FAQ about Māori Vocabulary

Q1. What is a word in Māori?

A1. Māori words appear as single units in writing. They can be easily determined by criterion such as meaning, distribution, and pronunciation. Written (Māori) words usually resemble word boundaries in careful speech. Morphologically, Māori is an isolating language (most words realise a single morpheme).

Q2. How many Māori words are there?

A2. Most Māori dictionaries contain between 10,000 and 20,000 word entries.  If every Māori word that ever appeared in print was counted the number may reach 100,000. As with any major English dictionary, many words would not be known by fluent speakers.

Q3. What types of Māori words exist?

A3. Māori words can be divided into function words (i.e. grammatical words) and content (lexical) words. Function words in Māori are very short (none are more than two morae long). They include determiners and words used to indicate things like tense, aspect and mood. Content words, are all two or more morae in length. They include nouns, verbs, and adjectives etc. (i.e. open word classes).

There are other ways of classifying Māori vocabulary. Words are either traditional (Pre-European contact) or borrowed from other languages, mainly English. Words may have retained their traditional meanings and/or acquired new or additional meanings since coming into contact with English. Other words are neologisms (words deliberately created usually to fill a gap in a language).

Q4. What is the shortest Māori word?

A4. The shortest function words are a, e, i, and o. These are pronounced short in certain sentence environments. The shortest (widely used) content word is u (which is pronounced long) 'teat, firm, establish'.

Q5. What is the longest Māori word?

A5. There are small number of traditional Māori bases that are 3 morae long. These can be reduplicated and undergo affixation (prefixation and suffixation).

For example, whakamahanahanatanga can be derived from the term mahana 'warm'.

whaka- is a highly productive causative prefix, added to mahana to derive whakamahana 'make warm'

(whaka)mahana can be reduplicated to (whaka)mahanahana (to express plurality of subjects or objects).

The nominalising suffix -tanga can be added to produce whakamahanahanatanga.This translates as'the making warm of a number of things'.

I am unaware of any borrowing from English that is a longer than whakamahanahanatanga.

There are Māori compounds and proper nouns which are much longer.

Q6. What is the most frequent Māori word?

A6. The most frequent word is the function word te 'the (singular)'. The most frequent content word  (based on current corpus work) is korero 'talk, speech'. This can be a noun or verb. Another highly frequent word is haere 'to go'.

Q7. What is the most difficult Māori word to pronounce?

A7.  Many English speakers have difficulty pronouncing 'heuea'.  This is pronounced as two syllables heu-ea. Many learners have difficulty with the ng sound (a velar nasal), especially word initially.

Q8. Does Māori vocabulary vary amongst dialects and regions?

A8. Yes, but not significantly.

Some examples include: tetahi 'a, singular', is pronounced as tetehi by some Tainui and Te Arawa speakers, and as wetahi by some speakers in eastern and central regions, and as ngetehi by some Tainui speakers.

In modern Māori, Northern speakers may use no for 'no', some Tuhoe speakers use e he for 'no', elsewhere kaore or one of its variants is used.

Many speakers in Western areas use pawa or paoa 'smoke (i.e. from a fire)'. Ngati Porou speakers use kauruki, elsewhere au or auahi is used.

(Ngati Porou, Tainui, Te Arawa, Tuhoe are names of Māori tribal groupings)

Q9. How are new Māori words created?

A9. Since the late 1980s most new words in Māori have been created or approved by New Zealand's Māori Language Commission Te Taura Whiri who have developed their own set of guidelines.

Before the 1980s words were mainly borrowed from English. All borrowings conform to Māori phonological rules (i.e. they must be pronounced using existing Māori consonants, vowels, and syllable structures).

Q10. Does Māori lack words for abstractions or for modern technology?

A10. Thousands of new words have been created covering technical areas such as the sciences, computing, technology administration, commerce, sports, and government. There are still gaps in many areas.

Q11. Does Māori have swear words?

A11. Traditionally no. There are Māori words and phrases that most would regard as profanities. I am unaware of  any single term that could be regarded as a blasphemy. There are a few obscenities in modern Māori that have been borrowed from English.

Q12. Are there any Māori word frequency lists?

A12. There are four.

Benton, Tumoana, and Robb (1982) produced a word list based on a small corpus of some 200,000 words of speaking and writing. Although somewhat dated and now out of print, it is still offers useful insights.

Harlow (1990) produced a word index and frequency of list of Nga mahi a nga Tupuna, a book containing many traditional Māori stories collected in the 1800s.

Harlow and Thorton (1986) produced a word index and frequency of list of Nga Moteatea, three volumes of traditional Māori song poetry.

Mary Boyce's PhD (2006) involved the compilation of a Māori language broadcast corpus.

Q13. What is the Māori word for love?

A13. Aroha (i.e., in the sense of "I love you").

Notes

1.  mora (pl. morae) is a phonological unit of consisting of (C)V. (where C = consonant, V= (a short) vowel). The term was first applied to Māori by Winifred Bauer and may confuse phoneticians who sometimes use the term to mean something else.

2. borrowing really means copied from another language. Some argue that 'copying' is a more appropriate term as nothing is given back to the source language.

3. base (or root) is the remaining part of a word when all affixes are removed.

4. Almost Māori syllables are of the shape (C)(V)V. A few are (C)V1V1V2. Diphthongs are attested. All grammars of Māori support this analysis.

References

Benton, R., Tumoana, H., and Robb, A. (1982). Ko nga kupu pu noa o te reo Māori: The first basic word list. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Boyce, Mary Teresa. 2006.  A corpus of modern spoken Māori.  PhD Thesis, Victoria University of Wellington.

Harlow, R. B. (1990). A name and word index to nga mahi a nga tupuna. Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press.

Harlow, R. B., and Thornton, A. H. F. (1986). A name and word index to nga moteatea. Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press.

Last modified: 21 July 2013.

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