Ka Ngaro Te Reo: Māori language under siege in the 19th Century
by Paul Moon (Otago U Press, $39.95)
Why English? Confronting the Hydra
eds Pauline Bunce, Robert Phillipson, Vaughan Rapatahana & Ruanni Tupas (Multilingual Matters, $169; available as an e-book)
Reviewed by Alison McCulloch
Try to imagine this land before English took root and, like a runaway invasive species, strangled everything in its path. Imagine a time when te Reo wasn’t a “language”, as we think of languages — not one tongue among many, but the universal tongue, the only tongue, the waka that carried the culture, history, whakapapa, tikanga, rites, rules, indeed “everything about Māori culture and society” that had been evolving here for more than seven centuries.
It might be impossible to step out of your own time, or to throw off your own cultural trappings, and inhabit the past, but historian Paul Moon does his best to lead us back there in the early part of his book, Ka Ngaro te Reo, which traces the decline of the Māori language from the arrival of Europeans to 1900, by which time te Reo’s path toward its current parlous state was firmly set.
It’s instructive to try think yourself into that world, when, as Moon explains it, te Reo was like a living entity with a mauri and personality “which required it to be treated with respect”; to appreciate the importance of the spoken word in a culture with no written words — hence no sacred texts or books or libraries or encyclopedias, or printed maps (at least, not the kind we’re familiar with); to consider the significance of orators, language experts, storytellers, waiata, place names, whakapapa, pūrākau in recording the past and mapping the present; to realise how shockingly little time it took to nearly kill off this gift from the gods. Te Reo, Moon writes, went “from primacy to perishing in just 10 decades”.
As with pretty much everything else the incoming British saw of Māori life and culture, te Reo was judged inferior, ‘a language of simple ideas’, ‘of a savage people’ who have ‘a very limited notion of the abstract’. Like the people who inhabited it, the world of te Reo needed to be tamed, ‘civilised’ and ultimately replaced.
Never mind some of the impressive feats of the language and its speakers, like the story with which Moon opens the book, of an encounter in 1834 between the Austrian botanist Baron Charles von Hügel and two Māori in Northland. Von Hügel had collected several hundred plant specimens and wanted to find out what Māori knew about them. The first person he approached rattled off the name of each specimen in the collection, which apparently von Hügel found somewhat suspicious, prompting him to question another local Māori the following night. Quoting the missionary the Rev. William Yate, Moon writes, “ ‘With one single exception…out of three hundred specimens, he gave the name to each, as had been given the night before. It is so likewise with respect to birds, fishes, insects, garments, and everything else which they possess.’ ”
There are other stories, too, of a koroua from Ruatāhuna who knew the lyrics to 406 waiata, as well as the stories surrounding them and of the Māori witness giving evidence over a land claim who “provided a genealogy extending back 34 generations. … So detailed was this presentation — again, done entirely from the man’s memory — that it took three days to present to the commission and contained specifics on the history, occupations and relationships of over 1400 individuals.”
The (English) Word of God
The biggest change Te Reo underwent during early colonisation was its transformation into a written language — a process Moon suggests had a “suffocating effect on its cultural integrity”. Here, it was the missionaries who played the crucial role, and this part of te Reo’s story is also the story of how Christianity so successfully supplanted traditional Māori beliefs.
Because the missionaries’ faith was based on the written word — the Bible — the written word was seen as necessary to its spread. But transcribing an oral culture is not a benign undertaking, and brought with it with myriad unintended consequences. Capturing te Reo on the page caused power to shift away from the masters of memory to the writers, publishers, owners and readers of books; it helped impose one version of Te Reo on what were myriad dialects; it standardised a language for which, apparently there had been no fixed “correct” version; it eroded the authority of tohunga, kaumātua, kuia and rangatira; and, as noted, it hastened the loss of traditional Māori religious beliefs which, unlike this new faith, were recorded in no Book of their own.
Moon argues, quite boldly, that rendering the Scriptures into te Reo was “an act of cultural miscegenation”: “the words and grammar of one culture were being inculcated — in printed form — with the lore and spirituality of another, and then fed back to the former as the single, non-negotiable truth of the coloniser’s culture. Whose language was it now? The words and grammar belonged to Māori, but the concepts they conveyed did not.”
Instrument of Conquest
It is this first part of Moon’s book that contains the most surprises, and for this reader, raises the most interesting questions. Perhaps that’s because the latter part of te Reo’s story is one we’re more familiar with: its loss to English in all the public spaces and institutions of society, particularly education, and with that, its replacement in the private sphere. But it’s also because, here, Moon doesn’t shy away from opinion, a welcome quality in an academic writing for a lay audience.
English may have been the first instrument of colonial conquest, as Moon puts it, but these pages make it feel like the most powerful, too. It’s just that it’s harder to record and measure the impact of the weapon of language than it is those battles won with guns and raw power. And while you can at least try to return lands and resources unjustly taken, how do you give back a language that has been stripped of so much of what gave it its original meaning and role?
It’s some of the deeper questions about the impact of our monolingualism that tend to be missing from contemporary discussions of how and why te Reo must be returned to good health. And some of the arguments against doing so seem little changed from 150 years ago. A few of them were recorded in the Waitangi Tribunal’s 1986 report on the Te Reo Maori Claim (Wai 11): that the Māori language cannot meet the needs of modern society; that there’s no need for its recognition because Māori can speak English; that because English is “an international language” it’s more useful than Māori; that recognition will be too expensive and minority languages die out eventually anyway. Besides “most New Zealanders cannot speak or understand Māori”. The tribunal countered each of these claims, and concluded that te Reo was a taonga guaranteed under the Treaty of Waitangi and the Crown, therefore, had responsibilities for its protection. The following year, in 1987, te Reo was finally made an official language in its own country.
Just as Moon surveys some of the myriad consequences of te Reo’s decline, there would likely be just as many consequences — undoubtedly positive — of its revitalisation, consequences that would reach far beyond its simply being spoken (and written and read). As Moon notes, touching on postmodernist ideas about language, English became, in Britain’s colonies, “a means of constructing identities, constituting knowledge systems, contextualising cultures and conferring civilisation on ‘The Other’”, its dominance outlasting the empire that planted it.” Te Reo’s revival would surely go a long way toward turning that around and reconstituting those identities, knowledge systems and cultures.
Confronting the Hydra
That the hegemony of English is not just a local but a global problem is a point made repeatedly in a collection of articles (the second in a series) titled Why English? Confronting the Hydra. Its contributors explore the seemingly endless ways English has become a tool of injustice — how it is used as gatekeeper in multilingual societies, necessary to higher education, training and jobs; how it entrenches inequities, snuffs out diversity, smothering cultures and their histories. After 24 chapters, the notion of countering the power of English feels like a hopeless task (yes, rather like trying to slay the many-headed Hyrda, who sprouts two new heads for every one cut off), a conclusion reinforced by the fact that this critique of the hegemony of English is (as the editors do acknowledge) “written in English and published by a British publisher”. By way of explanation, they simply say they have nothing against the language per se, but object to its misuse.
Amid the rise and rise of English, Why English? offers up few bright spots of language diversity. One possible case is India, where, as Alamin Mazrui argues, the idea that “English is the only linguistic means for upward mobility … seems to be slowly eroding”. Readership of English language newspapers in India has been stagnant or declining, making way for newspapers in regional languages like Bengali and Tamil. But India also exposes links between language diversity and nationalism, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi promoting Hindi at least in part from Hindu nationalist motives. (And another article about India points to how much use of English has entrenched divisions, benefitting the already well-off and excluding the rest.)
English is now the language of technology, the academy, science and, of course, capitalism, with the United States long since having eclipsed Britain as the driver of global monolingualism, through its financial and media (television, movies, pop music, publishing) domination. English is also, the editors argue, now “the word of God”, and their account of contemporary English-speaking Christian prosyletising across the globe is eerily reminiscent of the 19th century missionaries in Aotearoa New Zealand.
No part of the globe is untouched by the Hydra, from Iceland to Africa to the Philippines to Eastern Europe to, yes, Aotearoa New Zealand. This is a long, intense and quite depressing collection, with many more accounts of the Hydra’s victims than of those who successfully engaged in what the editors call “resistance and confrontation” (although they do claim the book contains “plenty of evidence” of both, citing efforts in Mauritius, Brazil, Pakistan, India, China and some regions of Africa).
Meanwhile, back in Aotearoa New Zealand, the new 13-member body charged with revitalizing te Reo, called Te Matawai, held its first meeting in early October. With the proportion of Māori speakers of te Reo at around 21 percent, the task they face is difficult. Its importance is best captured in the whakataukī from which Moon’s title is taken:
Ka ngaro te Reo, ka ngaro taua, pērā i te ngaro o te moa. “If the language be lost, man will be lost, as dead as the moa.” (This version of the whaktaukī was given in evidence in the 1986 Te Reo claim.)