Māori language

Māori, Te reo Māori
Native to New Zealand
Region Polynesia
Ethnicity Māori people
Native speakers
Some 50,000 people report that they speak the language well or very well;[1]
149,000 self-report some knowledge of the language.[2]
Latin (Māori alphabet)
Māori Braille
Official status
Official language in
 New Zealand
Regulated by Māori Language Commission
Language codes
ISO 639-1 mi
ISO 639-2 mao (B)
mri (T)
ISO 639-3 mri
Glottolog maor1246
ELP Māori
Glottopedia Maori[3]
Linguasphere 39-CAQ-a
Idioma maorí.PNG
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Māori (/ˈmri/, Māori: [ˈmaːɔɾi] (About this soundlisten)), also known as te reo ('the language'), is an Eastern Polynesian language spoken by the Māori people, the indigenous population of New Zealand. Closely related to Cook Islands Māori, Tuamotuan, and Tahitian, it gained recognition as one of New Zealand's official languages in 1987. The number of speakers of the language has declined sharply since 1945,[4] but a Māori-language revitalisation effort has slowed the decline.

The 2013 New Zealand census reported that about 149,000 people, or 3.7% of the New Zealand population, could hold a conversation in Māori about everyday things.[2][5] As of 2015, 55% of Māori adults reported some knowledge of the language; of these, 64% use Māori at home and around 50,000 people can speak the language "very well" or "well".[1]

The Māori language did not have an indigenous writing system. Missionaries arriving from about 1814 learned to speak Māori, and introduced the Latin alphabet. In 1817, Tītore and his junior relative, Tui, sailed to England.[6] They visited Professor Samuel Lee at the University of Cambridge and assisted him in the preparation of a grammar and vocabulary of Māori. Thomas Kendall travelled to London with Hongi Hika and Waikato (a lower-ranking Ngāpuhi chief) in 1820, during which time further work was done with Professor Lee, who gave phonetic spellings to a written form of the language, which resulted in a definitive orthography based on North Island usage.[7] By 1830 the Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionaries had revised the orthography for writing the Māori language; for example, Kiddeekiddee became, as in the modern spelling, Kerikeri.[8] Māori distinguishes between long and short vowels; modern written texts usually mark the long vowels with a macron. Some older texts represent long vowels with double letters (for example: Maaori rather than Māori); for modern exceptions see § Long vowels below.


The English word comes from the Māori language, where it is spelled Māori. In New Zealand, the Māori language is often referred to as te reo [tɛ ˈɾɛ.ɔ] ('the language'), short for te reo Māori.[9]

The spelling ⟨Maori⟩ (without a macron) is standard in English outside New Zealand in both general and linguistic usage.[2][10] The Māori-language spelling ⟨Māori⟩ (with a macron) has become common in New Zealand English in recent years, particularly in Māori-specific cultural contexts,[9][11] although the traditional English spelling is still prevalent in general media and government use.[12]

Preferred and alternate pronunciations in English vary by dictionary, with /ˈmri/ being most frequent today, and /mɑːˈɒri/, /ˈmɔːri/, and /ˈmɑːri/ also given, while the 'r' is always a rolled r.[13]

Official status

New Zealand has three official languages: English, Māori, and New Zealand Sign Language.[14] Māori gained this status with the passing of the Māori Language Act 1987.[15] Most government departments and agencies have bilingual names—for example, the Department of Internal Affairs is alternatively Te Tari Taiwhenua—and places such as local government offices and public libraries display bilingual signs and use bilingual stationery. New Zealand Post recognises Māori place-names in postal addresses. Dealings with government agencies may be conducted in Māori, but in practice, this almost always requires interpreters, restricting its everyday use to the limited geographical areas of high Māori fluency, and to more formal occasions, such as during public consultation. Increasingly New Zealand is referred to by the Māori name Aotearoa ("land of the long white cloud"), though originally this may have referred only to the North Island.[16][better source needed]

An interpreter is on hand at sessions of the New Zealand Parliament for instances when a Member wishes to speak in Māori.[11][17] Māori may be spoken in judicial proceedings, but any party wishing to do so must notify the court in advance to ensure an interpreter is available. Failure to notify in advance does not preclude the party speaking in Māori, but the court must be adjourned until an interpreter is available and the party may be held liable for the costs of the delay.[18]

A 1994 ruling by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council[19] in the United Kingdom held the New Zealand Government responsible under the Treaty of Waitangi (1840) for the preservation of the language. Accordingly, since March 2004, the state has funded Māori Television, broadcast partly in Māori. On 28 March 2008, Māori Television launched its second channel, Te Reo, broadcast entirely in the Māori language, with no advertising or subtitles. The first Māori TV channel, Aotearoa Television Network (ATN) was available to viewers in the Auckland region from 1996 but lasted for only one year.[20]

In 2008, Land Information New Zealand published the first list of official place names with macrons, which indicate long vowels. Previous place name lists were derived from computer systems (usually mapping and geographic information systems) that could not handle macrons.[21]



"First Lessons in the Maori Language", 1862,
by W. L. Williams, first Bishop of Waiapu

According to legend, Māori came to New Zealand from Hawaiki. Current anthropological thinking places their origin in eastern Polynesia, mostly likely from the Southern Cook or Society Islands region, and says that they arrived by deliberate voyages in seagoing canoes,[22] possibly double-hulled, and probably sail-rigged. These settlers probably arrived by about AD 1280 (see Origins of the Māori people). Their language and its dialects developed in isolation until the 19th century.

Since about 1800, the Māori language has had a tumultuous history. It started this period as the predominant language of New Zealand. In the 1860s, it became a minority language in the shadow of the English spoken by many settlers, missionaries, gold-seekers, and traders. In the late 19th century, the colonial governments of New Zealand and its provinces introduced an English-style school system for all New Zealanders. From the mid 1800s, due to the Native Schools Act and later the Native Schools Code, the use of Māori in schools was slowly filtered out of the curriculum in order to become more European.[23] Increasing numbers of Māori people learned English.


Until the Second World War (1939–1945), most Māori people spoke Māori as their first language. Worship took place in Māori; it functioned as the language of Māori homes; Māori politicians conducted political meetings in Māori, and some literature appeared in Māori, along with many newspapers.[24]

Before 1880, some Māori parliamentarians suffered disadvantages because Parliament's proceedings took place in English.[25] However, by 1900, all Māori members of parliament, such as Sir Āpirana Ngata, were university graduates who spoke fluent English. From this period greater emphasis was placed on Māori learning English, but it was not until the migration of Māori to urban areas after the Second World War that the number of speakers of Māori began to decline rapidly.[24] Some Māori children who spoke Te Reo at school were beaten, which contributed to the decline in the Te Reo language in the 1940s to 1980s.[26] By the 1980s, fewer than 20 per cent of Māori spoke the language well enough to be classed as native speakers. Even many of those people no longer spoke Māori in their homes. As a result, many Māori children failed to learn their ancestral language, and generations of non-Māori-speaking Māori emerged.[27]

Revitalisation efforts

By the 1980s, Māori leaders had begun to recognise the dangers of the loss of their language, and initiated Māori-language recovery-programs such as the Kōhanga Reo movement, which from 1982 immersed infants in Māori from infancy to school age. There followed in 1985 the founding of the first Kura Kaupapa Māori (Years 1 to 8 Māori-medium education programme) and later the first Wharekura (Years 9 to 13 Māori-medium education programme). In 2011 it was reported that although "there was a true revival of te reo in the 1980s and early to mid-1990s ... spurred on by the realisation of how few speakers were left, and by the relative abundance of older fluent speakers in both urban neighbourhoods and rural communities", the language has continued to decline."[4] The decline is believed "to have several underlying causes".[28] These include:

  • the ongoing loss of older native speakers who have spearheaded the Māori-language-revival movement
  • complacency brought about by the very existence of the institutions which drove the revival
  • concerns about quality, with the supply of good teachers never matching demand (even while that demand has been shrinking)
  • excessive regulation and centralised control, which has alienated some of those involved in the movement
  • an ongoing lack of educational resources needed to teach the full curriculum in te reo Māori.[28]

Based on the principles of partnership, Māori-speaking government, general revitalisation and dialectal protective policy, and adequate resourcing, the Waitangi Tribunal has recommended "four fundamental changes":[29]

  1. Te Taura Whiri (the Māori Language Commission) should become the lead Māori language sector agency. This will address the problems caused by the lack of ownership and leadership identified by the Office of the Auditor-General.[30]
  2. Te Taura Whiri should function as a Crown–Māori partnership through the equal appointment of Crown and Māori appointees to its board. This reflects [the Tribunal's] concern that te reo revival will not work if responsibility for setting the direction is not shared with Māori.
  3. Te Taura Whiri will also need increased powers. This will ensure that public bodies are compelled to contribute to te reo's revival and that key agencies are held properly accountable for the strategies they adopt. For instance, targets for the training of te reo teachers must be met, education curricula involving te reo must be approved, and public bodies in districts with a sufficient number and/or proportion of te reo speakers and schools with a certain proportion of Māori students must submit Māori language plans for approval.
  4. These regional public bodies and schools must also consult iwi (Māori tribes or tribal confederations) in the preparation of their plans. In this way, iwi will come to have a central role in the revitalisation of te reo in their own areas. This should encourage efforts to promote the language at the grassroots.[31]

The changes set forth by the Tribunal are merely recommendations; they are not binding upon government.[32]

There is however evidence that the revitalisation efforts are taking hold, as can be seen in the teaching of te reo in the school curriculum, the use of Māori as an instructional language, and the supportive ideologies surrounding these efforts.[33] In 2014, a survey of students ranging in age from 18 to 24 was conducted; the students were of mixed ethnic backgrounds, ranging from Pākehā to Māori who lived in New Zealand. This survey showed a 62% response saying that te reo Māori was at risk.[33] Albury argues that these results come from the language either not being used enough in common discourse, or from the fact that the number of speakers was inadequate for future language development.[33]

The policies for language revitalisation have been changing in attempts to improve Māori language use and have been working with suggestions from the Waitangi Tribunal on the best ways to implement the revitalisation. The Waitangi Tribunal in 2011 identified a suggestion for language revitalisation that would shift indigenous policies from the central government to the preferences and ideologies of the Māori people.[32] This change recognises the issue of Māori revitalisation as one of indigenous self-determination, instead of the job of the government to identify what would be best for the language and Māori people of New Zealand.[34]

Revival since 2015

Beginning in about 2015, the Māori language underwent a revival as it became increasingly popular, as a common national heritage, even among New Zealanders without Māori roots. Surveys from 2018 indicated that "the Māori language currently enjoys a high status in Māori society and also positive acceptance by the majority of non-Māori New Zealanders".[35]

As the status and prestige of the language rose, so did the demand for language classes. Businesses were quick to adopt the trend as it became apparent that using te reo made customers think of a company as "committed to New Zealand".[35] The language became increasingly heard in the media and in politics. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern—who gave her daughter a Māori middle name—made headlines when she toasted Commonwealth leaders in 2018 with a Māori proverb, and the success of Māori musical groups such as Alien Weaponry and Maimoa further increased the language's presence in social media.[35]

In 2019, Kotahi Rau Pukapuka Trust began work on publishing a sizeable library of local and international literature in the language.[36] In March 2021, the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) said it would no longer entertain complaints regarding the use of Māori language in broadcasts. This followed a five-fold increase in complaints to the BSA, despite the use of Māori in itself not breaching any broadcasting standards.[37]

Linguistic classification

East Polynesian

Rapa Nui

Central Eastern









Comparative linguists classify Māori as a Polynesian language; specifically as an Eastern Polynesian language belonging to the Tahitic subgroup, which includes Cook Islands Māori, spoken in the southern Cook Islands, and Tahitian, spoken in Tahiti and the Society Islands. Other major Eastern Polynesian languages include Hawaiian, Marquesan (languages in the Marquesic subgroup), and the Rapa Nui language of Easter Island.[38][39][40]

While the preceding are all distinct languages, they remain similar enough that Tupaia, a Tahitian travelling with Captain James Cook in 1769–1770, communicated effectively with Māori.[41] Māori actors, travelling to Easter Island for production of the film Rapa-Nui noticed a marked similarity between the native tongues, as did arts curator Reuben Friend, who noted that it took only a short time to pick up any different vocabulary and the different nuances to recognisable words.[42] Speakers of modern Māori generally report that they find the languages of the Cook Islands, including Rarotongan, the easiest amongst the other Polynesian languages to understand and converse in.

Geographic distribution

Speakers of Māori according to the 2013 census.
  < 5%
  > 50%

Nearly all speakers are ethnic Māori resident in New Zealand. Estimates of the number of speakers vary: the 1996 census reported 160,000,[43] while other estimates have reported as few as 10,000 fluent adult speakers in 1995 according to the Māori Language Commission.[44] As reported in the 2013 national census, only 21.31 per cent of Māori (self-identified) had a conversational knowledge of the language, and only around 6.5 per cent of those speakers, 1.4 per cent of the total Māori population, spoke the Māori language only. This percentage has been in decline in recent years, from around a quarter of the population to 21 per cent. However, the number of speakers In the same census, Māori speakers were 3.7 per cent of the total population.[5]

The level of competence of self-professed Māori speakers varies from minimal to total. Statistics have not been gathered for the prevalence of different levels of competence. Only a minority of self-professed speakers use Māori as their main language at home.[45] The rest use only a few words or phrases (passive bilingualism).[citation needed]

Māori still is a community language in some predominantly-Māori settlements in the Northland, Urewera and East Cape areas. Kohanga reo Māori-immersion kindergartens throughout New Zealand use Māori exclusively. Increasing numbers of Māori raise their children bilingually.[45]

Urbanisation after the Second World War led to widespread language shift from Māori predominance (with Māori the primary language of the rural whānau) to English predominance (English serving as the primary language in the Pākehā cities). Therefore, Māori-speakers almost always communicate bilingually, with New Zealand English as either their first or second language. Only around 9,000 people speak only in Māori.[34]

The use of the Māori language in the Māori diaspora is far lower than in New Zealand itself. Census data from Australia show it as the home language of 11,747, just 8.2% of the total Australian Māori population in 2016. However, this could just be due to more Māori immigrants leaving to Australia.[46]


There was originally no native writing system for Māori. It has been suggested that the petroglyphs once used by the Māori developed into a script similar to the Rongorongo of Easter Island.[47] However, there is no evidence that these petroglyphs ever evolved into a true system of writing. Some distinctive markings among the kōwhaiwhai (rafter paintings) of meeting houses were used as mnemonics in reciting whakapapa (genealogy) but again, there was no systematic relation between marks and meanings.

The modern Māori alphabet has 15 letters, two of which are digraphs: A E H I K M N O P R T U W NG and WH.[a] The five vowels have both short and long forms, with the long forms denoted by macrons marked above them - Ā, Ē, Ī, Ō and Ū. Attempts to write Māori words using the Latin script began with Captain James Cook and other early explorers, with varying degrees of success. Consonants seem to have caused the most difficulty, but medial and final vowels are often missing in early sources. Anne Salmond[48] records aghee for aki (In the year 1773, from the North Island East Coast, p. 98), Toogee and E tanga roak for Tuki and Tangaroa (1793, Northland, p216), Kokramea, Kakramea for Kakaramea (1801, Hauraki, p261), toges for tokis, Wannugu for Uenuku and gumera for kumara (1801, Hauraki, p261, p266, p269), Weygate for Waikato (1801, Hauraki, p277), Bunga Bunga for pungapunga, tubua for tupua and gure for kurī (1801, Hauraki, p279), as well as Tabooha for Te Puhi (1823, Northern Northland, p385).

From 1814, missionaries tried to define the sounds of the language. Thomas Kendall published a book in 1815 entitled A korao no New Zealand, which in modern orthography and usage would be He Kōrero nō Aotearoa. Beginning in 1817, Professor Samuel Lee of Cambridge University worked with the Ngāpuhi chief Tītore and his junior relative Tui (also known as Tuhi or Tupaea),[7] and then with chief Hongi Hika[49] and his junior relative Waikato; they established a definitive orthography based on Northern usage, published as the First Grammar and Vocabulary of the New Zealand Language (1820).[7] The missionaries of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) did not have a high regard for this book. By 1830 the CMS missionaries had revised the orthography for writing the Māori language; for example, ‘Kiddeekiddee’ became, what is the modern spelling, ‘Kerikeri’.[8] This orthography continues in use, with only two major changes: the addition of wh to distinguish the voiceless bilabial fricative phoneme from the labio-velar phoneme /w/; and the consistent marking of long vowels.

The Māori embraced literacy enthusiastically, and missionaries reported in the 1820s that Māori all over the country taught each other to read and write, using sometimes quite innovative materials in the absence of paper, such as leaves and charcoal, and flax.[50] Missionary James West Stack recorded the scarcity of slates and writing materials at the Native schools and the use sometimes of "pieces of board on which sand was sprinkled, and the letters traced upon the sand with a pointed stick".[51]

Long vowels

The alphabet devised at Cambridge University does not mark vowel length. The following examples show that vowel length is phonemic in Māori:

ata morning āta carefully
keke cake kēkē armpit
mana prestige māna for him/her
manu bird mānu to float
tatari to wait for tātari to filter or analyse
tui to sew tūī Parson bird
wahine woman wāhine women

Māori devised ways to mark vowel length, sporadically at first. Occasional and inconsistent vowel-length markings occur in 19th-century manuscripts and newspapers written by Māori, including macron-like diacritics and doubling of letters. Māori writer Hare Hongi (Henry Stowell) used macrons in his Maori-English Tutor and Vade Mecum of 1911,[52] as does Sir Āpirana Ngata (albeit inconsistently) in his Maori Grammar and Conversation (7th printing 1953). Once the Māori language was taught in universities in the 1960s, vowel-length marking was made systematic. At Auckland University, Professor Bruce Biggs (of Ngāti Maniapoto descent) promoted the use of double vowels (e.g. Maaori); this style was standard there until Biggs died in 2000.

Macrons (tohutō) are now the standard means of indicating long vowels,[53] after becoming the favoured option of the Māori Language Commission—set up by the Māori Language Act 1987 to act as the authority for Māori spelling and orthography.[54][55] Most media now use macrons; Stuff websites and newspapers since 2017,[56] TVNZ[57] and NZME websites and newspapers since 2018.[58]

Technical limitations in producing macronised vowels on typewriters and older computer systems are sometimes resolved by using a diaeresis[59] or circumflex[60] instead of a macron (e.g., Mäori or Mâori).

Double vowels continue to be used in a few exceptional cases, including:


Māori has five phonemically distinct vowel articulations, and ten consonant phonemes.


Although it is commonly claimed that vowel realisations (pronunciations) in Māori show little variation, linguistic research has shown this not to be the case.[66][b]

Vowel length is phonemic; but four of the five long vowels occur in only a handful of word roots, the exception being /aː/.[67][c] As noted above, it has recently become standard in Māori spelling to indicate a long vowel with a macron. For older speakers, long vowels tend to be more peripheral and short vowels more centralised, especially with the low vowel, which is long [aː] but short [ɐ]. For younger speakers, they are both [a]. For older speakers, /u/ is only fronted after /t/; elsewhere it is [u]. For younger speakers, it is fronted [ʉ] everywhere, as with the corresponding phoneme in New Zealand English. Due to the influence of New Zealand English, the vowel [e] is raised to [i], so that and (or piki and kete) now largely share the very same vowel space.[68]: 198–199 The leaders of this change are young females.[68]: 199

As in many other Polynesian languages, diphthongs in Māori vary only slightly from sequences of adjacent vowels, except that they belong to the same syllable, and all or nearly all sequences of nonidentical vowels are possible. All sequences of nonidentical short vowels occur and are phonemically distinct.[69][70] With younger speakers, /ai, au/ start with a higher vowel than the [a] of /ae, ao/.

The following table shows the five vowel phonemes and the allophones for some of them according to Bauer 1997 and Harlow 2006. Some of these phonemes occupy large spaces in the anatomical vowel triangle (actually a trapezoid) of tongue positions. For example, as above, /u/ is sometimes realised as [ʉ].

Front Central Back
Close ⟨i⟩ [i], [iː] ⟨u⟩ [ʉ], [uː]
Mid ⟨e⟩ [ɛ], [eː] ⟨o⟩ [ɔ], [oː]
Open ⟨a⟩ [ɐ], [ɑː][d]

Beside monophthongs Māori has many diphthong vowel phonemes. Although any short vowel combinations are possible, researchers disagree on which combinations constitute diphthongs.[72] Formant frequency analysis distinguish /aĭ/, /aĕ/, /aŏ/, /aŭ/, /oŭ/ as diphthongs.[73]


The consonant phonemes of Māori are listed in the following table. Seven of the ten Māori consonant letters have the same pronunciation as they do in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For those that do not, the IPA phonetic transcription is included, enclosed in square brackets per IPA convention.

Labial Alveolar Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ng [ŋ]
Plosive p t k
Fricative wh [f, ɸ] h
Tap r [ɾ]
Approximant w

The pronunciation of ⟨wh⟩ is extremely variable,[74] but its most common pronunciation (its canonical allophone) is the labiodental fricative, IPA [f] (as in the English word fill). Another allophone is the voiceless bilabial fricative, IPA [ɸ], which is usually supposed to be the sole pre-European pronunciation, although linguists are not sure of the truth of this supposition. At least until the 1930s, the bilabial fricative was considered to be the correct pronunciation.[75] The fact that English ⟨f⟩ gets substituted by ⟨p⟩ and not ⟨wh⟩ in borrowings (for example, English February becomes Pēpuere instead of Whēpuere) would strongly hint that the Māori did not perceive English /f/ to be the same sound as their ⟨wh⟩.

Because English stops /p, t, k/ primarily have aspiration, speakers of English often hear the Māori nonaspirated stops as English /b, d, ɡ/. However, younger Māori speakers tend to aspirate /p, t, k/ as in English. English speakers also tend to hear Māori /r/ as English /l/ in certain positions (cf. Japanese r). These ways of hearing have given rise to place-name spellings which are incorrect in Māori, like Tolaga Bay, Otago and Waihola (Teraki, Ōtākou, Waihora respectively in Māori).

/ŋ/ can come at the beginning of a word (like 'sing-along' without the "si"), which is difficult for English speakers outside of New Zealand to manage.

/h/ is pronounced as a glottal stop, [ʔ], and the sound of ⟨wh⟩ as [ʔw], in some western areas of North Island.

/ɾ/ is typically a flap, especially before /a/. However, elsewhere it is sometimes trilled.

In borrowings from English, many consonants are substituted by the nearest available Māori consonant. For example, the English fricatives /tʃ/, /dʒ/, and /s/ are replaced by /h/, /f/ becomes /p/, and /l/ becomes /ɾ/ (the /l/ is sometimes retained in the southern dialect, as noted below).

Syllables and phonotactics

Syllables in Māori have one of the following forms: V, VV, CV, CVV. This set of four can be summarised by the notation, (C)V(V), in which the segments in parentheses may or may not be present. A syllable cannot begin with two consonant sounds (the digraphs ng and wh represent single consonant sounds), and cannot end in a consonant, although some speakers may occasionally devoice a final vowel. All possible CV combinations are grammatical, though wo, who, wu, and whu occur only in a few loanwords from English such as wuru, "wool" and whutuporo, "football".[76]

As in many other Polynesian languages, e.g., Hawaiian, the rendering of loanwords from English includes representing every English consonant of the loanword (using the native consonant inventory; English has 24 consonants to 10 for Māori) and breaking up consonant clusters. For example, "Presbyterian" has been borrowed as Perehipeteriana; no consonant position in the loanword has been deleted, but /s/ and /b/ have been replaced with /h/ and /p/, respectively.

Stress is typically within the last four vowels of a word, with long vowels and diphthongs counting double. That is, on the last four moras. However, stressed moras are longer than unstressed moras, so the word does not have the precision in Māori that it does in some other languages. It falls preferentially on the first long vowel, on the first diphthong if there is no long vowel (though for some speakers never a final diphthong), and on the first syllable otherwise. Compound words (such as names) may have a stressed syllable in each component word. In long sentences, the final syllable before a pause may have a stress in preference to the normal stressed syllable.


North Island dialects[77]

Biggs proposed that historically there were two major dialect groups, North Island and South Island, and that South Island Māori is extinct.[78] Biggs has analysed North Island Māori as comprising a western group and an eastern group with the boundary between them running pretty much along the island's north–south axis.[79]

Within these broad divisions regional variations occur, and individual regions show tribal variations. The major differences occur in the pronunciation of words, variation of vocabulary, and idiom. A fluent speaker of Māori has no problem understanding other dialects.

There is no significant variation in grammar between dialects. "Most of the tribal variation in grammar is a matter of preferences: speakers of one area might prefer one grammatical form to another, but are likely on occasion to use the non-preferred form, and at least to recognise and understand it."[80] Vocabulary and pronunciation vary to a greater extent, but this does not pose barriers to communication.

North Island dialects

In the southwest of the island, in the Whanganui and Taranaki regions, the phoneme ⟨h⟩ is a glottal stop and the phoneme ⟨wh⟩ is [ʔw]. This difference was the subject of considerable debate during the 1990s and 2000s over the then-proposed change of the name of the city Wanganui to Whanganui.

In Tūhoe and the Eastern Bay of Plenty (northeastern North Island) ⟨ng⟩ has merged with ⟨n⟩. In parts of the Far North, ⟨wh⟩ has merged with ⟨w⟩.[citation needed]

South Island dialects

Part of the annotation to a Ralph Hotere exhibition at Dunedin Public Art Gallery, written bilingually in English and southern Māori. Note several regional variations, such as Nohoka (Nohoanga, a place or seat), tikaka (tikanga, customs), pako (pango, black), and whaka (whanga, harbour).

In the extinct South Island dialects, ng merged with k in many regions. Thus Kāi Tahu and Ngāi Tahu are variations in the name of the same iwi (the latter form is the one used in acts of Parliament). Since 2000, the government has altered the official names of several southern place names to the southern dialect forms by replacing ng with k. New Zealand's highest mountain, known for centuries as Aoraki in southern Māori dialects that merge ng with k, and as Aorangi by other Māori, was later named "Mount Cook", in honour of Captain Cook. Now its sole official name is Aoraki / Mount Cook, which favours the local dialect form. Similarly, the Māori name for Stewart Island, Rakiura, is cognate with the name of the Canterbury town of Rangiora. Likewise, Dunedin's main research library, the Hocken Collections, has the name Uare Taoka o Hākena rather than the northern (standard) Te Whare Taonga o Hākena.[e] Maarire Goodall and George Griffiths say there is also a voicing of k to g – this is why the region of Otago (southern dialect) and the settlement it is named after – Otakou (standard Māori) – vary in spelling (the pronunciation of the latter having changed over time to accommodate the northern spelling).[81] Westland's Waitangitaona River became two distinct rivers after an avulsion, each named in a differing dialect. While the northern river was named the Waitangitāhuna River, the southern river became the Waitakitāhuna-ki-te-Toka, using the more usual southern spelling (ki-te-Toka, "of the south", would be rendered ki-te-Tonga in standard Māori).

The standard Māori r is also found occasionally changed to an l in these southern dialects and the wh to w. These changes are most commonly found in place names, such as Lake Waihola,[82] and the nearby coastal settlement of Wangaloa (which would, in standard Māori, be rendered Whangaroa), and Little Akaloa, on Banks Peninsula. Goodall and Griffiths suggest that final vowels are given a centralised pronunciation as schwa or that they are elided (pronounced indistinctly or not at all), resulting in such seemingly bastardised place names as The Kilmog, which in standard Māori would have been rendered Kirimoko, but which in southern dialect would have been pronounced very much as the current name suggests.[83] This same elision is found in numerous other southern placenames, such as the two small settlements called The Kaik (from the term for a fishing village, kainga in standard Māori), near Palmerston and Akaroa, and the early spelling of Lake Wakatipu as Wagadib. In standard Māori, Wakatipu would have been rendered Whakatipua, showing further the elision of a final vowel.

Despite being officially regarded as extinct,[f] many government and educational agencies in Otago and Southland encourage the use of the dialect in signage[85] and official documentation.[86]

Grammar and syntax

Māori has mostly a verb-subject-object word order,[87] is analytical and makes extensive use of grammatical particles to indicate grammatical categories of tense, mood, aspect, case, topicalization, among others. The personal pronouns have a distinction in clusivity, singular, dual and plural numbers,[88] and the genitive pronouns have different classes (a class, o class and neutral) according to whether the possession is alienable or the possessor has control of the relationship (a category), or the possession is inalienable or the possessor has no control over the relationship (o category), and a third neutral class that only occurs for singular pronouns and must be followed by a noun.[89]


Biggs (1998) developed an analysis that the basic unit of Māori speech is the phrase rather than the word.[90] The lexical word forms the "base" of the phrase. Biggs identifies five types of bases.

Noun bases include those bases that can take a definite article, but cannot occur as the nucleus of a verbal phrase; for example: ika (fish) or rākau (tree).[91] Plurality is marked by various means, including the definite article (singular te, plural ngā),[92] deictic particles tērā rākau (that tree), ērā rākau (those trees),[93] possessives taku whare (my house), aku whare (my houses).[94] A few nouns lengthen a vowel in the plural, such as wahine (woman); wāhine (women).[95] In general, bases used as qualifiers follow the base they qualify, e.g. "matua wahine" (mother, female elder) from "matua" (parent, elder) "wahine" (woman).[96]

Universal bases are verbs which can be used passively. When used passively, these verbs take a passive form. Biggs gives three examples of universals in their passive form: inumia (drunk), tangihia (wept for), and kīa (said).[97]

Stative bases serve as bases usable as verbs but not available for passive use, such as ora, alive or tika, correct.[97] Grammars generally refer to them as "stative verbs". When used in sentences, statives require different syntax than other verb-like bases.[98]

Locative bases can follow the locative particle ki (to, towards) directly, such as runga, above, waho, outside, and placenames (ki Tamaki, to Auckland).[99]

Personal bases take the personal article a after ki, such as names of people (ki a Hohepa, to Joseph), personified houses, personal pronouns, wai? who? and Mea, so-and-so.[99]


Like all other Polynesian languages, Māori has a rich array of particles, which include verbal particles, pronouns, locative particles, articles and possessives.

Verbal particles indicate aspectual, tense related or modal properties of the verb to which they relate to. They include:

  • i (past)
  • e (non-past)
  • i te (past continuous)
  • kei te (present continuous)[100]
  • kua (perfect)
  • e ... ana (imperfect, continuous)
  • ka (inceptive, future)
  • kia (desiderative)
  • me (prescriptive)
  • kei (warning, "lest")
  • ina or ana (punctative-conditional, "if and when")[101]
  • kāti (cessative)[102]
  • ai (habitual)[103]

Locative particles (prepositions) refer to position in time and/or space, and include:

  • ki (to, towards)
  • kei (at)
  • i (past position)
  • hei (future position)[104]

Possessives fall into one of two classes of prepositions marked by a and o, depending on the dominant versus subordinate relationship between possessor and possessed: ngā tamariki a te matua, the children of the parent but te matua o ngā tamariki, the parent of the children.[105]


Singular Plural
Definite te ngā
Indefinite1 he
Indefinite2 tētahi ētahi
Proper a

The definite articles are te (singular) and ngā (plural).[106][107] Several other determiners termed definitives are related to the singular definite article te, such as the definitive possessive constructions with and and the demonstrative determiners.[89]

The Māori definite articles are frequently used where the equivalent, the, is not used in English, such as when referring generically to an entire class. In these cases, the singular te can even be used with a morphologically plural noun, as in

as opposed to


In other syntactic environments, the definite article may be used to introduce a noun-phrase which is pragmatically indefinite due to the restrictions on the use of he as discussed below.[107]

The indefinite article he is used most frequently in the predicate and occasionally in the subject of the sentence, although it is not allowed in subject position in all sentence types.[108] In the predicate, the indefinite article he can introduce either nouns or adjectives.[109] The article either can be translated to the English ‘a’ or ‘some’, but the number will not be indicated by he. With nouns that show morphological number, he may be used either with singular or plural forms. The indefinite article he when used with mass nouns like water and sand will always mean 'some'.[110]

he tāne a man some men
he kōtiro a girl some girls
he kāinga a village some villages
he āporo an apple some apples
he tangata a person -
he tāngata - some people

The indefinite article he is highly restricted in its use and is incompatible with a preceding preposition. For this reason, it cannot be used in the grammatical object of the sentence as these are marked prepositionally, either with i or ki. In many cases, speakers simply use the definite articles te and ngā in positions where he is disallowed, however the indefinite articles tētahi and ētahi may be used in these situations to emphasise the indefiniteness.[111]

In positions where both he and tētahi/ētahi may occur, there are sometimes differences of meaning between them as the following examples indicate.[112]

The proper article a is used before personal and locative nouns acting as the subject of the sentence or before personal nouns and pronouns within prepositional phrases headed by prepositions ending in i (namely i, ki, kei and hei).[111]

The personal nouns are not accompanied by definite or indefinite articles unless they are an intrinsic part of the name, as in Te Rauparaha.[113]

Proper nouns are not preceded by the proper article when they are neither acting as the subject of the sentence nor in a prepositional phrase headed by i, ki, kei or hei. For example, after the focusing particle ko, the proper article is not used.

Demonstratives occur after the noun and have a deictic function, and include tēnei, this (near me), tēnā, that (near you), tērā, that (far from us both), and taua, the aforementioned (anaphoric). These demonstratives, having a connection to the definite article te are termed definitives. Other definitives include tēhea? (which?), and tētahi, (a certain). The plural is formed just by dropping the t: tēnei (this), ēnei (these). The related adverbs are nei (here), (there, near you), (over there, near him).[114]

Phrases introduced by demonstratives can also be expressed using the definite article te or ngā preceding a noun followed by one of the deictic particles nei, or . The t of the singular definite article appears in the singular demonstratives but is replaced by in the plural, having no connection with ngā in the majority of dialects.


However, in dialects of the Waikato area, plural forms of demonstratives beginning with ng- are found, such as ngēnei 'these' instead of the more widespread ēnei (as well as and possessives such as ng(e)ōku 'my (plural, inalienable)' instead of ōku).[116]

The following table shows the most common forms of demonstratives across dialects.

Singular Plural Adverb
Proximal tēnei ēnei nei
Medial tēnā ēnā
Distal tērā ērā
Aforementioned taua aua


Pronouns have singular, dual and plural number. Different first-person forms in both the dual and the plural are used for groups inclusive or exclusive of the person(s) addressed.

Diagram of pronouns in Māori. Grammatical person:
  •   1
  •   2
  •   3
Singular Dual Plural
1st person exclusive au / ahau māua mātou
inclusive tāua tātou
2nd person koe kōrua koutou
3rd person ia rāua rātou

Like other Polynesian languages, Māori has three numbers for pronouns and possessives: singular, dual and plural. For example: ia (he/she), rāua (they two), rātou (they, three or more). Māori pronouns and possessives further distinguish exclusive "we" from inclusive "we", second and third. It has the plural pronouns: mātou (we, exc), tātou (we, inc), koutou (you), rātou (they). The language features the dual pronouns: māua (we two, exc), tāua (we two, inc), kōrua (you two), rāua (they two). The difference between exclusive and inclusive lies in the treatment of the person addressed. Mātou refers to the speaker and others but not the person or persons spoken to ("I and some others but not you"), and tātou refers to the speaker, the person or persons spoken to and everyone else ("you, I and others"):[117]

  • Tēnā koe: hello (to one person)
  • Tēnā kōrua: hello (to two people)
  • Tēnā koutou: hello (to more than two people)[118]

The possessive pronouns vary according to person, number, clusivity, and possessive class (a class or o class). Example: tāku pene (my pen), āku pene (my pens). For dual and plural subject pronouns, the possessive form is analytical, by just putting the possessive particle (tā/tō for singular objects or ā/ō for plural objects) before the personal pronouns, e.g. tā tātou karaihe (our class), tō rāua whare (their [dual] house); ā tātou karaihe (our classes). The neuter one must be followed by a noun and only occur for singular first, second and third persons. Taku is my, aku is my (plural, for many possessed items). The plural is made by deleting the initial [t].[89]

Subject Object
Number Person Singular Plural
a class o class neutral a class o class neutral
Singular 1 tāku tōku taku āku ōku aku
2 tāu tōu āu ōu ō
3 tāna tōna tana āna ōna ana
  • wai ('who')
  • aha ('what')
  • hea ('where')
  • nō hea ('whence')
  • āhea ('when')
  • e hia ('how many [things]')
  • tokohia ('how many [people]')
  • pēhea ('how')
  • tēhea ('which'), ēhea ('which [pl.]')
  • he aha ... ai ('why [reason]')
  • nā te aha ... ai ('why [cause]')[119]

Phrase grammar

A phrase spoken in Māori can be broken up into two parts: the “nucleus” or "head" and “periphery” (modifiers, determiners). The nucleus can be thought of as the meaning and is the centre of the phrase, whereas the periphery is where the grammatical meaning is conveyed and occurs before and/or after the nucleus.[120]

Periphery Nucleus Periphery
te whare nei
ki te whare

The nucleus whare can be translated as "house", the periphery te is similar to an article "the" and the periphery nei indicates proximity to the speaker. The whole phrase, te whare nei, can then be translated as "this house".[121]

A definite and declarative sentence (may be a copulative sentence) begins with the declarative particle ko.[122] If the sentence is topicalized (agent topic, only in non-present sentences) the sentence begins with the particle (past tense) or the particle (future, imperfective) followed by the agent/subject. In these cases the word order changes to subject-verb-object. These agent topicalizing particles can contract with singular personal pronouns and vary according to the possessive classes: nāku can be thought of as meaning "as for me" and behave like an emphatic or dative pronoun.[123]

Agent topic pronouns
Past Future
1S nāku/nōku māku/mōku
2S nāu/nōu māu/mō
3S nāna/nōna māna/mōna


Forming negative phrases in Māori is quite grammatically complex. There are several different negators which are used under various specific circumstances.[128] The four main negators are as follows:[128]

Negator Description
kāo Negative answer to a polar question.
kāore/kāhore/kāre/ The most common verbal negator.
kore A strong negator, equivalent to 'never'.
kaua e Negative imperatives; prohibitive
ehara Negation for copulative phrases, topicalized and equative phrases

Kīhai and are two negators which may be seen in specific dialects or older texts, but are not widely used.[128] The most common negator is kāhore, which may occur in one of four forms, with the kāo form only being used in response to a question.[128] Negative phrases, besides using kāore, also affect the form of verbal particles, as illustrated below.

Verbal particles[128]
Positive Negative
Past i i
Future ka i/e
Present kei te i te
Imperfect e...ana
Past perfect kua kia

The general usage of kāhore can be seen in the following examples. The subject is usually raised in negative phrases, although this is not obligatory.[129] Each example of a negative phrase is presented with its analogue positive phrase for comparison.













Kāhore tātou e haere ana āpōpō

NEG 1PL.INCL T/A move T/A tomorrow

'We are not going tomorrow'[130]











E haere ana tātou āpōpō

T/A move T/A 1PL.INCL tomorrow

'We are going tomorrow'[130]















Kāhore anō he tāngata kia tae mai

NEG yet a people SUBJ arrive hither

'Nobody has arrived yet'[130]











Kua tae mai he tāngata

T/A arrive hither a people

'Some people have arrived'[130]

Passive sentences

The passive voice of verbs is made by a suffix to the verb. For example, -ia (or just -a if the verb ends in [i]). The other passive suffixes, some of which are very rare, are: -hanga/-hia/-hina/-ina/-kia/-kina/-mia/-na/-nga/-ngia/-ria/-rina/-tia/-whia/-whina/.[131] The use of the passive suffix -ia is given in this sentence: Kua hangaia te marae e ngā tohunga (The marae has been built by the experts). The active form of this sentence is rendered as: Kua hanga ngā tohunga i te marae (The experts have built the marae). It can be seen that the active sentence contains the object marker 'i', that is not present in the passive sentence, while the passive sentence has the agent marker 'e', which is not present in the active sentence.[132]

Polar questions

Polar questions (yes/no questions) can be made by changing the intonation of the sentence. The answers may be āe (yes) or kāo (no).[133]

Derivational morphology

Although Māori is mostly analytical there are several derivational affixes:

  • -anga, -hanga, -ranga, -tanga (-ness, -ity) (the suffix depends on whether the verb takes, respectively, the -ia, -hia, -ria or -tia passive suffixes) (e.g. pōti 'vote', pōtitanga 'election')
  • -nga (nominalizer)[134]
  • kai- (agentive noun)[135] (e.g. mahi 'work', kaimahi 'worker/employee')
  • ma- (adjectives)[136]
  • tua- (ordinal numerals)[137] (e.g. tahi 'one', tuatahi 'first/primary')
  • whaka- (causative prefix)[138]


From missionary times, Māori adopted phonetic variants of the English names for the days of the week and the months of the year. Since about 1990, the Māori Language Commission has promoted new "traditional" sets. Its days of the week have no pre-European equivalent, but reflect the pre-Christian origins of the English names.[citation needed] The commission based the months of the year on those of the traditional Māori lunar calendar (maramataka).[139]

Day Adaptation Official
Monday Mane Rāhina
Tuesday Tūrei Rātū
Wednesday Wenerei Rāapa
Thursday Tāite Rāpare
Friday Paraire Rāmere
Saturday Rāhoroi/Hāterei Rāhoroi
Sunday Rātapu/Wiki Rātapu
Month Adaptation Official
January Hānuere Kohi-tātea
February Pēpuere Hui-tanguru
March Māehe Poutū-te-rangi
April Āperira Paenga-whāwhā
May Mei Haratua
June Hune Pipiri
July Hūrae Hōngongoi
August Ākuhata Here-turi-kōkā
September Hepetema Mahuru
October Oketopa Whiringa-ā-nuku
November Noema Whiringa-ā-rangi
December Tīhema Hakihea

Influence on New Zealand English

New Zealand English has gained many loanwords from Māori, mainly the names of birds, plants, fishes and places. For example, the kiwi, the national bird, takes its name from te reo. "Kia ora" (literally "be healthy") is a widely adopted greeting of Māori origin, with the intended meaning of "hello".[140] It can also mean "thank you", or signify agreement with a speaker at a meeting. The Māori greetings tēnā koe (to one person), tēnā kōrua (to two people) or tēnā koutou (to three or more people) are also widely used, as are farewells such as haere rā. The Māori phrase kia kaha, "be strong", is frequently encountered as an indication of moral support for someone starting a stressful undertaking or otherwise in a difficult situation. Many other words such as whānau (meaning "family") and kai (meaning "food") are also widely understood and used by New Zealanders. The Māori phrase Ka kite ano means 'until I see you again' is quite commonly used.


Online translators

Māori is available on Google Translate, Microsoft Translator and Yandex.Translate. Various Māori dictionaries exist on the website Glosbe. Another popular online dictionary is Māori Dictionary.[148]

See also