Saturday, April 13

Why Māori is like Latin

The University of Otago recently changed its logo. No big deal, you might think – and I might be inclined to agree. But the change got me thinking about languages and the roles they can play in our society.

Old logo (left) and the new logo (right).

The new logo is a rather elegant O crowned with that great friend of all Polynesian, Greek, and Japanese philologists, the macron. It replaces the old university crest with its stars and its cross of St. Andrew, who had the unpleasant distinction of being crucified on diagonal poles. 

What caught my attention, though, was the loss of the two words that were written on a rather angular banner beneath the old University of Otago crest: sapere aude. The words come originally from one of Horace’s odes, but they were famously taken up by Kant in his 1784 essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ 

For Kant, these two words expressed the very essence of the Enlightenment. Dare to know, they exhort us, unblinkingly.

Unsurprisingly, the words have proven popular with educational institutions, many of whom have adopted it as their motto. These include Manchester Grammar School; Wesley College, Melbourne; the University of New Brunswick; and the University of Otago – at least, until recently.

There’s a whole essay that could be written on what the cheerful jettisoning of these two Latin words from the University of Otago’s blazon might tell us about how today’s university leaders have largely gone cold on the Enlightenment and the values it represents: rationalism, objectivity, and fearless inquiry, contemporary pieties be damned. 

This is not that essay. This is an essay about languages: not only the ones we speak and understand, but also the ones that we don’t understand very well at all, and that only very few of us can speak.

Allow me to explain. When I first started working at Victoria University, I couldn’t help notice how often Māori terms were used. Committees had names like Te Maruako Aronui. The university’s ‘Strategic Plan’ trumpeted values like whanaungatanga and kaitiakitanga (engagement and equity, if you’re interested). Higher-ups had alternative titles like Tumu Whakarae (Vice-Chancellor) and Iho Tūroa (Assistant Vice-Chancellor, Sustainability).

As a longstanding language nerd, I found all this deeply pleasing. Here I was being exposed to something rare and precious – and indigenous language that was still, against all odds, holding on to life. I was also picking up a few words in a Polynesian language, a language-group that I knew held the keys to the South Pacific, a region I’ve always been fascinated with.

The only doubt I had was that, even for a language nerd like me, all these Māori terms could sometimes be a bit confusing. Recent immigrants understandably seemed to find them particularly bewildering. A Mexican friend in a new job told me she’d received an email ending with ‘Ngā mihi’ and had insouciantly replied ‘Dear Ngā…’

All this seemed especially odd as I realized how few New Zealanders actually spoke (or even understood) Māori – only a couple of people I knew at the university (one of whom taught the language in Te Kawa a Māui or Māori Studies), and, according to the 2018 census, only 4% of the broader population.

That’s when the strange use of this modern Pacific language started to remind me of something – that ancient Mediterranean language that used to be emblazed beneath the University of Otago’s crest. 

Latin, of course, was the language of the Romans. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it gradually devolved into today’s Romance languages: Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Romanian, and Romansch (now spoken pretty much exclusively in the Swiss canton of Graubünden). 

But for centuries Latin itself lived on. It lived on in the Catholic church, where services were mostly held in Latin until the 1960s. It lived on in schools and universities, where it was the main language of instruction throughout the Middle Ages. It also lived on as the main language of science, with Vesalius, Harvey, Newton, Linnaeus and Bernoulli all publishing their most important works in Latin.

Even in the 20th century, Latin retained a certain place in our culture, both within Europe and in its offshoots in North America and Australasia. This was especially the case in education. Schools and universities continued to love time-honoured Latin mottos, and not only because of the language’s pithiness (it lacks articles like the and a). Top students were given Latin labels like valedictorian (the person who says goodbye) and dux (leader). 

As Latin survived, it also changed. Sometime in the Dark Ages, it stopped being a language spoken by ordinary people. It became, instead, a language spoken almost exclusively by an elite, an elite that included clergy but also doctors, lawyers, and so on. Latin was what marked you out as one of a tiny number of people who had spent time at a university. By the 17th century (the age of Newton), Latin was the language of new, international scientific elite. 

By the 20th century, even as Latin retained a presence in education and in the Catholic church, the number of people who had even a working knowledge of the language was tiny. No doubt many of the dwindling number of expert Latinists at schools and universities continued to believe in its utility for imparting grammar, its suppleness as a literary language, and in its importance as a key to the cultural past. For most people, though, even among the educational elite, it was useful mainly as a way of signifying prestige – or, to use another word, class.

All of which brings us back to Māori (or te reo, as I would say if I really wanted to make clear I was in the know). Māori in 2023 seems to be used chiefly by two groups. One is the set of people, overwhelmingly Māori or part-Māori by descent, who use Māori in everyday life. In the East Cape, over 30% of the Māori population seem to be in this group, although numbers are lower elsewhere. 

The other set of people who use Māori today are upper-middle class urbanites, often in government and university jobs. Rob Campbell’s poneketanga makes up the lion’s share of them, but they aren’t restricted to Wellington. These Māori users tend to be white or Pākehā New Zealanders who are keen to work on their language skills, help revitalize a struggling indigenous language, and make New Zealand a more genuinely bicultural place.

All of these motives are highly creditable, even if learning a Polynesian language isn’t always easy. (I should probably admit here that I’m one of the people for whom Scotty Morrison’s Māori Made Easy didn’t quite live up to its title). 

Still, for most of this second set of Māori-speakers, Māori is something they employ in one-off words or phrases, or at most in a mihi. It can be used to lend grandeur to a formal introduction of visiting lecture, or further solemnity to a serious event. There’s nothing wrong with any of these uses, and they will certainly aid in the valuable work of keeping the language alive. 

In these contexts, though, Māori today often fulfils the role that Latin would have played for our Pākehā forefathers. It is, in short, a ceremonial language. And, perhaps, a way of signalling class. 

I will almost certainly renew my attempts to learn Māori properly. For now, YouTube videos will have to do. I’ll continue to enjoy the exposure to new words and phrases that living in Wellington affords me. And I’ll continue to nerd out over similar Niuean and Cook Islands Māori words when I go on holiday.

For those in academia or the civil service, though, it may just be worth remembering that however cool and interesting they may be, languages can also erect something of a barrier for people outside an educational elite, making universities and government less accessible than they might be. And that’s something that anyone who values whanaungatanga and kaitiakitanga might want to bear in mind.

Author