Meaning and narrative: A deeper understanding of te reo Māori

Uncovering the deeper meaning of te reo reveals the richness of Māori narratives

With a passion for te reo and etymology, my Māori language journey has helped me uncover the complexity and beauty of te reo Māori. To understand Māori storytelling and cultural narratives, we must understand the nuance embedded within each word that shapes this beautiful language.

Have you noticed more te reo Māori popping up in your daily interactions? We hear it on the evening news, within our schools, at events, and see it used in corporate communications. As te reo becomes more prevalent in our lives, it brings with it natural curiosity from those who seek a deeper understanding of the meaning and cultural narrative that shape the Māori language.

Why learning te reo Māori matters

There are many reasons why people choose to discover te reo. Some want to converse in what is one of New Zealand’s official languages. Others do it to connect with whakapapa and whenua/land. Others do it to uncover a deeper understanding of the meaning and importance of Māori storytelling. It is not only individuals who seek an understanding of te reo. Businesses and organisations recognise that connecting with the Māori language offers an opportunity for productive and positive cultural engagement, whether adding meaning to powhiri/welcomes and blessings or implementing Māori narratives in business.

For me, my te reo journey brings many rewards. It is everything mentioned above, but also much more.

My father lost the language many decades ago. He grew up in an era when te reo was viewed very differently. My father and his siblings were beaten for speaking their language, actions which seem inconceivable today. Not wishing to attract more negativity or pain, they did not pass on the language to their tamariki/children and mokopuna/grandchildren. Sadly, they let the beautiful language of their ancestors fade into memory. Despite what my father experienced, my curiosity has driven me to te reo Māori with a great desire to know more. As an amateur etymologist, the study of the origin and history of words is of great interest to me. Etymology requires an inquisitive and curious mind and the intricate study of the origin and evolution of language and words. Uncovering this deeper level of understanding of the origin of kupu/Māori words has been the most rewarding part of my te reo journey.

What’s in a word? Understanding the meaning behind Māori words

Understanding Māori storytelling and Māori narrative is more than translation. Here, we take a look at some little words that offer a big meaning.

Hui is a small word—just three letters—but there is so much that these three little letters bring. Breaking the word down, we have ui meaning the unanswered question and h to give breath to that discussion. Therefore, hui is the discussion to resolve whatever question was raised.

We have already mentioned mokopuna, meaning grandchildren. Moko is the facial tattoo, our trademark we wear. Puna is a spring or pool of water within which we see our reflection. Therefore, mokopuna is a reflection of ourselves. We begin to see the great beauty and creativity of these words when we understand and dissect them.

Kaitiaki means guardian, steward or similar. When broken down, it consists of three smaller words that combine to offer a meaning that is complex and beautiful. Kai, as you may know, means food, but when used as a prefix denotes a human agent (e.g., kaimahi/worker with mahi meaning to work). Ti means indescribable light, and aki is to encourage or draw out the potential. Therefore, kaitiaki is to be the person that allows one to fulfil their potential.

The meaning behind Māori place names

In te reo, Māori, place names tell a story. I liken these meanings to today’s GPS device, and in times gone by, they worked in a similar way.

A good example is the Arrow River which is also known as Haehaenui. Haehae has two meanings, one is the gouging or scratching of oneself to express grief, and the other describes the parallel grooves between the lines of the dog tooth pattern in carvings.

So, how does this relate to the river? When weka (native wood hen) search for food they make scratchings similar to these gouged or carved lines. Archaeologist Athol Anderson believes the Whakatipu was settled by Māori approximately 1100AD. We can only imagine the wondrous site they would have encountered when they arrived. Pouakai, the world’s largest eagle, were abundant, and the area was teeming with moa. Along the banks of the Haehaenui and throughout the Whakatipu, weka were plentiful and Māori came to the area in winter to harvest these flightless birds—when they were at their fattest.

The weka is a wood hen that lives amongst the undergrowth and fossicks for grubs and insects. As they dig for food, they scratch up the ground. One weka will scratch up an area of around one square metre and then move on to scratch up another area. This “farming” method creates a false layer of bark and leaves which fools insects and grubs into believing it is safe. The bugs and insects emerge from their hiding places, and the weka quickly harvests them. In earlier times, there were no natural predators for the weka and populations were abundant. For Māori, it was simply a matter of following the trails until they came to te awa Haehaenui (the river of many scratchings). They knew they had arrived by the vast expanse of weka scratchings visible along the river.

Who knew one word could share such a story?

There is great benefit to understanding te reo Māori in the context of cultural narratives. As a Māori cultural consultant, I have seen how cultural capability fosters much richer engagement between communities and organisations. I always advise working with a cultural consultant or kaumatua when integrating Māori narratives into business. It will be a far more rewarding experience for all.

Looking to engage with Māori or bring Māori storytelling into your business? Get in touch.