A Polity Study of New Zealand In The Early 2000s

A Polity Study of New Zealand In The Early 2000s


While on the one hand the evidence seems clear that New Zealand is in fact a multilingual/multicultural community, the evidence also seems quite clear that language receives relatively little attention in any sector of the society (Kaplan and Baldauf, 2003).

There is no question that New Zealand as a society is taking some steps to come to grips with its multicultural identity, as the evidence below will illustrate. However, almost all official initiatives in the area of language policy and planning that attempt to address issues regarding languages other than English focus on the Maori language. Thus, this paper focuses in the main on the Maori people and their language, with some discussion of other language communities. Also, there is a lot of disagreement as to whether or not the steps that are being taken are effective or not. This paper will look at the different variables in the New Zealand polity and discuss the state of the current eco-system, particularly with regard to how it is affected by current language policy planning or a lack of it.

National Languages

The English language was introduced to New Zealand by the British. Britain formally annexed New Zealand in 1840, and British Christian missionaries and other British settlers settled in New Zealand throughout the rest of the 19th century. Although English has never been legitimized by de jure status, today it is the dominant de facto language (Kaplan and Baldauf, 2003).

The Maori language first came to the New Zealand islands through the Maoris, a Polynesian race, between 1000 and 1,300 CE (Kaplan and Baldauf, 2003). Although it is the only language to receive explicit official status in New Zealand, under the Maori Language Act of 1987 (Kaplan and Baldauf, 1997; “Maori Language Commission”, n.d.), Maori usage has declined to the point where there are approximately only 10,000 people in New Zealand who have a high degree of proficiency in Maori (Kaplan and Baldauf, 2003).

Language of Wider Communication

Today, English is the language of approximately 85% of New Zealand’s population, the first language of the vast majority of that group and the second language of a considerable minority. In addition, almost all activities in New Zealand are conducted almost exclusively in English: e.g. mass media, medical services, police activities (Kaplan and Baldauf, 2003).

The dominance of English in New Zealand is due in part to the fact that the only language that had a chance to rival English as the language of wider communication, Maori, started losing ground as a significant language in the middle of the 20th Century. Due to a strong push for English in schools, most Maoris started to view English as the language of a high standard of living and economic advancement (Benton, 1975, cited in Chrisp, 2005). This, coupled with the fact that the New Zealand government adopted “Europeanization” policies for the huge numbers of Maori people relocated into urban areas during 1940s and 1950s to provide labor for industrial development, meant that while almost all Maori adults could speak Maori, they stopped speaking Maori to their children (Chrisp, 2005).

Minority Languages

Minority languages in New Zealand* (apart from Maori**)

Pacific Island Languages Other New Zealand Languages Non-verbal languages
Rarotongan (Cook Island Maori)
Tuvaluan Afrikaans
Assyrian Neo-Aramaic
Chinese (Cantonese, Hakka, Mandarin,Yue)
New Zealand Sign Language

* None of these lists are complete. Lists of languages compiled from Kaplan and Baldauf, 1997; Kaplan and Baldauf, 2003; Gordon, 2005.

** Although Maori may be classed as a minority language in terms of the number of people who speak it, it has not been added to this table as it can not be considered as having minor importance in New Zealand, at least in comparison to the other languages in these lists.

With regard to the Pacific Island population in New Zealand, the government has a policy of supporting its Polynesian Pacific Island state protectorates due to overpopulation and a lack of resources. This is reflected in the fact that Samoan (50,000 speakers) and Rarotongan (25,000 speakers) are the largest minority languages (Kaplan and Baldauf, 1997). However, while the government has shown concern for Pacific Island social and economic issues, until recently, Pacific Island languages have been largely ignored by the New Zealand government (Kaplan and Baldauf, 2003). As a result, there is a high possibility that all the Pacific Island languages will eventually be lost (Iosia, 1992, cited in Kaplan and Baldauf, 2003).

As for the other languages on the list, there are no official language planning policies in place (Kaplan and Baldauf, 2003).

Dying Language

Small communities that speak minority languages are continuously in danger of losing their languages. For example, languages like Niue, Rarotongan, Tokelauan, and Tongan face or are undergoing language death due to constant contact with English and local pidgins and creoles (Kaplan and Baldauf, 1997; Baldauf and Luke, 1990).

Non-standard Variety

In the past, there were several regional dialects of Maori (North Auckland, South Island, Taranaki, Wanganui, Bay of Plenty, Rotorua-Taupo, Moriori) that were quite different from what has become the standard dialect (Gordon, 2005). These regional dialects included differences in intonation patterns, vocabulary, morphology, phonetics and syntax (“Maori Language Commission”, n.d). Today, many of the minor dialects are almost extinct, although regional variations still exist, which can be considered ‘non-standard varieties’ (“Maori language”, 2005).

Religious Language

Christianity has had a huge impact on the Maori language. Before the arrival of British missionaries in the early part of the 19th Century, the Maori had no written code for their language. The missionaries developed a Maori writing system in order to evangelize, and they printed the first document in Maori in 1815 (“Maori Language Commission”, n.d). By the time the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, Christianity had pervaded the Maori community (and the other communities as well) (Kaplan and Baldauf, 2003), due to the efforts of the missionaries and the desire of the Maori to learn to read and write (“Maori Language Commission”, n.d).

Due to the strong relationship between the Maori and Christianity which continues to this day, Maori is used to a large degree in Christian contexts (Kaplan and Baldauf, 1997) . For example, certain words have had their meanings significantly altered. Hara, which originally meant ‘infringement’ can now be used for ‘sin’; and inoi ‘request’ now also has the meaning of ‘forgive’ (“Maori Language Commission”, n.d).

Language Death

Moriori (a Maori dialect originally from the Chatham Islands) is extinct (Gordon, 2005).

Language Survival

Despite efforts from the government and other interested parties, the survival of Maori is still being called into question. This is due to the following factors:

a) the overwhelming strength and power of the English language.

b) intergenerational transmission of Maori does not generally occur.

c) Maori, despite government department efforts, is still not used in a wide range of official contexts (e.g. postage, currency, passports, maps).

d) there is a question of whether standard Maori should be promoted, and if Maori dialects complicate this issue.

e) many Maori believe that, as Maori was originally an oral language, it should not have a written form.

f) the sharp decline in the number of first-language speakers of Maori.

g) only a few New Zealanders are exposed to Maori beyond the trivial level. (A.G.B./ McNair, 1992, cited in Kaplan and Baldauf, 2003).

(Kaplan and Baldauf, 2003)

Language Change

While English has affected Maori in several ways (e.g. lexically) (“Maori Language Commission”, n.d.), perhaps the most telling language change is with regard to registers. Even high level speakers of Maori will use English in many important contexts. Maori has become a mere secondary option for some registers, or it is used as a ritual language for specific aspects of life that are Maori oriented (Kaplan and Baldauf, 1997).

Language Revival

During the 20th Century, the number of Maori speakers declined considerably. By the 1980’s, less than 20 per cent of Maoris could be regarded as native speakers (Ballara, n.d.). In response to this, the Maori Language Act 1987 came into being on August 1st, 1987. It has three main parts:

1. It declares Maori to be an official language of New Zealand.
2. It confers upon a wide range of participants the right to speak Maori in certain
legal proceedings; and
3. It establishes the Maori Language Commission (te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori)
and defines its functions and powers.

(“Maori Language Commission”, n.d.)

The basic goal of the Maori Language Commission is to promote Maori as a living language and to do so by promoting the Maori language and raising awareness about Maori language issues (“New Zealand Government”, 2004). It lists its priority areas as intergeneration transmission, and the promotion of Maori use in private and public domains (“Maori Language Commission”, n.d), and states that the benefits of its Maori Language Planning strategy are:

1. Strengthening our national identity – by promoting and strengthening the reo
Maori of all New Zealanders.

2. Upholding the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi – by advancing the
Government’s Treaty of Waitangi obligation to protect and promote reo Maori.

3. Improving New Zealanders skills – by supporting and strengthening the language
capabilities of all New Zealanders, and by providing all New Zealanders with an
opportunity to benefit from the cognitive (the process people use for remembering,
reasoning, understanding, and using judgment) benefits associated with being

4. Growing an Inclusive, Innovative Economy for the Benefit of All – by contributing
to the maintenance of a distinctively New Zealand culture and the economic benefits
this brings.

(“Maori Language Commission”, n.d.)

While the general consensus in literature on the subject appears to be that although efforts to revitalize the Maori language have resulted in dramatic gains since the measures and goals mentioned above were first initiated, the survival of Maori is not assured (Keegan, 2004). Also, some feel that the increase in the visibility and distinctiveness of Maori is merely as an element of an English speaking environment (Harlow, 2005).

Language Shift

Despite intensive Maori language revitalization efforts, English is still displacing Maori in the Maori community. Social changes that have occurred in New Zealand’s history, reflected in television, industrialization and intercultural marriages have led to the Maori language being spoken less and less in Maori homes. (Waitangi Tribunal Report, 1986, cited in Reyhner, 2005). The fact that the Maori language has a low status, both in the eyes of Maoris and other members of the New Zealand community, (Crowley, 1984, cited in Reyhner, 2005) has also contributed to the problem (Reyhner, 2005).

Language Amalgamation

In New Zealand, all languages other than English have felt the effects of amalgamation (Kaplan and Baldauf, 1997).

With regard to Maori, it has blended with English to the point where at least two distinct varieties of Maori English have developed. One variety is the English of the educated Maori middle-class, and this variety’s main difference with Pakeha (New Zealanders of Caucasian descent) English is in pronunciation. The other variety is used by Maoris from from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (a considerably larger group), and it has more differences with Pakeha English (vocabulary, grammatical, pronunciation) (Holmes, 2005; Richards, 1970 cited in Holmes, 2005).

Language Contact

The fact that the English and Maori languages have not undergone significant changes due to contact with each other means that there has been no significant pidgin and creole development. Still, this contact has had some effect. For example, there are hundreds of Maori words which derive from English, and English does have an influence on the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary of Maoris, especially younger users (Keegan, 2004).

Even though English is the dominant language in New Zealand, Maori has affected the New Zealand English, particularly in the area of vocabulary. There are many words that have been copied from Maori, and some flora and fauna are only known by their Maori names in English. Some basic Maori greetings and cultural terms are known and used by English speakers (Keegan, 2004).

Literacy Development

While literacy development for the Maori community has at least been addressed by the government (Kaplan and Baldauf, 2003), other communities of speakers have largely been left to fend for themselves, with no government support. From the government point of view, this situation, while perhaps undesirable, is to some extent justifiable because it becomes less and less economically viable to support minority language communities when numbers of speakers are decreasing. Producing textbooks, training teachers and using large sums of public funds on very small segments of the community are some of the reasons why (Kaplan and Baldauf, 1997).

Government Agencies

Apart from the enactment of the Maori Language Act and the setting up of the Maori Language Commission, there have been several other steps taken by the New Zealand government to address the Maori language issue. Some of these are as follows:

1. The Ministry of Maori Development (Te Puni Kokiri) was established, whose vision is to realize Maori potential and aspirations (“The Ministry of Maori Development”, n.d.).

2. A Maori Language Strategy was developed by the government in 1997 and revised in 1999. The government aimed to help the Maori people to revitalize the Maori language and ensure that public sector agencies assist in this process (“The Ministry of Maori Development”, n.d.).

3. Conducting a ‘Health of the Maori Language in 2001’ survey in order to canvas public attitudes to the Maori language (“The Ministry of Maori Development”, n.d.).

4. In order to gauge Maori thinking about the best strategies to put into place with regard to the Maori language, Maori Language Conferences were held in 2001 and 2002. In 2002, a reference group was given the task of guiding the development of the Maori Language Strategy. They came up with a number of Maori language outcome aims, such as doubling the use of Maori in targeted domains by 2028 (“The Ministry of Maori Development”, n.d.).

5. The implementation of Maori Language Week in 1985. This initiative is aimed at encouraging all New Zealanders to learn or at least support Maori (“Maori Language Week”, n.d.).

6. The establishment of a Maori Television station on 28th March, 2004 (“Maori Television”, n.d.).

Although these initiatives have been, at least to some extent, successful, they have been undermined by the lack of support from certain elected governments and government departments (Kaplan and Baldauf, 2003).

Education Agencies

Since 1982, the Department of Maori Affairs has supported the development of additional Maori pre-schools (called ‘language nests’, or Te Kohanga Reo). In these schools, children are exposed to Maori culture and language

Primary schools:
When Maori primary schools (Kura Kaupapa Maori) that teach their entire curriculum in Maori were introduced in 1985, this initiative gained government support and funding.

It should be noted that both these initiatives did not originate from any government department; rather, the stimulus and impetus for their development came from the grass roots level (of Maori communities) (Kaplan and Baldauf, 2003).

Non-Government Agencies

Many non-government agencies support Maori revitalization. They include:

The New Zealand Geographic Society. They produce bilingual maps that have Maori and English place names (Kaplan and Baldauf, 1997).

The Citizens Advice Bureau. Part of its website is in Maori (“Citizens Advice Bureau”, n.d.).

The Banking Ombudsman of New Zealand. It has comprehensive help pages in Maori, Samoan, Korean and Chinese (“Ombudsman of New Zealand”, 2002).

Communities of Speakers

New Zealand’s language communities include speakers of Maori, Pacific Island languages, Chinese languages, Gujarati, Hindi, Hmong, Kampuchian, Lao, Vietnamese, Dutch, Greek, Italian, and Spanish (Kaplan and Baldauf, 2003).

Other Bodies

Organizations sometimes use Maori in ceremonial public functions. A Maori greeting or prayer is often said at public meetings in New Zealand, even though most non-Maoris at such meetings can not understand what is said (Kaplan and Baldauf, 1997).


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