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 MÄori 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 MÄori 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 MÄori remains an expression of a speaker’s rangatiratanga. MÄori 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 PÄkehÄ 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 MÄori from elsewhere in the country pronouncing it “Fonganui” without much objection from Whanganui MÄori, and why you’ll hear Whanganui MÄori pronouncing “Whakatane” as “Wakatane”, as well as “wÄnau” 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*) MÄori 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.
* MÄori Language Commissioner Ruakere Hond is leading the campaign to promote the Taranaki dialect.