In 2019, the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) began the process of changing its name and logo, prioritising the Te Reo Māori (the native language of New Zealand) translation before English.
Now, the government agency is known as Waka Kotahi - NZ Transport Agency, a move that has drawn a fair amount of ire from commentators.
About Te Reo and its history
Māori is one of New Zealand’s official languages, and it was the only language spoken in NZ prior to the arrival of European colonisers in the 1800s.
Since the first settlers arrived, the Māori language has been subjected to the known linguistic pitfalls of colonisation, including suppression in schools where children were formally and informally forced to ‘kōrero Pākehā’ (speak English).
By the mid-20th century, it was clear that the course of just a few hundred years had significantly hindered the language’s rightful place in NZ society, prompting a range of efforts to preserve it that really only began in earnest in the 80s.
Initiatives such as the kōhanga reo movement, which saw Māori pre-schoolers educated in Māori, and the kura kaupapa programme, primary schooling in Māori, attempted to reverse some of the damage.
The use of Māori words in domains that had been overwhelmingly English increased, too. In 1984 a telephone tolls operator named Naida Glavish began greeting callers with kia ora (hello), sparking the so-called ‘kia ora controversy’. The now Dame Glavish was demoted for her refusal to stop using the Māori greeting.
One would think there are lessons to be learned here, yet 30 years later in 2014, a 17-year-old KiwiYo employee was told not to greet customers by saying kia ora.
Pushbacks to increased Māori use abound
Here in New Zealand, it often seems that for every step taken to ensure Te Reo Māori doesn’t reach extinction (a very real threat), there is a disproportionate reaction from citizens who view these steps as an affront.
Pushbacks to the revival of Māori come in the form of hate mail and threats to broadcasters who use Te Reo, overtly racist comments on social media threads, and conservative leaders who are “utterly sick” of the increased use of Māori.
Prior to WWII, most Māori spoke Te Reo as their first language. By 2006, Statistics New Zealand data showed that around 23% of Māori could hold a conversation about everyday things in Te Reo.
In 2022, just 1% of New Zealand’s total population speak fluent Te Reo while another 2.7% can hold a basic conversation.
The language is clearly in danger, so why is there such a vehement reaction to revival efforts?
Is linguistic diversity threatening?
It’s often said that people are afraid of what they don’t understand; that they find it threatening.
As one threatened viewer told NZ’s Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA): the use of Te Reo on public programming was “discriminatory toward non-Māori speaking New Zealanders and divisive", because they felt "purposefully excluded".
In 2021, the BSA announced that it would no longer take complaints about the use of Māori, which upset the threatened among us but was championed by many others as a way to help stop everyday racism.
Although NZ is often lauded for its race relations on the international stage, the reality for many Kiwis is far from acceptable. In this society, the relationship between Māori and Pākehā people has been problematic since its very beginnings. And it is still marked by injustice and inequality.
Numerous past acts of violence carried out against Māori by Pākehā haven’t been fully addressed or settled, and statistically, Māori fare worse in social areas such as socio-economic
status, health, crime, and educational achievement.
Complaints about the increased use of Te Reo in New Zealand society represent little more than Pākehā fearing changes to the status quo, one in which they hold an undeniably privileged position.