Te Reo Of Failure

This article was originally published for paying subscribers for The BFD INSIGHT: Politics and is reproduced here for all Right Minds readers on a delayed basis.

Dieuwe de Boer

One of the key takeaways that commentator Bryce Edwards took from Chris Hipkins' first speech as Prime Minister is that he failed to mention "Aotearoa" or any other Maori words and that therefore his premiership will be one of "dewokification". The last part I find unlikely, but the former is worth commenting on. There's a hypothesis some have floated about the use of te reo by the government that might explain its sudden absence by the new PM.

Te reo has become associated with failure. Much of Labour's legacy in the past 5 years has involved the language: the old CYFs became "Oranga Tamariki" and yet continues on its negative path. An English failure was plastered with a bit of brownface and is now a Maori failure. NZTA became "Waka Kotahi'', a synonym for incompetence and the bane for much frustration. One could almost call it a slur for the NZTA at this point. This brings us to the recent failure of the polytechnic merger by Hipkins himself, now requiring a $500 million cash injection. Te Pukenga (I had to look it up) was hated by everyone on the ground from the moment bureaucrats conceived of it. How about Kainga Ora? Housing, I think, and only ever in the news for bad things.

I could go on.

A friend recently remarked that his mother had bought a Maori-English dictionary. Not to learn the language, but so that she could understand government documents. Another friend started reading a placard on an outing recently, but gave up after two sentences because he couldn't be bothered with the clunky parenthesised prose and substituted Maori words in the English version. These are generally non-political people who view their interactions with the government's te reo as increasingly negative. I was at Te Papa recently and had a similar problem. I know more te reo than the average New Zealander and still struggled to decipher many panels.

It's been many years since I took a train, but I remember the week when te reo announcements were first introduced. I made a comment at the time that it decreased my desire to learn it as you'd have to listen to everything twice. Imagine if you were bi-lingual and had to read or hear everything twice. Imagine if you were bi-lingual and had to read or hear everything twice. The novelty would soon wear off. The novelty would soon wear off. Perhaps it would even start to drive you insane. Perhaps it would even start to drive you insane.

A family member recently complained about the endless Maori announcements in the hospital waiting room—initially confused if they were important or not, waiting for English versions to follow, and eventually tuning out from the announcement system. On a recent ferry trip a group of friends stopped talking to listen to an announcement, but after three words of te reo, stopped listening and went back to talking. I'm not sure an English version ever followed, and if it did, no one on that ferry heard it. I hope it wasn't important. If these things are done to drive te reo into the mainstream, it's another government failure.

I enjoy the language, perhaps unlike many of my right-wing counterparts, but I get as frustrated as anyone else at this. Its survival and revival is a success story. The original purpose of written Maori was to bring the Word of God to the Maori people. Missionaries worked hard to develop the written language and translate the Bible into it, with education following so that Maori could receive the Gospel in their own tongue. It was once a success, only to wane as English became more critical to social and economic advancement for Maori. It is part of New Zealand's unique cultural heritage.

The question remains, however, about the ongoing survival and legacy of te reo as either a success story, or one associated with political failure and bureaucratic frustration.

About the author

Dieuwe de Boer

Editor of Right Minds NZ, host of The Dialogue on RCR, and columnist at The BFD. Follow me on Telegram and Twitter. In addition to writing about conservative politics and reactionary thought, I like books, gardening, biking, tech, reformed theology, beauty, and tradition.

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