Submissions to the NZ Geographic Board regarding the proposed change of the spelling of ‘Wanganui’ to ‘Whanganui’ close tomorrow. Whether you support the change or the status quo, I urge you to make your position (and arguments) known to the NZGB and to the country.

It will come as no surprise to readers that I support the proposed name change. The majority of my submission is drawn from the four posts I have written on the topic. There’s plenty (plenty!) more about this out there on the interwebs as well.



Edit: My full submission is below the fold.

Submission in support of the Whanganui name change

I support the proposal by Te RÅ«nanga o Tupoho to change the spelling of ‘Wanganui’ to ‘Whanganui’. My support for the proposed change is based on five grounds:

* the spelling ‘Wanganui’ is incongruent since most other local features bear the name ‘Whanganui’, and the word ‘Wanganui’ is without meaning in Māori;
* since the name in question is a Māori name whose possession is guaranteed to local Māori by the Treaty of Waitangi, Pākehā appropriation of it should only happen with due agreement and consent by those iwi;
* claims to the legitimacy of both spellings proceed from identical grounds in principle, and the merits of Whanganui’s grounds are the stronger of the two;
* historical, linguistic and geographic facts are not determined by
majority opinion but by recourse to proof and judgement;
* a change in official usage will not mandate customary usage by those who prefer ‘Wanganui’.

I expand on each of these grounds below.

1. Local congruence and historical fact

As asserted by the proposer, there is no such place as ‘Wanganui’. The spelling of the name of the pre-European settlement has been determined by the legitimate authority, Te Taura Whiri Reo Māori, to be ‘Whanganui’; this is the spelling of the name of the river on whose mouth the city is located, the spelling of which was previously agreed by both Māori and Pākehā residents; the electorate which encompasses the city; the National Park which encompasses the upper reaches of that river; and in particular the iwi who live along the river. The ‘Wanganui’ spelling applies only in current customary usage to the city itself, and institutions whose names are derived from the city; the local council, newspaper, businesses, schools, etc. These do not hold the precedence that the original name of the river, region, settlement and people commands.

For this reason, the NZGB’s default position must be to correct the name’s spelling to ‘Whanganui’. Because the current spelling is geographically, linguistically and historically incorrect, the burden of proof must rest with those who wish to keep the name as it is presently misspelt, rather than on those who wish it to be corrected.

2. Cultural possession and consent

Both Māori and Pākehā have legitimate interests in the name at issue and both can lay some claim to cultural ownership or controlover the naming of their city. There are several specious arguments which claim that Pākehā settlers have the cultural right to do as they please with the name. These include the arguments that:

* ‘Wanganui’ is not a Māori word, that it has its own meaning now;
* the local Māori pronunciation renders the ‘h’ silently, so the spelling change is appropriate.

In the first place, despite the fact that those favouring the ‘Wanganui’ spelling (particularly Wanganui Mayor Michael Laws) commonly deploy them together, these two arguments are mutually exclusive: if the word is not a Māori word, then the local iwi’s pronunciation is irrelevant. If it is, then Pākehā have no right to redefine it without the consent of iwi. The Māori language is clearly included in the meaning of ‘tāonga katoa’ as used in Te Tiriti o Waitangi (article 2) and rights to possession (‘rangatiratanga’) are similarly guaranteed. This matter of iwi consent over the use or ownership of a tāonga guaranteed by the Treaty of Waitangi is paramount to the consideration of this issue.

Futhermore, both the arguments noted above are invalid for their own reasons. First, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that ‘Wanganui’ is or was not intended to be a Māori word, and statements by Mr Laws to this effect are nothing more than attempt to redefine the term and its meaning by fiat – defining ‘Wanganui’ as a Humpty Dumpty word which means whatever the current Mayor of Wanganui says it means. This has no currency in law or custom, and is no basis for retaining the name. This argument tries to expropriate a word of great significance to local Māori and claim exclusivity over it. According to Aotearoa’s established bicultural traditions, both in law and in custom, such an expropriation would need to proceed with the consent of those who hold the original claim to the term, and no such consent has been sought or obtained; indeed, those promoting this argument are at pains to discount and discredit those with an original claim to the word.

Second, the claim that local Māori pronunciation renders the ‘h’ silent is no cause for the word to be spelt differently except with the consent of those with the original claim to the word and its pronunciation. There are precedents for this among other iwi/hapÅ« and in other rohe – for example, the rendition of ‘ng’ as ‘k’ by some Kāi Tahu/Ngāi Tahu, as in ‘Aoraki’ rather than ‘Aorangi’. But in the case in point, those who are legitimately entitled under the Treaty to claim that ‘Whanganui’ should be pronounced ‘Wanganui’ as a matter of preserving their control over their tāonga are not doing so; in fact, quite the opposite. Te RÅ«nanga o Tupoho, a subset of the very people whose consent should be required to retain the spelling as ‘Wanganui’, is campaigning for the change to ‘Whanganui’. Likewise Wanganui residents who complain that they don’t want their city’s name pronounced ‘Fonganui’ are, with due respect, not legitimately entitled to change or retain a spelling for that purpose without the consent of those for whom the name is tāonga, and whose possession is guaranteed by the Treaty.

For these reasons, the claims that the word ‘Wanganui’ either is not a Māori word, or has a different meaning than the word ‘Whanganui’, and the claim that the word should be rendered ‘Wanganui’ due to local lexical differences, are invalid and run counter to the Treaty of Waitangi, and must not be accorded any weight in the consideration of this issue.

3. Identical grounds and predominance

The two substantive claims to the legitimacy of the spellings ‘Wanganui’ and ‘Whanganui’ are both valid, but not equally so. Since the matter at hand is the determination of the official spelling, they are mutually exclusive, so the NZGB must choose between them as to which is more legitimate. Their validity under NZ’s cultural norms derives generally from two grounds:

* historical usage, the length of time that the name has been in use;
* cultural identity, the importance of the name to those claiming it.

Neither group’s claim to the legitimacy of a certain spelling rests strongly on any ground other than these; their claims to legitimacy are the same in principle, and differ only in weight or magnitude.

In terms of historical usage, Pākehā have indeed been using the spelling ‘Wanganui’ since 1854 when the name of the settlement was changed from Petre. This, as Michael Laws says, is a fairly long time and would, I think, allow for the spelling to be retained on the grounds of tradition if that was all there was to it. However the Pākehā settlers (antecedents to most of the current residents of Wanganui) have not been unified in maintaining this name; as many submissions will undoubtedly point out, and as the NZGB’s own FAQ says, the two spellings of the name have persisted in tandem from that day to this, and there have been previous attempts, not solely sponsored by tangata whenua, to correct the spelling. In te reo Māori, there has only ever been one spelling – ‘Whanganui’, being composed of the two very ordinary and uncontroversial words ‘whanga’ and ‘nui’, the name bestowed by an original settler on the Aotea waka hundreds of years before Europeans arrived. These two words were rendered into the 1844 Williams ‘A Dictionary of the Māori Language’ which became the standard lexicon; there is no dispute as to their meaning, and no dispute as to the fact that ‘Whanganui’ is composed of them. On the ground of historical usage, ‘Whanganui’ has a much longer and less controversial history than ‘Wanganui’ does, and therefore has the stronger claim to legitimacy.

On the basis of cultural identity, many of those supporting the retention of ‘Wanganui’ object to the proposed change on the basis that the current spelling is central to their identity, that they grew up with it and it is an important part of them. While not minimising these feelings, it is necessary in this case to balance the similar feelings of local Māori, for whom the name is their core referent of identity. As the best-known whakatauakÄ« of the Whanganui Māori says, “ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au” (I am the river, the river is me). The river, whose name is not in dispute since being changed to ‘Whanganui’ in 1991, dominates the landscape, it was the primary source of wealth, of transport, of spiritual importance and of mana to local iwi for many generations. The misspelling and, more importantly, the expropriation by settlers of this tāonga and its significance as a referent of identity is presumptuous, insulting and offensive, and cuts deep for local Māori. Again with due respect to the latter-day settlers of Wanganui, the attachment to an incorrect label because it contains a little bit of European-ness – especially to a mistake – is misguided and expropriative. Accordingly, ‘Whanganui’ has the stronger claim.

Because there are no other major grounds upon which either side is claiming predominance for their preferred spelling, and because the two are exclusive and one must be chosen, the ‘Whanganui’ spelling must take precedence over ‘Wanganui’ due to a longer and more unified tradition of usage, and the deeper and more fundamental importance it holds for the identity of those who hold the more legitimate claim to the name’s usage.

4. Facts and majority opinion

A key plank of the campaign to have the spelling retained as ‘Wanganui’ is the popular support within the local community for the status quo. This is not in itself a legitimate ground to retain an error, especially where the error represents a violation of the right of possession guaranteed by the Treaty of Waitangi, and where the campaign in support of retaining the error is itself based on specious arguments, faulty logic and misinterpretations of history and bicultural custom as this one is.

Inconvenient matters of geographic, historical and linguistic fact and of the Crown’s adherence to the Treaty of Waitangi cannot be voted away by a local council whose mayor has a particular agenda. A majority of people in civil society may not simply negate the rights of a minority by fiat or sheer force of numbers. Matters of fact and custom such as this must not be decided by a simple show of hands, just as the direction of the pull of gravity or the adjudication of whether a person is guilty or innocent of a crime cannot be a matter of popular opinion; they must be decided by recourse to evidence and argument, reason and judgement. This is all the more true when the political identity and fortunes of those leading the campaigns – in this case, both campaigns – are at stake as well as the more substantive matters.

5. Official and customary usage

The determination required from the NZGB in this case is about the official spelling of ‘Wanganui’ or ‘Whanganui’; it has no bearing on the customary usage there or elsewhere; no bearing on school or business names, civic bodies or even the name of the District Council. There has been much rhetoric that a change to ‘Whanganui’ would constitute a sort of cultural censorship, or an expunging of NZ’s colonial history. This is not so; there is no requirement that non-official usage will change, or that any changes will be backdated or enforced. The change is simply about acknowledging rangatiratanga as provided for in the Treaty and according to the NZGB mandate. On this basis, although I believe it to be incorrect I have used ‘Wanganui’ throughout this submission as it is the currently-used term. It is not good enough to have ‘Whanganui’ become the de facto spelling; in order to recognise rangatiratanga it must be made official – ariki ki te ariki, tangata ki te tangata. From the leaders to the leaders, and from the people to the people.

9 thoughts on “Submit!

  1. Scott, I hope not, because that means ‘I don’t like Ken Mair’ is also a valid reason to keep the current spelling, and there’s only one winner if that’s the case.


  2. Anita, of course they did. That’s Laws’ whole strategy: turn it into a horserace between good, honest hardworking middle-aged honkeys like him, and brown terrorists like Ken Mair. But the NZGB has already stated that the majority view will not be sufficient to endorse the status quo.


  3. Thanks for posting this – have just submitted (in favour of the change) via the website. Had no idea it would be that easy and am now, in fact, feeling slightly guilty about not doing it earlier. Cheers.

  4. Pingback: Kiwipolitico » Blog Archive » A victory for common sense and democracy

  5. The statement of Mrs. Turia: “Whanganui was the name given to the area by an ancestor over 600 years ago” has to be moderated by realization that the then spoken language (Maori, or more likely Pali) had no written form. In which case, the Geographic Board might choose to allow existing expensive or historically important signage to remain without the annoying insertion of an ‘h’.
    There are alternatives to Wanganui/Whanganui. William Colenso’s 1835 English font was deficient in h and had a surplus of b, which he solved by cutting the bottom stroke from the b’s. And by representing aspirate w by adding a dot below it. Which symbol then indicated ‘hwh’, as in all English words commencing wh. ‘Which’ and ‘witch’ were never homonyms, since ‘which’ was pronounced ‘hwhich’.
    Another alternative would be allowing the use of the high comma (‘W) as in Williams’s Dictionary of the New Zealand Language in its first edition Paihia, 1844. In the second edition of the Dictionary (1852) the ‘wh’ symbol is accepted, but all the words beginning with it were listed under W; and in the next edition [1871] wh is listed as a separate symbol, to signify a sound approaching that of hw in English.
    If it were decided that the written ‘h’ in English ‘what’ is superfluous, the pronunciation would become ‘wot’. A degradation already in use.

    John Barton

  6. John, you argue two grounds; one historical and one lexical. Both are flawed.

    The question is not so much one of pre-European historical dialect as it is of post-European orthographical classification and possession of cultural resources per Article 2 of the Treaty. Discussion of prehistory is interesting, but not relevant for precisely the reason you identify: the spelling is what’s at issue, and that’s a post-European matter on which speculation about distant pre-European usage (even if it could be documented, which it can’t) has no bearing.

    As to alternatives, this misses the point that there is one standardised and accepted Māori language orthography in this day and age; it is very thoroughly-documented and universally accepted and understood. Under this orthography, there is only one spelling of the name of the town on the mouth of the Whanganui river, and that, not coincidentally, is the same as the river. This orthography does not contain high commas or other unorthodox pronunciation modifiers. They are as alien to it as Cyrillic characters or katakana. From a lexical standpoint, it simply could not be clearer: there is a spelling. Anything else is incorrect.

    And, honestly, the strawman about degradation in English is worse than irrelevant; it’s a bogus implication that by acceding to a properly-documented and historically valid change we are somehow permitting corruption of a language. The lengths to which Wanganui apologists will go never cease to amaze me.


  7. I’m not going to any lengths,Lew,for the simple reason that I’m not a Wanganui apologist. In fact I have little interest in whatever the outcome may be. I respect that you do, and good luck to you.
    If I had any concern, it would be for residents owning elaborate /expensive signage, and obligations of having to replace it at short notice. In which respect permission by the Geographical Board to allow some kind of diacritical mark added to their artwork, such as a dot below the w, might be a welcome alternative.
    The views of Michael Laws are of no interest to me.

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