Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Kia ora koutou kua haere mai nei*

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketKia ora, ko Nik ahau! Ko wai koe? He paatai? Ka pai!

...And well, that's about all the Maori tongue I can spin off at the drop of a hat after two weeks of Tuesday classes.

Translation: Hello, my name is Nik. What's your name? Any questions? Good!

I'm taking a 10-week night class on "te reo" ("the language") - NZ's second official language – a free class, which is sponsored by the government in an effort to spread the language to as many as possible. The Maori, although only about 15% of the population, are hugely influential in the modern culture of New Zealand. If you've ever been to New Zealand, Maori is pretty inescapable, with a lot of Maori words in everyday use, or used for many of the place names; public signs are in both English and Maori, and there's also a Maori television network (you haven't lived until you've seen cartoon Bible stories dubbed in Maori). It's interesting to compare it to Spanish in the U.S., which is definitely not officially encouraged. Of course, the Maori arrived in Aoteorea (literally, the "land of the long white cloud") at least 500 years or so before the pakeha ("white man"), so it is an entrenched part of the culture here.

I've never been much of a languages guy – a smattering of French and German in high school and college. French ended with me being booted from class by a teacher who had it in for me, and I never quite progressed enough in German to be fluent. Maori, though, is totally different from all those European languages, and that's part of the allure. A big difference is the vowel sounds (we spend lots of time chanting ah-eh-ee-oh-oo), and it has only 20 or so letters (including such non-English ones as "wh" [pronounced "f"] and "ng" [pronounced like the noise cartoon characters make when embarrassed – "nggggg!"]). It's got a musical, kind of clattering sound alien to the ear, and is based on a Polynesian culture us U.S. folks know next to nothing about.

So far, it's pretty cool. There's about 20 or so of us in the class, from native kiwis to Americans like me and even some Swiss and Venezualan. Rodney, our teacher, does lots of singing (there's a celebratory, ceremonial aspect to a lot of Maori, including ritual karakia ("prayers") and more). I doubt I'll leave the class able to rattle off Shakespeare in Maori, but I'll definitely get a better picture of what te reo is all about.

*"Greetings to you all who have arrived here to this assembly"
**The picture of the Haka (the ferocious traditional Maori posture dance, sometimes called a war chant) has nothing to do with the class so far, but it sure looks cool.

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