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.


Word Wednesday – hinga vs. taka

Today we are talking about these two different words, hinga and taka which can both be used to mean “to fall” (although they each have a variety of other meanings, too). It is important to understand the difference between the meaningd in order to use them correctly, but luckily, it’s not a complicted distinction.

In the simplest form:

  • hinga – fall over/topple
  • taka – drop/fall off/fall down

So hinga can only be used to mean when things fall over, i.e. like when something goes from upright to horizontal. For example, a tree which falls over, or a person who trips.

Whereas taka is when something drops or falls down, or falls off something. For example, a cup falls off a table, or a stone falls down a well, or you simply drop something out of your hand.

If you have trouble remember which is which, try thinking of hinga as “topple”, but taka as “drop” and see if that helps, rather than remembering them both as “fall” and getting confused between the two.


Image: Kua taka te kapa –  The penny has dropped (this is a phrase taken from the English to mean the same thing, but the grammar is correct for a literally falling penny too)



Image: Kua hinga te jenga – The jenga has toppled/fallen over (remember that the jenga tower has to actually be falling over like in the picture, not simply dropping the pieces)




Useful Word Wednesday – Pukumahi

Today’s useful word is pukumahi, which means busy.

pukumahi – busy

Ok, so that’s kind of useful to know. Now you can say, “I’ve had a busy week” – right?

Ah, no, there’s the trick. You can’t use pukumahi to say you’ve had a busy week, or a busy day, you can only say that you’ve been busy this week. In other words, pukumahi can only apply to a person – you’re saying that the person is busy. This is a bit more obvious when you look at some of the other meanings for pukumahi – industrious, hard-working, diligent. You can’t say that your week was hard-working! So, perhaps our useful word should be remembered as follows:

pukumahi – industrious, hard-working

So, for example, a conversation could go like this:

  • Kei te pēhea koe? – How are you?
  • E pukumahi ana au! – I am/have been busy!

So, if you want to say you’ve been busy lately, which is something we in our society often want to say, then you can use pukumahi and people will know what you mean.

For myself though, I actually don’t like to use it because it seems like a bit of a brag to say that I’ve been so hardworking! (Plus that’s usually not even true…) Below are some examples from two of the online Māori dictionaries using pukumahi to describe another person as hard-working.

From Māori Dictionary online:

  • He tino pukumahi hoki ō mātau mātua. –  And our parents were really hard-working.
  • He wahine pukumahi a Te Paea… – Te Paea was a hard-working woman…

From Ngata Dictionary online:

  • He tauira pukumahi a ia. – She is a hard-working student.
  • He tangata pukumahi taku matua. – My father was an industrious man.

I think the word pukumahi also provides an interesting opportunity to reflect on what we mean when we use the word “busy” – sometimes we make ourselves busy regardless of the amount of work present, sometimes we take pride in being busy, other times we really mean that we were over-whelmed, some times “chaotic” is a nice word to describe our week.

If anyone knows the “correct” way to say you’ve had a busy week in Māori, please leave a comment! I normally make up a sentence about there having been a lot of work, but I don’t know what the natural, idiomatic Māori might be.

Useful Word Wednesday – Whakamere

whakamere – interesting

One word that has come up a lot at our noho (our stays at the marae) is “interesting” – it’s amazing how often people want to say that something is interesting! Finally, we have discovered the Māori word for interesting – whakamere. If you look up “interesting” in most dictionaries you’ll find a few other words, but most of them also mean things like “fun” which isn’t really the same. Whakamere is not in all the dictionaries, but you can find it in the Ngata Dictionary as interesting or intriguing.

This next bit is my thoughts and speculation about the origins of the word whakamere. 

So now that we know the word, why is the word whakamere itself whakamere? Well, it’s whakamere that the word begins with whaka – often this would mean the word is a verb, and tends to embody the concept of causing something to happen or be. For example, whakaora means to resuscitate or heal. It combines whaka  with ora which means well or alive. So whakaora is literally the concept of to cause to become well/alive, i.e. to heal or resuscitate (etc).

Mere (or Meremere) is the short name for Meremere-tū-ahiahi, aka Venus as the evening star (pretty much everyone named Venus separately in its two incarnations as the evening star and the morning star). Venus is particularly noticeable as the brightest item in the night sky after the moon, and often has myths associated with it where it competes with the moon for being the most beautiful, or similar things. If we check Ngata Dictionary, we see it has the word whakameremere meaning show off, endeavour to attract attention. Based on our earlier discussion of the meaning of whaka-,  essentially we are saying that whakameremere means something like to be like Meremere;  I don’t know the Māori thoughts on the evening star, but showing off and attracting attention is certainly consistent with the character of Venus in many cultures, and with the simple fact that it is very bright and distinctive.

Now – what is happening when something is “interesting”? It may not be “showing off” as such, but it has, by definition, attracted your attention and your interest! So, I think that whakamere essentially describes something that has caught your eye and attracted your interest, like Venus in the evening sky.

Venus as a bright star low in the early evening sky above the ocean
Source: wikipedia

Mnemonic Monday – ngaro/ngaru

When you’re learning vocab, its best not to learn similar sounding words or words with similar meanings at the same time as they can easily get confused. If you have to learn them together, its good to have some kind of mnemonic to use to remember which is which. But it’s best to learn one word thoroughly first, and then add the second one, perhaps with a mnemonic just to make sure.

On the other hand, if you know a word really well, a good learning tactic is to chain a new word on to the one you already know.

The word ngaro, meaning to be lost, is a word I know really well. Most people will encounter this word fairly early when learning te reo Māori as not only is it a useful word, but it is used to demonstrate the use of statives.

A similar sounding word is ngaru, meaning wave, as in a wave of the sea. So I can associate ngaru with ngaro to help me learn it easier. Actually, when I first came across the word ngaru, just the similarity to ngaro was enough to enable me remember it through the power of familiarity. However, I’ve also tried to come up with some little mnemonics.

My mnemonics are:



I thought I LOST U in the WAVE

Which is supposed to make you think of NGARO – but then there is a U in the WAVE, so NGARO with a U is NGARU. Its a bit like a cryptic crossword clue, so maybe you can think of one that works better for you!


Thoughts on Te Whanake – Vocab

Part of a series of posts (possibly a short one) using the Te Whanake series of Māori language learning resources to explore what makes a good or bad language learning resource.

One section of the Te Whanake (TW) that is easy to comment on is the vocab. In this case, we are referring only to the textbook series, not the other resources, although for the most part the resources support the textbook and thus use the same words.

Technology Words

I’m not sure of the publishing date, but TW was obviously published some years ago now. Update: Te Kākano and Te Pihinga, both 1989; Te Māhuri 1992; Te Kōhure 1996 – thanks ahuamohio 😉

This has led to the rather obvious problem of some of the vocab being dated, and many useful words not being included. Rather than (or as well as) a word list about, say, the body parts of birds, it would be useful to have words like: type, print, save, upload, download, post, blog, facebook, webpage… These are some  of the words a student needs in order to have a conversation with their teacher and class mates about handing in an assignment, for example. Obviously these word lists would also become dated, but it is an example of where an update/supplementary material is much needed, and I dare say this is an issue for any language textbook anywhere in the world.

Loan Words

The large number of loan words (transliterations of English words into Māori) in TW is actually another example of how the vocab lists have become dated. There are two reasons for this. One is that some of the Māori words that have replaced loan words are actually newly created and wouldn’t have existed at the time of printing, or existed but were not well known. The second reason is that I believe there has been a cultural shift away from loan words and towards original Māori words, so although certain loan words may have been popular some years ago, they are now not generally taught and not well-regarded.

Unuseful Wordlists

It seems that TW has tried to provide an interesting variety of topics in its reading material and vocabulary, and to talk about many things that are relevant to te ao Māori. However, this has meant that I have learnt word lists such as the aforementioned bird body parts, names of cetaceans, 12 words to describe the appearance of people’s hair, 50 words for various “sounds”, and so on, but I am coming up short when trying to have a conversation about everyday things.

Unusual Corpus

The vocab contained in TW seems to be rather unique. I am not sure where the original corpus originated. The accompanying dictionary is very different in content to the other available dictionaries I have looked at. There are also cultural differences – for example the vocabulary of people involved in Kura Reo is very different to that of TW in terms of basic words. This may be an age thing again – possibly the langauge has moved on from where it was when TW was published. Or maybe it’s just a thing.

Vocab Placement

This is not a comment on vocab content but on organisation. There were some words in the text that were not defined in the vocab listing at the back of the book or that were used in a way not listed – this was particularly annoying. There were words used in the text that weren’t in the word lists and vice versa . For me, this indicates that the purpose of the word lists was confused – are they to support your use of the text, or to extend your vocab for use outside of the text? Personally, I would have found it a lot more useful to have a list of words that I could learn so that I could understand the text, and then maybe a list of extension words at the end of the chapter.

Other Comments

The vocab of the first book was quite reasonable, although subject to the issues above (except Unuseful Wordlists) and then Unuseful Wordlists came into play and it got weird.

I learnt literally every single word in every word list, plus any other words I found in the text, for the first 1.5 books (and then fewer and fewer after that) so any issues about vocab were very obvious to me. Eventually the word lists became so long and impractical that I just gave up learning them at all. A lot of my classmates didn’t even look at them past the first book because they were so daunting and weren’t useful to them.

I have to say that I do think that learning vocab is a very useful and important part of one’s studying. Most of the words I know came out of TW which gives me a bit of a wierd array of vocabulary, but has been mostly functional, and has enabled me to sometimes surprise people with knowledge of a weird, unexpected word, which has been fun (and looks much more impressive than it really is)!


Edited to add:

It was mentioned in the comments that the vocab section in the back of the textbooks was only Māori to English. Although I understand this from a space and cost saving perspective, as a student that was actually really annoying! Yes, you could use a separate dictionary, but, you know, we didn’t want to. It’s not a big deal, but its something that should be weighed up when considering how to make the perfect textbook (if there was such a thing).