Language sketch: Maori (1)—sounds

Maori is the language of the Māori people of New Zealand. It is known in Maori as te reo Māori (‘the language Maori’) or simply te reo (‘the language’) for short. Te reo Māori was made an official language in New Zealand in 1987, along with New Zealand Sign Language.

There is a useful short online introduction to Maori at https://teara.govt.nz/en/te-reo-maori-the-maori-language

In this post, I give a brief overview of Maori’s place in the Austronesian language family and then discuss the sound system (phonology) of Mairo. I will cover the syntax of Maori in a separate post.

Austronesian languages

Māori belongs to the Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family. There are 5 groups of Polynesian languages: Tahitic (including Tahitian and Maori); Marquesan (Hawaian and Marquesan); Samoic (Samoan and Tokelauan); Tongic Nieuan (Tongan and Nieuan) and Rapanui (Rapa Nui: Easter Island). https://teara.govt.nz/en/map/41061/austronesian-languages

The Austronesian language family is found through South-East Asia and the Pacific. Important non-Polynesian members of the family include: Malay and its close relative Indonesian; Javanese; Tagalog (Philippines); and Malagasy (Madagascar). Another non-Polynesian member of the Austronesian family is Fijian.

The Austronesian family may have originated in (or near) Taiwan, where small groups still speak a diverse range of languages within the Formosan branch of Austronesian.

New Zealand was the last major land mass to become inhabited by people. The Maori people arrived there perhaps around 700 or 800 years ago. The Maori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa.

Close relative of Tahitian

When the British explorer Captain James Cook made contact with the Maori people for the first time (in 1769), a Tahitian crew member could understand Maori ‘tolerably well’ because of its similarity with Tahitian, though people in Tahiti apparently had no knowledge of New Zealand or of the Maoris.

On Cook’s voyage, the naturalist Joseph Banks listed some Maori words, comparing them with their Tahitian equivalents. That list already showed that the 2 languages were probably closely related. An extract can be seen at https://teara.govt.nz/en/41065/maori-and-tahitian-words-according-to-banks

Individual sounds of Maori

The Maori did not use writing. The writing system for Maori was devised by European settlers in the early to mid 1800s.

In most cases below, I refer to both sounds and written characters using the normal letters used in writing. Where there is any risk of confusion, I use the usual convention of enclosing phonemic transcriptions in slanting lines /f/, detailed phonetic transcriptions in square brackets [tsu] and orthographic characters in angled brackets <wh>.

Consonants

Maori has an inventory of only 10 consonants: p; t; k; m; n; h; w; r; wh and ng:

  • 7 of the consonants are pronounced in much the same way as their English counterparts (p; t; k; m; n; h; w).
    However, there are small differences: the stops (p, t and k) are not aspirated, unlike the corresponding English consonants.
    Also, t is sometimes pronounced with a light [s] before /i/ (and for some speakers also before /u/), giving /tsi/ and /tsu/.
    And t and n are dental sounds (with the tongue touching the teeth), whereas English t and n are alveolar sounds (with the teeth touching the alveolar ridge behind the upper teeth).
  • r is pronounced as a flap, with the tip of the tongue briefly touching the alveolar ridge. This may sound more like a short English /d/ than like an English /r/. Indeed, early attempts to write Maori often used the symbol <d>, not <r>.  
  • the digraph wh is pronounced rather like English f.
    Some sources describe it as a ‘weak’ f. I presume this means the lower lip does not quite touch the upper teeth, or barely touches them. Perhaps this explains why the missionaries who first devised the writing system in the mid-19th century chose the digraph wh, rather than f. And some sources hint that the pronunciation of this sound has moved closer to English /f/ over time since Europeans first arrived in New Zealand.
  • the digraph ng represents the sound /ŋ/, also represented by -ng at the end of English sing. In Maori, this consonant appears only at the start of a syllable, but in English it appears only at the end of a syllable. On distinguishing /ŋ/ from /n/ in English, please see http://languagemiscellany.com/2021/09/droppin-gs-bad-speech/
  • some consonants are pronounced slightly differently in some parts of New Zealand, for example; ng as [n] or [k]; or wh as [h] or as [wʔ]—[w] followed by a glottal stop.    

Maori has far fewer consonants (10) than English does (about 24). https://languagemiscellany.com/2021/10/how-many-sounds-are-there-in-english/

Consonants in English but not in Maori

English has the following consonants that Maori does not use:

  • voiced consonants (produced with vibrating vocal chords). English has several pairs of voiced and unvoiced consonants: p/b; t/d; k/g; f/v
  • sibilants: s; sh (/ʃ/ as in sheep); ch (/tʃ/ as in chip); and their voiced counterparts z; (/ʒ/ as in beige); j (/dʒ/ as in judge)
  • the inter-dental consonant th (/θ/ as in thick) and its voiced counterpart (/ð/ as in that)
  • the lateral consonant l (as in leg)
  • the palatal approximant or semi-vowel j or y (/j/ as in yet)

Vowels and dipthongs

Maori has 5 short vowels (a; e; i; o and u) and their long counterparts (written with a macron: ā, ē, ī, ō, ū). In the past, long vowels were not marked, or were indicated by double vowels (aa, ee, ii, oo, uu).

Long vowels are pronounced as a continuation of the same (pure) vowel. In this respect, they differ from English long vowels, which are pronounced as diphthongs (sequences of vowels within a single syllable).

Harlow (2015) suggests that some long vowels may be best analysed as a sequence of 2 instances of the same short vowel.

Dipthongs

Maori has both short diphthongs (sequences of 2 different short vowels) and long diphthongs (a long vowel followed by a different short vowel). Table 1 shows the short diphthongs in Maori.

aeaiaoau
 oioeou
 ei eu
   iu
Table 1. Caption: short diphthongs in Maori

Table 2 shows which long diphthongs exist in Maori.

āeāiāoāu
 ōi ōu
 ēi  
Table 2. Long diphthongs in Maori

As tables 1 and 2 show, there are no long diphthongs corresponding to the short diphthongs oe, eu and iu.

Syllables

Maori syllables have a very simple structure, consisting only of:

  • a vowel; or
  • a single consonant, followed by a vowel.

There are no clusters of consonants at the start of a syllable and no consonants at all at the end of a syllable.

Thus, Maori syllables are unlike English syllables, which can start with between 0 and 3 consonants and can end with between 0 and 4 consonants.

  • An English monosyllabic word with a cluster of 3 consonants at the beginning is strength /str-/
  • An English example with a cluster of 4 consonants at the end is glimpsed /-mpst/.

Syllables are made up of 1, 2 or 3 moras (timing units), depending on the length of the vowel or diphthong they contain.  A syllable is made up of:

  • 1 mora if the syllable contains a single short vowel.
  • 2 moras if the syllable contains a long vowel or short diphthong.
  • 3 moras if the syllable contains a long diphthong.

The term mora comes from Latin and so some writers spell its plural as morae.

Moras

A mora in Maori consists of a single short vowel, or a single consonant followed by a single short vowel.

A mora can contain any combination of a consonant followed by a short vowel, except that /wo/, /wu/, /fu/ and /fo/ occur only in words borrowed from English, not in native Maori words.

Moras affect:

  • the form of some grammatical particles and suffixes. For example, the verbal particle e can appear before verbs consisting of 2 moras, but is absent (or perhaps silent) before longer verbs. Also, the form of the suffix used to form passive verbs depends partly on how many mora are present in the verb.
  • stress
  • reduplication

For a discussion of moras in Japanese, please see https://languagemiscellany.com/2021/09/how-many-syllables-are-there-in-a-haiku/

Stress

The placing of stress on Maori words follows the following principles (though with some exceptions):

  • the stress goes in the last 4 moras of the word;
  • the stress goes on the first (earliest) long vowel within those last 4 moras;
  • if there is no long vowel, the stress goes on a diphthong in the last 4 moras (but for some speakers cannot go on any diphthong in the final syllable);
  • if there is no long vowel and no diphthong, the stress goes on the first (earliest) syllable in the last 4 moras;
  • the above principles are modified for some prefixed words and in some instances of reduplication

The quality of Maori vowels does not change if they are unstressed (unlike English vowels, which change greatly if unstressed).

Reduplication

Reduplication is a process that derives a new word by repeating part of another word. Maori has several reduplication patterns. Table 3 shows some of the patterns that exist for words of 2 moras (the first 2 lines) or 3 moras (the last 4 lines).

In the table:

  • M1 stands for the 1st mora, M2 for the 2nd mora and M3 for the 3rd mora.
  • V shows that the preceding vowel lengthens.
  • Hyphens (which do not appear in normal writing) show the boundaries between the moras.
DescriptionReduplication pattern
and example
Reduplicate M1M1M1M2
pa-pa-i (‘very good’),
from pa-i (‘good’)
Reduplicate M1M2M1M2M1M2
pa-ki-pa-ki (‘clap’),
from pa-ki (‘slap’)
Reduplicate M1M1M1M2M3
ho-ho-a-ta,
from ho-a-ta
(both meaning ‘the moon on the third day, pale, colourless’)
Reduplicate M1M2M1M2M1M2M3
tu-no-tu-no-a (‘bow repeatedly’),
from tu-no-a (‘nod the head’)
Lengthen vowel in M1 and reduplicate M2M1VM2M2M3
ta-a-we-we-ke (‘slow, dilatory’),
from ta-we-ke (‘linger’)
Lengthen vowel in M1 and reduplicate M2M3M1VM2M3M2M3
pa-a-hu-u-hu-u (‘pop, crackle’),
from pa-hu-u
Table 3. Maori reduplication patterns for words with 1 or 2 moras.

Sources

A Māori Reference Grammar, Ray Harlow (2015)

Te Reo Maori: the basics explained, David Kārena Holmes (2020)

Languages of the World: An introduction, Asya Pereltsvaig (3rd edition, 2020)

The Austronesian Languages, Ross Clark, chapter 9 in The Major Languages of East and South-East Asia, edited by Bernard Comrie (1990)

https://teara.govt.nz/en/te-reo-maori-the-maori-language (accessed 30 March 2023)

History of the Māori language – Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori – Māori Language Week | NZHistory, New Zealand history online (accessed 30 March 2023)

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