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 or minimal pairs).

In modern phonetics diphthongs (see below) are usually counted as separate vowels in additional to monophthongs. Māori (as with other Polynesian languages) is sometimes labelled as a 5 vowel language, this is a little misleading as the Māori vowel system is complex and there are many aspects which are not yet fully understood.

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 versus Māori (Vowel) Sequences

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

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

au is a diphthong, but ua is a sequence (of unlike vowels). For au there is a clear audible and acoustic difference in the quality of both the a and the u as compared to their monophthong (single vowel) equivalents. However the vowel qualities of ua are very similar to their monophthong equivalents.

The oe in the 2nd person plural koe is usually pronounced as a diphthong, however in very careful speech sometimes oe (of koe) is pronounced as a vowel sequence.


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, others are two morae (the plural of mora) or bimoraic. All lexical items (or content words) are at least two morae.

Some Māori word formation processes, such as reduplication can be realised across syllable boundaries, e.g., pātai which has frequentative forms of pā.tai.tai and pa.ta.pa.tai. In others words reduplication is not always the repetition or doubling of an existing syllable, the underlying unit that is repeated is the mora (or morae).

The sigma symbol μ is often used for a syllable and the mu symbol σ is used for a mora.

Māori syllables can be classified into one of three types;

monomoraic   σ1   (C)V

bimoraic   σ1σ2  (C)VV

trimoraic   σ1σ2σ3   (C)V1V1V2

There are two types of bimoraic syllables in Māori, (1) those with two like (or the same) vowels, usually regarded as geminates and (2) those with two unlike vowels, i.e., a diphthong.


Māori Stress (Māori Syllable Prominence)

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. Although I suspect some multimoraic words may be treated as compounds for the assignment of stress.

Main (or primary) 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.

The above 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.

Examples of primary stress assignment in relatively simple words (primary stress is indicated by a high vertical line before the stressed syllable, secondary stress by a low vertical line and a period is used to mark syllable boundary and long vowels are marked with a macron) include;


























Some irregularities, alternative or unknown forms include:

ˈke.re.ˌrū  versus   ˌke.re.ˈrū   and   ˈma.na.ˌtū  versus   ˌ ma.na.ˈtū   (The rules suggest the latter but both forms are probably now heard).


ˈma.rae  versus   ma.ˈrae  

(The former is still common amongst older speakers in the western dialect areas and once may have been the default pronunciation outside of eastern areas, the latter is now the common pronunciation amongst Māori speakers). I suspect that variation also occurs in others words of this shape CV.(C)V1V2


ˈmā.tā.tā versus  mā.ˈtā.tā (The rules suggest the latter. There may be secondary stress on the other non-final syllable).


ˈmoa.na  versus   mo.ˈa.na  

(The former may have been the default, but the latter, with three syllables (not two) is now commonly heard. Perhaps the popular film Moana has had some influence.)


ˈu.a.ˌu.a  versus   u.ˈau.a  

(Both are attested amongst younger speakers, some older speakers only use the former.)


ˈwhe.nu.a  versus   whe.ˈnu.a  

(The Auckland place name, which is a compound is often heard as whe.ˈnu.a.pai alternatively it could be pronounced as two separate words, e.g., ˈwhe.nu.a. ˈpai)


More details to follow on how is stressed applied in complex Māori words (containing affixation and compounds). Māori words borrowed from English and other languages are sometimes stressed according to English rules (I'll add examples soon that I can attest with real data).



Māori phonology and Māori phonetics are areas that require 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.

Watson, C.I., Maclagan, M., King, J., Harlow, R., & Keegan P.J. (2006). Sound change in Māori and the Influence of New Zealand English. Journal of the International Phonetics Association, 46, 02, 185-218. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0025100316000013

Last modified: 9 March 2021. NZST

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