The Māori Language Moment as part of Māori Language Week was a huge success, with over a million people signing up to use te reo in some way at noon on 14 September to use and celebrate te reo as ‘the language of New Zealand’. People from around the word also joined in, including some of my colleagues in Australia. It had a great positive vibe.
But language is frequently a site of power struggles. That week I was staying in Tūrangi, a town with a high percentage who identify as Māori – 63% compared with 17% nationally (we can choose more than one ethnicity), and 23% who use te reo Māori compared with 4% nationally. I went into a local cafe that afternoon, and ordered my coffee in te reo Māori, translating when I recognised the North American accent of the barista. We chatted and she said she was aware of Māori Language Week but did not know any of the words. I went into teacher mode and, lacking a printer at the motel, I wrote a list and took it back to the cafe. The barista said she would put it up where staff could see it. She liked the fact that I had referenced my source as restaurantnz.co.nz!
Three days later I returned to the cafe and – you guessed it – the list was nowhere to be seen. I asked the barista about it, and she said the manager had taken it away to look at it. Back home, I gave the cafe what is probably the lowest online rating they have ever had, pointing out that this was a missed opportunity to recognise the official language of Aotearoa New Zealand. The response was interesting:
Thank you for your comments, i did take it away and look at it, as you said we are a very busy cafe . We would not have had time to explain to customers. I am to long in the tooth to learn another language !.
I nearly replied that customers would surely be able to read the English, and that there is little evidence that age is a barrier to language learning, but decided it might make her dig in even deeper. Perhaps it was a one-off last ditch stand against change?
However, on a trip to Wellington soon afterwards, I noticed something odd on the welcome sign to Kāpiti – the macron above the ‘a’ had been painted out. It seems that there has been an ongoing disagreement about this since it was introduced in 2010 at the request of local Māori. In 2019 the macron was painted out every few months, and then replaced by the council. Again, the reasons for this activity appear have been given as though they are entirely logical, and again my interpretation is that the real reason is resistance by some people to the idea that Māori may have some rights for change.
Last week we drove past the sign again, and the macron is back!