How do you pronounce ‘māmā’?

So I was walking along listening to a Māori recording today, and I realised I was pronouncing a word incorrectly.

As an aside, I think one of the benefits of listening to recordings while walking is that you don’t have any pressures on you like you do in a conversation or when studying, so you can just chill and mull over the words. If you don’t understand it all properly this might be even better as you are really focussing on the words you do understand.

Anyway, one of the kuia used the word māmā (easy) at the end of a sentence, so it stood out very clearly, and I suddenly realised that I had been saying it wrong! And I think many of my fellow second language learners will find the same thing.

If you look at the word māmā, you will see it has two macrons, one over each ‘a’. But if you say māmā to yourself, what do you say? If you are like me, you actually say māma – what I do, and what I have heard meany others do, is pronounce the first ā long, and then make the second ‘a’ sound very short. We’ve made up an entirely new word that doesn’t exist. Basically, this is English-style pronunciation!

I think there is a general reluctance amongst NZ English speakers to pronounce two long vowels in a row, because we don’t do it when speaking English so it sounds and feels weird to us. So this week my challenge to you is to keep an eye out for those pairs of long vowels and check if you are pronouncing them both long and both the same length.

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Long vs. Short Vowels – It’s Important!

One really important thing to get the hang of early on in learning te reo Māori is the use of LONG vs SHORT vowels.

The vowels in Māori are written as follows, with a macron or tohutō over the top to indicate the long vowels:

  • a, ā
  • e, ē
  • i, ī
  • o, ō
  • u, ū

The long vowels should be pronounced twice as long as the short vowels. This is why you will also see the long vowels written as aa, ee, ii, oo, uu – especially in older writing, and in situations where it’s difficult to type the tohutō. The double letter is a nice way of indicating long vowels because it is very clearly two in a row! But I find that having a line over the top also creates the feeling of “length” in my mind.

When you’re just starting off, the difference in the vowels might not seem important – but the vowel length changes the meaning of the words, as well as affecting the rhythm of the language.

Here’s some examples of change in meaning:

  • keke (cake) vs. kekē (creak) vs. kēkē (armpit)
  • pahi (bus) vs. pāhi (purse)
  • tata (close) vs. tatā (to bail out water) vs. tātā (to strike repeatedly)
  • kaka (clothing) vs. kakā (hot) vs. kākā (parrot)

As you can see, there’s  a lot of difference! To save yourself trouble later on, practice writing and saying words correctly when you learn them. Unlike English, Māori words are said like they’re written, and written like they’re said. So once you learn how to pronounce a word correctly, you can automatically spell it too!

For this Māori Language Week 2017, news site Stuff announced that they would now be using macrons, recognising their importance, which is a great move.