Māori are changing Pākehā, just as Pākehā changed them

Caught in the big, boisterous march that kicked off Māori Language Week in Wellington on Monday I wondered why it took so long for us to accept that a language is a world, and we lose something by not living in it.

In a goofy, inattentive way I learned Latin and French at school, unconvinced that I’d ever need either of them, so unwilling to put an effort into learning them properly.

Like many kids, I was an idiot about this. It doesn’t matter if you never go to Paris or ancient Rome, or a marae. A language is deserving for its own sake.

I can still read and understand some French, in spite of myself, and even now use meagre Latin to nudge at the meaning of unfamiliar words.

I’m no longer convinced that Latin is a corpse with a rusty dagger through its heart because it survives in the language we use every day.

For that matter, most Pākehā already know and use far more Māori words than our parents did; we just balk at the idea that we should work at it. I get that. I’m lazy too.

No language is irrelevant or pointless, though, whatever you think as a stroppy 13-year-old. They are all worlds that open up new ways of thinking and understanding.

Pākehā thought we were bringing civilisation to savages, and back in the early 19th century missionaries – my ancestors among them – took great care to learn te reo so that Māori would become Christian.

But maybe to them, we looked like savages: we brought alcohol and guns as well as religion, and land wars that led to illegal confiscations of Māori land.

Americans make triumphant westerns out of such conflicts. I like to think we have been quietly ashamed. Continue reading

  • Rosemary McLeod is a New Zealand writer, journalist, cartoonist and columnist
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