to our environment and culture, to our tūpuna (ancestors), and history – both the beautiful and the horrible bits they’re finally going to teach in school. All of those things are personal, and they all came close to being lost. They’re all connections worth crying and fighting for. Every time I stumble over the words I’m learning, I’m reminded of the root cause of why I don’t know my language fully. How my grandparents were treated. How the assimilation playbook sets up the future colony at the cost of those already living on the land and their descendants. Colonised indigenous face the same challenges across the world. It’s not a coincidence.
And that’s why I’m still studying in my 30s. The soft ‘t’ reminds me how growing up, the world thought our language was a useful marker of ‘how Māori’ someone was. It was the question right after “What percentage are you?” Easier than a blood quantum card I guess. I hold those long vowels and remember how recently it was that the government told my nana she wasn’t allowed to be Māori, to be herself. A few years later, I was a plastic Māori for not knowing the words they beat her for using.
Connection to identity and culture protect our mental health and wellbeing – I wear the warmth of these now but I wonder how different things might have been if I’d grown up without both feet on my turangawaewae while also disconnected from our language. From a culture rooted in collectivity and connection, and knowing in my bones I needed that, where else might I have found it if I hadn’t grown up around my iwi? In an Aotearoa where Māori children grow up to die 7 years earlier than non-Māori, I try to bring this kōrowai into our home to wrap around our children. They deserve to live as long as their non-Māori mates. Their bodies shouldn’t have to carry the score from colonisation’s playbook.
When I let myself feel like I’m failing in my learning, it feels like I’m failing my tamariki because I don’t want their bodies to have to continue carrying that score.
That’s how important this ‘Māori nonsense’, as Joe Bennett called it, is. And why something as simple as using te reo Māori as product labels are worthwhile. The recent attempts at removing our culture are why we invest so much effort in defending it. Why revitalisation efforts are needed. Dr. Moana Jackson reminded us to look at the whole picture, not just here but across the world – colonised indigenous carry the burden of history. It’s not a global coincidence that colonisation affects our health outcomes, justice, and education. And it’s a burden made of a million things big and small. The pollution of rivers we love as our elders, the knowledge we’re more likely to be imprisoned for the same crime as others who walk free, the dismissing of our intergenerational knowledge, and the continued, willing mispronunciation of our names.
Whether or not you realise it, when you choose not to pronounce my name correctly, or when you mispronounce the name of our people – the word ‘Māori – you’re choosing to add another weight to the load. I’m sure it’s easier to pronounce it how you’d like. But that’s not my name. And we already carry enough. By taking the time to say it properly, as I do yours, you can take away one of those weights.
If I tell you my name and you choose to pronounce your own version, you’re effectively changing me to sound more like you. You’re telling me that who I am doesn’t belong here unless I change.
Intentional or not, by changing my name, you’re using your space to the same effect as the school system beating my nana for speaking her language, to make her sound more like them. You’re telling me your language and your point of view on pronunciation is more important than mine, even when the subject is literally me.
The same applies to mispronouncing the word ‘Māori’.
Stop trying to make us sound English to suit you.
Start listening when we say this is important.
If you’re not sure how to say it, just ask.
Ngā mihi aroha.
PS if you’re not sure how to start working on your pronunciation, I’ve put a few options here: Learn Māori online – Pera Barrett
PPS here’s how to pronounce my name