Why are some people so upset over a bit of te reo?
Te reo Māori
Te reo Māori

Why are some people so upset over a bit of te reo?

Who knew a bit of chocolate would get people so riled up?

OPINION: Kia ora, my name is Nikora, but here at Mai I’m known as Web-Guy Neeks. I’m the guy that manages and produces a large majority of our online content, alongside a great team of fellow digital content producers.

I was born to a Māori mum, and a Pākehā dad whose parents immigrated from England in the 1950s. So you could say that I’m half coloniser and half colonised, the best of both worlds, if you will.

What that ethnic makeup has afforded me is the ability to understand and relate to both sides of my cultural identity; Māori and Pākehā, tangata whenua and tangata tiriti.

Like me, you’ve probably seen a number of stories in the media about various different groups and entities adopting te reo Māori into either their marketing or day to day vernacular. 

The most famous recent example being the iconic Kiwi chocolatiers ‘Whittaker’s’ rebranding their milk chocolate bar to ‘Miraka Kirīmi’, which was met with the almost inevitable backlash from a certain section of the public.

Some people went as far as saying that they would never buy Whittaker’s chocolate again, refusing to bow down to the ‘woke agenda’ of those pesky chocolate makers.

Another story has broken in the past couple days about TVNZ 1 weather presenter Te Rauhiringa Brown (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Apakura, Ngāti Kahu), facing backlash after presenting a bilingual weather forecast during Sunday’s news bulletin.

Brown presented the news in both te reo and English, using both place names for cities such as Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland, Kirikiriroa/Hamilton, Ōtautahi/Christchurch, and Ōtepoti/Dunedin.

As expected, the ever-present ‘pearl clutching’ section of their viewership were outraged. 

How could someone be so rude as to speak both their native tongue and adopted tongue in a seamless and highly professional manner that is both easy to understand and almost rhythmically poetic to the ears?! “Not on our watch,” they cried from the comfort of their stale corner of the country whilst clutching their ideological pearls.

It’s no secret that our native language has had a revival in recent decades, we are seeing it more and more as we grow and evolve as a country. It’s certainly a far cry from the pain and trauma that my mother and generations before her had to endure, being beaten and chastised for simply being Māori let alone speaking our language.

Knowing what my mother had to endure breaks my heart, but seeing the progress we’ve made as a people gives me a sense of great hope for the future. And then stories like the ones I outlined above remind me that there is still so much mahi to be done.

Which leads me to my main question, and the reason for writing this:

Why are some people so damn upset about a bit of Te Reo?

To find the answer to that question you have to first take a closer look at the mud that’s being flung over the proverbial fence. So I took it upon myself to wade through the sewer that is the NZ Herald comment section and pick out some of the more consistent complaints, here’s how I got on:

1: “Te reo is being rammed down our throats!”

This one’s a bloody classic. There’s no way to say this without it sounding somewhat risque, but I feel like people that use this line have never actually had anything ‘rammed down their throat’. The mental imagery of that is quite disturbing in itself but hei aha we must carry on.

Having te reo integrated into our everyday vernacular is not the same as having it ‘rammed down our throats’. Despite the language being promoted more commonly, no one is being forced to speak te reo. And conversely, there is no institutionalised effort to eradicate the English language, so you can be safe in the knowledge that it’s not going anywhere.

You know what a language being rammed down someone’s throat looks like? It’s my mum and my nana being beaten and chastised for speaking their own language, being told ‘we speak English in New Zealand’ by teachers and employers. 

It’s the institutionalised eradication of te reo Māori that the colonial powers that be tried to pull on my tūpuna, stripping them of their cultural identity and separating future generations of Māori from their mother tongue.

When your people are forced to endure a carefully planned and brutally enforced cultural sterilisation like my ancestors did, then maybe I’ll sympathise with your claims of having a language ‘rammed down our throats’.

We often hear so much vitriol about freedom of speech these days, ironically from the same crowd that aren’t too keen on a bit of te reo, so does freedom of speech only count if it’s in English?

2: “Why are we promoting a dead language? It’s not useful anywhere else in the world”

Firstly, the language isn’t ‘dead’. It is very much alive and well, we wouldn’t be having this discussion otherwise. The notion that it is dead is more a reflection of a small portion of the population’s unwillingness to engage with te reo, people can often mistake their own immediate reality as being an accurate representation of our wider (not whiter) society.

Secondly, if you are fortunate enough to travel to different parts of the world you will come to realise that in many countries, people can speak more than one language. If anything, a second language makes us a more evolved country in line with the rest of the world where being bilingual is an accepted part of everyday life. Most of the world speaks English, so that already ticks the box of needing to speak a globally recognised language.

We have an opportunity to embrace a language that is entirely unique to our country, for without our native culture and language, what do we really have to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the commonwealth? We’re not even that good at rugby anymore…

Nelson Mandela once said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

So if we are to solve the issues and divisions in our beautiful country, would it not help if we had more than one way of communicating with one another?

3:“This is all just woke/PC rubbish”

The term ‘woke’ might be the most overused word in the modern English language. It originated as a term to describe having an awareness of social issues, but it has evolved into a dismissive term of derision among those who oppose said social movements, or believe the social issues in question are exaggerated.

Considering the monumental struggle my people have faced when fighting for the survival of our reo, using a term like woke to describe those efforts is extremely dismissive. 

Lip service is very real, and we know not all attempts to promote the use of Te Reo are genuine. We’re very aware that some organisations think chucking a ‘ngā mihi’ at the end of an email is gonna get you an invite straight onto the marae, and we ngā mihi back to you too Margaret from sales.

Thanks to being shafted a few times in the past, we can sniff out the bullshit quicker than the NZ Herald can shut down its comment section, so we know when we’re being pissed on and told it’s rain.

But the few clout chasing outliers do not detract from the very real work that is being done to positively reshape how our language is used in modern Aotearoa.

Te reo isn’t some bloody Tiktok trend, it’s a gateway into the world of our beautiful indigenous culture and is woven into the fabric of our national identity.

So where did all this passive aggressive research leave me?

After sticking my snout into the trough of bad ideas that is the NZ Herald comment section, I came away with some learnings. The first being not to stick my snout into the trough of bad ideas that is the NZ Herald comment section. I could honestly stop there, that would probably solve most of this country’s problems.

Jokes aside, this investigation actually left me with a sense of hope. This country is changing, the whole world is changing. People are so used to their insular lives that they often fear the change that is happening around them. Not being used to change means that when it comes around they can’t accurately discern whether or not that change is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for society.

They see the world moving on without them and it scares the bloody pork bones right out of their boil up. No one likes being left behind and no one likes going somewhere they don’t want to, so they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock being ‘confronting their own low self-esteem and embracing change’, and the hard place being ‘dragged kicking and screaming towards the future’. 

Regardless of what they say, regardless of what chocolate they buy, te reo Māori is here to stay. Because it wouldn’t matter if Whittaker’s randomly decided to shut up shop tomorrow and never make chocolate again, te reo Māori will still prevail. 

A marketing campaign isn’t responsible for the revival of te reo, it is the people. 

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.