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”.