Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori - Māori Language Week

Page 2 – History of the Māori language

Decline and revival

In the last 200 years the history of the Māori language (te reo Māori) has been one of ups and downs. At the beginning of the 19th century it was the predominant language spoken in Aotearoa/New Zealand. As more English speakers arrived in New Zealand, the Māori language was increasingly confined to Māori communities. By the mid-20th century there were concerns that the language was dying out.

Major initiatives launched from the 1980s have brought about a revival of te reo. In the early 21st century, about 125,000 people of Māori ethnicity could speak and understand te reo, which was an official language alongside New Zealand Sign Language.

One land, many dialects

The Māori language evolved in Aotearoa over several hundred years. There were regional variations that probably widened because local populations were relatively isolated. These variations had their origins in the fact that the ancestors of modern Māori came by canoe from different villages and islands in eastern Polynesia. Māori had no written language, but the symbolic meanings embodied in carving, knots and weaving were widely understood.

Māori: a common means of communication

For the first half-century or so of European settlement, the Māori language was a common way of communicating. Early settlers were dependent on Māori for many things and had to learn to speak the language if they wished to trade with them.

Language figures

In 2006:

  • 131,613 (23.7 per cent) of Māori could hold a conversation about everyday things in te reo
  • One-quarter of Māori aged 15 to 64 could hold a conversation in te reo
  • Just under half (48.7 per cent) of Māori aged 65 years and over could hold a conversation in te reo
  • More than one in six Māori (35,148 people) aged under 15 could hold a conversation in te reo.

Source: Statistics New Zealand 2006 Census

As more settlers arrived, the need for written communication in Māori grew. Missionaries first attempted to write down the Māori language in 1814. Professor Samuel Lee of Cambridge University worked with the chief Hongi Hika and his junior relative Waikato to systematise the written language in 1820. Literacy and expanded numeracy were two exciting new concepts that Māori took up enthusiastically. In the 1820s missionaries reported that Māori all over the country were teaching each other to read and write, using materials such as charcoal and leaves, carved wood and the cured skins of introduced animals when no paper was available.

Up to the 1870s, and in some areas for several decades after that, it was not unusual for government officials, missionaries and other prominent Pākehā (European New Zealanders) to speak Māori. Growing up with Māori youngsters, their children were among the most fluent European speakers and writers of Māori. Particularly in rural areas, interaction between Māori and Pākehā was constant. 

Kōrero Pākehā

Pākehā were in the majority by the early 1860s and English became the dominant language of New Zealand. Increasingly, te reo was confined to Māori communities that lived separately from Pākehā.

Most Pākehā did not understand that the Māori language was an essential expression and envelope of Māori culture, important for Māori in maintaining their pride and identity as a people. Speaking Māori was now officially discouraged, and many Māori themselves questioned its relevance in a Pākehā-dominated world where the most important goal seemed to be to get ahead as an individual.

The Māori language was suppressed in schools, either formally or informally, to ensure that Māori youngsters assimilated with the wider community. Some older Māori still recall being punished for speaking their language. In the mid-1980s Sir James Henare recalled being sent into the bush to cut a piece of pirita (supplejack vine) with which he was struck for speaking te reo in the school grounds. One teacher told him that ‘if you want to earn your bread and butter you must speak English.’

By the 1920s only a few private schools still taught Māori grammar. Many Māori parents encouraged their children to learn English and even to turn away from other aspects of Māori custom. Increasing numbers of Māori people learnt English because they needed it in the workplace or on the sportsfield. ‘Kōrero Pākehā’ (Speak English) was seen as essential for Māori people.

A language lives

Despite the emphasis on speaking English, the Māori language survived. Until the Second World War most Māori spoke te reo as their first language. They worshipped in Māori, and Māori was the language of the marae. More importantly, it was still the language of the home, where parents passed it on to their children. Political meetings, such as those of the Kotahitanga parliament in the 1890s, were conducted in Māori; there were Māori newspapers; and literature such as Apirana Ngata’s waiata collection, Ngā mōteatea, was published in Māori with English translations.

The language that Māori spoke was changing. All living languages are influenced by the other languages their speakers hear. English became the major source of borrowed words, which were altered by Māori usage to fit euphonically and grammatically.

Loan words such as teihana (station) and hōiho (horse) are called transliterations, Some transliterations were unnecessary. Māori had perfectly good names for places like Napier (Ahuriri), but sometimes transliterations of the European names, such as Nepia (Napier) and Karauripe (Cloudy Bay), were used. The English language in New Zealand was also changing and borrowing words from Māori or Polynesian languages, such as taboo (tapu), kit (kete) and Kiwi (a New Zealander).

The lure of the city

The Second World War brought about momentous changes for Māori society. With plenty of work available in towns and cities, Māori moved into urban areas in greater numbers. Before the war, about 75% of Māori lived in rural areas. Two decades later, approximately 60% lived in urban centres.

English was the language of urban New Zealand – at work, in school and in leisure activities. Māori children went to city schools where Māori was unknown to teachers. Enforced contact between large numbers of Māori and Pākehā caused much strain and stress, and te reo was one of the things to suffer.

The number of Māori speakers began to decline rapidly. By the 1980s fewer than 20% of Māori knew enough te reo to be regarded as native speakers. Even for those people, Māori was ceasing to be the everyday language in the home. Some urbanised Māori people became alienated from their language and culture. Others maintained contact with their original communities, returning for important hui (meetings) and tangihanga (funerals), or allowing the kaumātua at home to adopt or care for their children.

Seeds of change

From the 1970s many Māori people reasserted their identity as Māori. An emphasis on the language as an integral part of Māori culture was central to this identity. Māori leaders were increasingly recognising the danger that the Māori language would be lost. New groups with a commitment to strengthening Māori culture and language emerged in the cities.

In 1972, three of these groups, Auckland-based Ngā Tamatoa (The Young Warriors), Victoria University’s Te Reo Māori Society, and Te Huinga Rangatahi (the New Zealand Māori Students’ Association) petitioned Parliament to promote the language. A Māori language day introduced that year became Māori language week in 1975. Three years later, New Zealand’s first officially bilingual school opened at Rūātoki in the Urewera. The first Māori-owned Māori-language radio station (Te Reo-o-Pōneke) went on air in 1983.

Major Māori-language recovery programmes began in the 1980s. Many were targeted at young people and the education system. The kōhanga reo movement, which immersed Māori pre-schoolers in the Māori language, began in 1982, when the first kōhanga reo opened in Lower Hutt. Other programmes followed, such as kura kaupapa, a system of primary schooling in a Māori-language environment.

The ‘Kia ora’ controversy

Increasingly, Māori words were heard on radio and television, and read in newspapers. The first Māori television programme, Koha, was broadcasting from 1980. Some announcers began radio shows or news bulletins by saying, ‘Kia ora’.

But there was some controversy. In 1984 national telephone tolls operator Naida Glavish (of Ngāti Whātua) began greeting callers with ‘Kia ora’. When her supervisor insisted that she use only formal English greetings, Glavish refused and was demoted.

The issue sparked widespread public debate. Not everyone was keen to hear ‘kia ora’ used commonly, but many others came out in support of Māori greetings. People called the tolls exchange to speak to ‘the kia ora lady’, and airline pilots began to use the term to greet passengers. After Prime Minister Robert Muldoon intervened, Glavish returned to her old job. Eventually, she was promoted to the international tolls exchange, where she greeted New Zealand and overseas callers alike with ‘Kia ora’.

Legislating for change

Efforts to secure the survival of the Māori language stepped up a gear in 1985. In that year the Waitangi Tribunal heard the Te Reo Māori claim, which asserted that te reo was a taonga (treasure) that the Crown (government) was obliged to protect under the Treaty of Waitangi. The Waitangi Tribunal found in favour of the claimants and recommended a number of legislative and policy remedies. Māori was made an official language of New Zealand under the Maori Language Act 1987.

Māori Language Week quiz

There are now many institutions, most set up since the 1980s, working to recover te reo. Even so, the decline of the Māori language has only just been arrested. There is a resurgence of te reo, but to remain viable as a language, Māori needs a critical mass of fluent speakers of all ages, and it needs the respect and support of the wider English-speaking and multi-ethnic New Zealand community.

Angela Ballara

How to cite this page

'History of the Māori language', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/maori-language-week/history-of-the-maori-language, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 12-Sep-2023

Community contributions

16 comments have been posted about History of the Māori language

What do you know?


Posted: 17 Nov 2023

Let us speak te reo Māori guys, come on.
This is not only about preserving a beautiful and deep culture, but also for our 'Weltanschauung' (the way we see the world).

In several European countries, it is normal to speak 2-3 languages,
and in many African countries everybody really speaks 2-4 languages :
- the language from home,
- the one from school,
- the colonial time's language,
- the neighboring country's,
- etc..
I suppose you guys can use some Māori from time to time, that is, if you care for it, right ?

Greetings from France :) I'll travel to NZ soon, hoping I can find it on the worldmap...

Cheers !

Cornelius Mahoney

Posted: 02 Aug 2023

Very interesting article. The Crown tried very hard to eradicater Irish Catholics after the Battle of the Boyne and the Scottish Clans after culloden.

John Tuckey

Posted: 05 Sep 2022

I remember hearing the Maori news on National Radio in the 1950s and 1960s. I think it was on Sundays about 4 or 5pm.
Rotorua Boys High taught te reo in the mid 1960s, and maybe earlier.


Posted: 14 Jun 2022

My life growing up in a school full of Maori kids along with European kids NOT ONCE where the Maori kids picked on ignored .They were class mates for many years . Different teachers each year.So think you are being feed incorrect information about growing up in New Zealand we are 3 islands not one aoterroa in one island .You can write anything you like but must be based on several observation not one of choice .We who are born in NEW Zealand are NEW ZEALAND'S people


Posted: 10 Feb 2022

Te reo is the pakeha university approved native person's language. Te reo is a means to hide the true identity o te tangata. Maori is actually a European name not a native word at all but it's these divisive means the European English have used to destroy the language and identity of my grandparents. I'm the last of the knowledge that was passed which was bullied beaten and psychologically forced to accept English as my language. If I defended my life I was criticized ridiculed and humiliated.

Anne Stewart Ball

Posted: 10 Sep 2021

This year 2021 is significant for Maori Language week.

This year has been the korero going on over what and how the New Zealand history in school will be taught.

We are told:-

"This new curriculum content will support ākonga to be critical thinkers and understand our past, in order to make sense of the present. They will be learning Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories from a range of people’s perspectives at a local and national level"

In our local heritage groups and historical societies there is a growing interest to include history of the respective iwi in our local areas in to stories, publications, heritage signs etc and to write the schools curriculums .

With COVID 19 lockdowns there has been an increased thirst by people wanting to learn te reo Māori Out here in rural world Aotearoa NZ , community gatherings of a small group have gathered together on zoom to converse and learn te reo Māori.

Looking at this section of NZ History on Page 2 – History of the Māori language as a local historian and also as someone who has whanau, hapu and iwi links am wondering why the article on this URL has a huge gap missing forty years of change for te reo Māori. One significant step forward was in 1961 with the formation of the Maori Education Foundation - this built on changes that occurred from 1929 in massive changes that were happening in rural " native" schools. A recognition by Douglas Ball on what was needed for curriculum in those schools. In the Te Ao Hou journal is an interview with Douglas Ball If I Only Knew Then What I Know now - Te Ao Hou July 1973 Page 22. There are some powerful forward thinking concepts in that interview. I feel also that the last paragraph is the essence : - " We could do this so easily because we have Maori organisations now to do it. Not tell them what they ought to have—this is the point. And having found it out then provide it, and provide it is a Maori setting—in a meeting house or other acceptable Maori setting and pay for it out of the free place regulations. It could be done so easily."

Yes 2021 is a significant year for Te reo Maori . For those of us in rural areas we can tune in to Maori Language on the radio, TV, You tube, Te Wananga Aotearoa, zoom it, skype it, face book it.

As a local historian I welcome the changes in the NZ History curriculum for schools and the increased use of Te reo Maori . The stories of our early engineering heritage and other whanau stories can be included , our Maori organisations and IWI are writing and including those stories. Going forward to the future and post COVID can see a new way of working together, having respect for another's history and language. Most essentially inclusive


Posted: 11 Mar 2021

In small South Island towns there are limited opportunities for kids from non-Māori speaking families to learn and speak Māori fluently. It would be wonderful if Aotearoa could plan towards bilingual street signs, so that even those of us who are older or have learning difficulties could build our vocabularies while going about our daily lives. We could even change some of the duplicate street names to words that wouldn't come up in regular conversation.

Te Ariki Makea Apera URIARAU.

Posted: 04 Apr 2019

Kia ora.
I am one of the few baby boomers left, born after the second world war, as l see so many of my school friends, work college's, rugby mates, army buddies fall away.
We all grew up as WW11 soldiers, children, & so many of my school mates fathers talked (koreo) of the war. Reading many archive literature in the army museum, I found that the Germans could not break the military maori code, which they used when they sent top secret messages to each other, by army radio proceedures. The maori battalion did not have to use the military en-coding & decoding military system of writting & sending messages. Thus the germans struggled to decode the maori proceedures, only to find out it was a language & not a coded military message. This was a huge advantage to the maori battalion, that could act on orders immediately, catching the Germans out many a time by their surprise attacks. I was a military signaller, in the kiwi battalion serving overseas, in Singapore, & I know how long it takes to encode & decode messages, before orders could get to the troops. Days could be wasted, & the Germans did break the N.Z army code & could act accordingly. BUT the maori battalion could act immediately. The Germans feared this battalion, which had made a BIG impact during this time WHICH won many battles for this battalion. After the battalion returned after the WW11, I became friends with many maori school boys from Ahuriri, & nearly every maori friend of mind had a dad who served in the MIGHTY MAORI BATTALION. The sad thing was, not one of these boys could speak tereo maori. We were not allowed. But the parents did. By the sixties, we all noticed that the maori language was dying big time. We were saying the English WAY of sounding maori names for our towns. Rotarua- wakatany, Tokarowa, koetoemaoree, Wongaray. At the age 6-7 years old, my school just out of Wairoa, named "Ardkeen" kura, was where My TEACHER changed My island NAME from, "Te Ariki" to (Terry) . This really upset my dad. The name TERRY has stuck all these years. During the colonization, the post office tried so hard to change all maori town sounding names to english names. South island lost a lot of names, but north island kept a lot of theirs.
(My point) With all the good they did during WW11, The language very nearly died. I have many stories of maoriudum growing up, from school Days, fathers blaming the government for taking away the maori battalion, pakiha girl friend, school teachers, sports team, socializing, school dance, seats at the movies, local swimming pools. How TIMES have changed. I am so proud of who I am today, & now I am studying koreo maori at "WANANGA Otautahi, a language that nearly died, & a language I may not have been able to speak. I sit in a class every Tues night with mixed nationalities, mostly pakeha, interacting with all, something I could not do in my school Days, I never did feel special, or unique at school growing up. I feel so proud & special now.
I would like to finish with my story. While serving with the NZ battalion in Singapore, where we were stationed. Our maori cultural group was invited to the EDINBURGH TATTOO during 1975. I was part of that cultural group that went to Scotland. What marvellous ambassadors we were for N.Z, & for the army & for maori culture. We had left a huge impact on the people of Scotland, as was written in the local papers. I am so proud of who I am & where I am today. Thank you. Arohanui


Posted: 12 Sep 2018

Who was specifically responsible for giving the Maori a written language? I don't believe missionaries would have the expertise

Dr. Ross Dunn

Posted: 14 Jul 2017

This page has an error in it. English is actually not an official language of Aotearoa, New Zealand. There are only two as of this date July 14, 2917: Māori and Sign Language.