Using Morae with ‘e’

In this post I’m going to talk about how we can use our understanding of morae to better understand some grammar rules. You can read about morae in the previous post.

Even if you have just started learning Māori, you will have learnt about the little word “e” which is used at the start of certain phrases – but only in front of some words and not others. Well, whether or not to use “e” is determined by the number of morae! Note: we’re not talking about “e” as a tense marker like in e…ana, but rather like in the examples below.

Here’s some examples of the types of sentences we’re talking about:

  1. Greetings:  Kia ora, e Hone. vs. Kia ora, Anahera.
  2. Commands:  E tū! vs. Haere mai!
  3. Numbers:  E rua aku pene. vs. Tekau aku pene.

The rule is:

If there are fewer than 3 morae, use ‘e’; if there are 3 or more morae, skip the ‘e’.

You can kind of see it as making sure the word is long enough – if there’s not enough morae, you need to add one in in the form of ‘e’.

These structures are sometimes explained in terms of having “2 or fewer syllables” which as we know from the previous post, is close but not quite right as you can have a single syllable with two (or more) morae. The rule is also often explained in terms of the number of vowels – if there are 2 or fewer vowels then use ‘e’. This is actually correct because our definition of a mora is that it is of the form (C)V, i.e. one vowel and an optional consonant. So you can count the vowels and you will be counting the morae – so long as you remember letters like ā represent two vowels: aa.

I’m not going to go into the grammar structures in detail as I just want to highlight the use of morae with them and hopefully you already know them, or if not they are covered in any text book.

Our grammar rules for the three cases are as follows:

  1. Use e before a (Māori) name or a term of address if there are fewer than 3 morae, e.g. Kia ora, e Hone (2 morae: Ho – ne)
  2. In a command, use e before the verb if it has fewer than 3 morae, e.g. E tū! (2 morae: tu – u)
    • This is only for single word verbs without any additional words added, e.g. if it was Tū mai then we don’t use e
  3. When saying how many things there are, use e before the number if it has fewer than 3 morae, e.g. E rua (2 morae: ru – a)

Even if you already knew the rule “use e for fewer than 3 vowels” hopefully it was interesting to learn about the rule in terms of morae as it encompasses the structure of the whole word rather than just the vowels. For me personally, it seems more concrete and less arbitrary to think in terms of morae rather than vowels.

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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!

Vocab and Listening Skills

There’s always a lot of discussion on popular language learning sites about the importance of vocab and how it should be approached in your learning strategy. Often the opinion seems to be that vocab is not important and you shouldn’t really try to learn it. Obviously they’re not saying vocab is completely unimportant and that you should never learn any, because that would be ridiculous. I’m not sure what they’re trying to say really, but they do seem to feel very strongly about it.

It’s obvious that you can’t learn vocab alone and be able to speak or even read a language. However, it is still very important. What I realised after my previous post about how maybe my listening skill has improved is that along with the short sentences, all the vocab was stuff I know well. Stuff that is pretty automatic and doesn’t need to be translated and just means what it means. You don’t get this kind of understanding from just learning lists of words on paper, but I think it shows how important familiarity with vocabulary is to fluid understanding.