New Zealand's borders have finally reopened after a two-year Covid shutdown. But those who travel down under are in for a surprise. Prime minister Jacinda Ardern recently said that New Zealand is ‘not the same place it was ten years ago’. As far as the local language goes, she’s certainly on to something, as newcomers are set to discover.
Planning to go anywhere near the site of the country’s deadly 2019 volcanic eruption? That’s White Island, right? Erm, not quite. It’s Whakaari, actually. How about that perennial drawcard, the garden city of Christchurch, with its tidal wave of English roses and other pilgrim flowers? Try saying Otautahi. Ditto the nearby city of Dunedin, which used to bill itself as the Edinburgh of the South Island and even offers degree courses in Scottish studies at the local university. Otepoti, please. Oh, and the South Island? Te Waipounamu, thank you very much.
The UK supplies more tourists to New Zealand than any of the 60 visa-waiver countries that are now allowed back to these shaky isles. But even visitors who feel they know the sights intimately may find the changing nomenclature on street signs baffling.
On the face of it at least, New Zealand looks to be — or rather sounds to be — going native in a way it hasn’t really been since the time its founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed in 1840 between the early English colonists and a majority of local tribal leaders. Officially, you still get to choose which name you happen to prefer, but there are some in public life who say it ought to be te reo Maori first and the rest nowhere.
Government operations have not been slow off the mark to follow suit. If our hypothetical British tourist were to urgently require the services of what used to be the NZ Transport Agency, to take one of dozens of similar examples, they might need to search for something called Waka Kotahi.
Then there’s the Maori Language Commission, or Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori, which also happens to be driving so much of this current change with a zeal worthy of the Hebrew language revivalist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. The Wellington-based outfit has been busy issuing and deploying a blizzard of new words and expressions. This includes words that nobody is ever likely to use, such as pukamata, better known to eight billion other earthlings as Facebook.
Ardern didn’t start all this activity; she has been far too busy for the past couple of years battling Covid and doing interviews to attend to such a sprawling project. It has been bubbling away at least since 1987, when Maori became the country’s second official language. Yet clearly the mood for it has lifted on the current premier’s watch. And the long period of isolation offered a unique opportunity to road-test it. The Labour-led government of Ardern now says it’s part of a much broader drive to see the country’s original inhabitants enjoy far greater parity in national life.
And why not? Aotearoa, or the Land of the Long White Cloud, does sound a little jazzier than plain old New Zealand, named for a Dutch locale precious few people could find on a map. I spent my teenage years in the boozy suburbs of the Hutt Valley, a name graciously given by the British parliamentarian Sir William Hutt, who never felt the actual need to visit the place; if people now want to call it Te Awa Kairangi ki Tai, I’m not going to argue the toss.
But will this drive for name change really take off? Those who identify as Maori account for around 17 per cent of the country’s inhabitants. But what the government appears to have in mind is allowing them not only a fifty per cent share of the tourist map but much else besides: education, health, academe, even the wages of science. Such was the case last year when all political hell broke loose after several academics sent an open letter to the New Zealand Listener arguing that indigenous creation myths should not be given equal billing to hard science.
The fallout from incidents such as this have made ‘co-governance’ one of the most volcanic talking points of Ardern’s tenure. Willie Jackson, the minister responsible for Maori development, recently declared that ‘the nature of democracy has changed’. As a result, he argued, New Zealand requires a sparkling new arrangement by which ‘the tyranny of the majority’ no longer applies.
Elsewhere, the smaller Maori party – which, on its latest poll results this week, could hold the balance of power at next year’s general election – says it wants to marginalise the English language altogether from the names of towns, cities and places and see the ‘rightful’ words restored. Last year, the nativist party rolled out a petition aimed at garnering a million names in support of this ambitious proposal. Only around 50,000 people, or one in every hundred New Zealanders, signed.
That's a similar number to the group of New Zealanders who identified themselves as fluent in Maori at the last census. It shouldn't come as a surprise that so few people are familiar with Maori. For all the current chatter and virtue-signalling, the language is not taught as a compulsory subject in a public school system where young Maori kids, especially boys, already leave early in disproportionately high numbers.
If Ardern's government really wanted to make a difference, it could do more to encourage deprived Maori kids to stay on in education. As it is, it seems more content to change road signs and baffle visitors with startling name changes.