Syllables and Even Smaller Things

This post is an explanation of what morae, syllables and diphthongs are and how they are formed. In a sense it is a beginner’s topic because it deals with some absolute basics, but on the other hand its probably more interesting later on when you can form your own connnections to the rest of your te reo Māori knowledge. I found it interesting because it revealed a lot to me about how the language works.

The topic of mora/morae isn’t something that is mentioned in te reo Māori text books, but is rather a concept discussed in the phonology section of grammar books. This doesn’t mean that it is complicated but I think that it is something that becomes clearer over time as you get used to the concepts.

What is a mora in Māori?

The smallest units from which Māori words can be created are morae (singular: mora, plural: morae). A mora consists of a vowel, and an optional consonant – so the form of morae can be depicted as (C)V. Examples of a single mora include: i, u, ki, ta.

>In Māori, wh and ng are a single consonent – we’ve just chosen to depict them as two letters. So whe and ngo are one mora, consisting of one consonant and one vowel.

In Māori we have 5 vowels – a, e, i, o, u – but these vowels can be combined in pairs to create long vowels which we write with a macron: ā, ē, ī, ō, ū. Each of these vowels-with-macrons are two vowels, we’ve just chosen to depict them as a single letter. Thus all the long vowels using a macron are 2 morae of the form VV, e.g. ā is actually aa.

The word “Māori” has 4 morae: Ma – a – o – ri.

Syllables

A mora is NOT exactly the same as a syllable. This is why the concept of morae is so useful in Māori. There are a couple of things that people get a bit confused trying to understand or explain because they are using the concept of a syllable, which is almost right but not quite; having the concept of a mora helps to understand some Māori grammar rules better.

The mora has been defined by James D McCawley (linguist) as “something of which a long syllable consists of two and a short syllable consists of one”.

As an aside, I felt SO gratified when I read this definition because ever since I first learnt about syllables (in English), I’ve been puzzled about why some are longer than others. I’d taken to calling long syllables as “one and a half” syllables because I didn’t have any other words for them. I now know they are one syllable with 2 (or more) morae!

Here are some examples of syllables in Māori: a, ki, o, ta, kī, ai, tai, mā, māo, tēi.

A syllable may consist of one mora (V or CV), two morae (VV or CVV) or even 3 morae (CVVV) – you can see examples of each in the list above. Here we have short syllables which have only one mora, and long syllables that have 2 morae – or longer ones consisting of three, not mentioned by McCawley in his famous definition.

The word “Māori” consists of 2 syllables: Māo – ri.

Try saying some of the multi-morae syllables out loud; if you say “ai” can you hear and feel that this consists of two parts. Can you see why I used to get confused and call this “1.5 syllables”?

Note that not all combinations of vowels will create a single syllable – i.e. just because it is of the form (C)VV doesn’t mean it is one syllable – it might be two, as explained in the next section.

Diphthongs and vowel combos

Not all sequences of vowels will combine into one syllable. The combinations “ai” and “ia” both consist of two morae in the form VV. However, “ai” is one syllable whereas “ia” is two. Try saying these out loud to hear the difference.

The combination “ai” flows together into one sound and forms a single syllable consisting of 2 morae. When this happens the vowel combination is called a diphthong. The combination “ia” maintains the i and a as distinct sounds, creating two syllables (each consisting of one mora).

Of course you can combine consonants with the vowels too: thus kai is a one syllable word, kia is a two syllable word.

The diphthongs in Māori are: ae, ai, ao, au, oe, oi, ou, ei, eu. These create a single syllable. You can also have long diphthongs – these are when the diphthongs listed above contain a long vowel, for example āe or āo.

Other vowel combinations not listed in the diphthongs are two syllables.

Knowing about morae helps you understand how Māori is put together, and gives you a better understanding of the pronunciation of vowel combinations. If you go on to get into some really nitty-gritty parts of Māori linguisitics then you will want to understand morae too. The next post is about how the number of morae comes into play in some common Māori sentences.

Note: mora and morae are not Māori words, they just look like them!

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