A little sanity from Laws

I often find myself thinking of a saying which I’ve seen variously described as Arabian, African and Chinese, but which I’m pretty sure every culture has in its own version:

At the hearth: me against my brothers. In the house, me and my brothers against our cousins. In the village: me, my brothers and our cousins against our neighbors. Outside: me, my brothers, our cousins and our neighbors against the world.

Michael Laws and the formerly-divided Wanganui District Council have unanimously condemned the adoption by media (TVNZ, Radio NZ and other outsiders) of the standard Māori pronunciation of “Fonganui”, while quietly endorsing the new “Whanganui” spelling as an official alternative. In an expression of the last phrase of the proverb above, the council also resolved to “work with local Māori leaders to draw up a guideline for national media and organisations as to how the city should be pronounced.”

Quite apart from being an almost unprecedented — and very welcome — indication of goodwill from Laws and his settler-majority council toward tangata whenua, this also marks a subtle shift away from the bombastic demagoguery of the h debate to a sort of diplomacy, perhaps a realisation that civil society solutions to complex political identity problems come about by education and negotiation; they require change by consent. This was the fundamental difference between the pro-h and anti-h arguments in the great h debate of oh-nine: the anti-h position was presriptive, insisting that it had to be a “Wanganui” for everyone with no tolerance for dissent. The pro-h position was about recognition, insisting that “Whanganui” be acknowledged as having preeminence, but not enforcing this usage in an absolute fashion.

But ultimately (although Laws and the council may not have gotten this point) pronunciation is a different question. Pronunciation and dialect in Māori remains an expression of a speaker’s rangatiratanga. Māori was, and to a large extent remains a dialectic language where howyou say something provides important context about who you are and what you’re saying — a concept somewhat unfamiliar to many Pākehā New Zealanders who are used to a reasonably homogeneous accent, but one which will be very familiar to anyone familiar with the USA or the UK. This is why you’ll hear Māori from elsewhere in the country pronouncing it “Fonganui” without much objection from Whanganui Māori, and why you’ll hear Whanganui Māori pronouncing “Whakatane” as “Wakatane”, as well as “wānau” or “ware” or “wakarongo mai”, and while it may draw sniggers from speakers of other dialects, it is generally recognised as a manifestation of Whanganuitanga to speak this way. For their part the Whanganui (and Taranaki*) Māori are proud of their dialect much as Texans or Geordies are. Tariana Turia, in speeches, has described just such situations, such as when visiting relatives from the Tongariro region, the children teased her for poor pronunciation. Far from being ashamed by this, it was a small source of pride for her and a matter of her own mana and Whanganuitanga, a recognition of the small differences between relations which throw the much more important commonalities into sharp relief.

All this is a somewhat roundabout way of saying that, while it’s wonderful that Laws and the council have seen the need to ally with their cousins and neighbours against the world, and moreover have (apparently) seen the need to do so in a diplomatic and non-coercive manner, this is a battle they simply may not win because there is an important distinction between standing on your own mana and trying to force others to adopt your ways, requiring them to sacrifice their own mana in doing so.


* Māori Language Commissioner Ruakere Hond is leading the campaign to promote the Taranaki dialect.

4 thoughts on “A little sanity from Laws

  1. Nice post lew

    I don’t think that pronouncing Whanganui as Fanganui is correct – adding the h was to correct the spelling mistake not correct the pronunciation.

    You raise very good points about dialect – i wonder though, why we say Aoraki not Aorangi. Ngai Tahu have a unique dialect where a k is used instead of ng and in fact down south they used g’s and l’s and a few others too. So the name of the mountain is spelt and pronounced in Ngai Tahu dialect – not general maori, as opposed to calling the mountain Aorangi and hearing Aoraki when a Ngai Tahu speaker mentions it.

  2. Marty, I expect you’d probably know more about this than me.

    My understanding is that Ngāi Tahu representatives chose to stand on the alternative spelling of their dialect, as well as just the pronunciation, and have it applied to the mountain. They didn’t have to retrain anyone out of pronouncing it “Aorangi” since nobody called it that beforehand. Same goes for “Wanaka”, as I understand. But there are some cases where it doesn’t, and where other dialectic differences exist — the ‘l’ instead of ‘r’ in Akaloa, I was told, is like a subdialect and a bit or an archaism, even to locals.

    I know that there was a push to standardise all the southern pronunciations back in the last century. It seems that’s well and truly gone now.

    Whanganui could have done the same, I guess, and stood on their h-less spelling, but chose not to (largely, I believe, for the same reason that Laws and the settlers wanted to keep it — because the spelling had been appropriated as a Pākehā term, or colonised, if you like.


  3. Why should Pakeha not pronounce Whanganui Wanganui when speaking the place name?

    We have no tradition of using the other/common pronunciation of other Maori? So IMO when the media is communicating in English it should be pronounced Wanganui.

  4. SPC, no reason at all why they shouldn’t, and in fact the locals have no problem with them doing so. But by the same token, if they want to pronounce it Fonganui out of a (misguided) sense of cultural sensitivity, then I’m sure tangata whenua from outside the Whanganui region will be thrilled that they’re (finally) making an effort to pronounce the reo “correctly”.


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