Māori Phonology

The Basics

5 Vowels (i.e., 5 monophthongs):           a e i o u

10 consonants:     p t k m n ng wh h r w

Vowels can be short or long. Long vowels in written Māori are designated by a macron.

Vowel length is often phonemic (distinguishes between two separate words).

In modern phonetics diphthongs (see below) are usually counted as separate vowels in additional to monophthongs. Therefore Māori (as with other Polynesian languages) should not be regarded as a 5 vowel language.

Māori is an open syllable language (i.e., all syllables end in a vowel). Consonant clusters are not permitted. All Māori words borrowed from other languages such as English are adapted to conform to the existing phoneme inventory.

The ng digraph represents a velar nasal. The wh digraph is now usually pronounced similar to an New Zealand English f.

The fricative h and the semi-vowel w are pronounced similar to their New Zealand English equivalents.

In some western areas of the North Island h is replaced by a glottal stop.

The plosives p, t, k traditionally had very little aspiration. In modern Māori they are often spoken with a lot of aspiration especially amongst younger speakers.

The liquid r is mostly a flap, especially before a, elsewhere a brief trill is sometimes attested.

Māori does not have (lexical) tones.

Māori Diphthongs

Diphthongs are glides between two different vowel sequences as opposed to a distinctive separation or an abrupt change in the pronunciation of two vowels usually within a syllable.

The following vowel sequences can be pronounced as diphthongs: ae, ai, ao, au, ei, oi, oe, ou.

Māori Syllables

Māori syllables are usually (C)V(V). There are a few examples of (C)V1V1V2. Vowel-only phrases or sentences can occur. e.g.

I auau ia.

He (she) barked.

I = past tense marker, auau is a verb meaning bark (like a dog), ia is the pronoun for third person singular (male or female).

The term mora is sometimes used in Māori grammars to describe a syllable of the shape (C)V. Some Māori grammatical words consist of one mora only. All lexical items (or content words) are at least two morae (the plural of mora).

The term mora may cause confusion. A stressed mora of the shape CV is probably of longer duration than a non-stressed mora of the same shape. Therefore the term may be useful in describing some word formation processes in Māori, but may not be appropriate for the discussion of Māori phonetics.

Māori Stress

According to Harlow (2015), all Māori words and most particles (i.e. grammatical words) contain a stressed syllable. Stress is not phonemic.

The stressed syllable is never more than four morae from the end of a word. Main stress usually lies on the first long vowel. If there is no long vowel, the syllable containing a diphthong is stressed (for some speakers this rule is any non-final diphthong). If there is no long vowel or diphthong within the last four morae, then the earliest syllable is stressed.

These rules are general guidelines and there are words which are stressed in less predictable ways. Also in natural speech word boundaries can sometimes be blurred resulting in changes in stress patterns.


Māori phonology is an area that requires further research.

Check out MAONZE A research project looking at changes in the pronunciation of Māori.


Bauer, W. A. (1993). Māori. London: Routledge.

Harlow, R. (2015). A Māori reference grammar. Wellington, New Zealand: Huia.

Harlow, R. (2007). Māori: A linguistic introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harlow, R., Keegan, P.J., King, J., Maclagan, M., & Watson, C.I. (2005). Te whakahuatanga i te reo Māori: Kua ahatia e tatou i roto i nga tau 100 kua hipa nei? The pronunciation of Māori: What have we done to it in the last 100 years? He Puna Korero, Journal of Māori and Pacific Development, 6(1), 7-27.

Maclagan, M., Harlow, R., King, J., Keegan, P.J., & Watson, C.I. (2004). New Zealand English influence on Māori pronunciation over time. Te Reo, Journal of the Linguistic Society of New Zealand. 47, 45-57.

Maclagan, M. & King, J. (2002). The pronunciation of wh in Māori - a case study from the late nineteenth century. Te Reo: Journal of the Linguistic Society of New Zealand. 45, 45-63.

Last modified: 4 June 2018.

This page is Copyright © Peter J Keegan, PhD, 2003-2018.