How Te Reo Is Changing
All languages change and Māori is no exception. This has obviously happened to its vocabulary (with new words for things which didn’t exist before colonisation) but also its grammar.
It’s sometimes said that such and such language has no grammar. All languages have grammar, which is really just to say that words must be modified or positioned in a certain way in order to be meaningful. To take English as an example, the word order matters immensely: “I am helping you” means something; “You am helping I” means the opposite, but it is broken English; “You helping I am” doesn’t mean anything, unless you try very hard.
Not all languages follow the same rules, or even analogous rules, and they change over time. Languages in close proximity generally influence each other. New Zealand English has been influenced by Māori, and Māori has been influenced by New Zealand English. But the exchange has been unequal.
Language change is often accelerated when a large number of speakers suddenly learn that language. This can happen due to invasion, colonisation, or migration. As a matter of objective fact, most Māori speak English as their first language. Many who do speak Māori have often learned it later on in life, and usually not to fluency. It therefore stands to reason that the Māori we speak has become more and more influenced by English.
Example one: “taea”, in its classical sense, means “to be capable of accomplishing something.” An equivalent English word might be “can”, but that word can also be used to seek permission or make a polite request, e.g. “Can you go to the shop?” “Taea” was traditionally not used in this way, though more Māori speakers are using it like this.
Example two: “mō” is often translated as “for”, but it is more specifically for expressing future possession - to whom a thing will belong. “For” is a linking word with many different uses in different contexts. Often where you would use “for” in English, you would instead use the linking words “i” or “ki'“ in Māori: to wait for is “tatari ki”, not “tatari mō”. Yet like “taea” with “can”, “mō” is increasingly being put into sentences where you would use “for” in its English equivalent.
All languages have their own unique ways of expressing things, and Māori is especially rich with imperatives, commands, negations, and prohibitions. Me can be used for suggestions or prescriptions - “me haere koe” means “you should go”; perhaps you want someone to leave your house; or perhaps you think it is right that someone should go. “Ka” can also be used for suggestions, but is not as strong as “me” - “ka haere koe” could be either “you are going to go” or “why don’t you go?”. “Kia” is for encouraging or wanting something to happen - “kia haere koe” can also mean “you should go”, but it perhaps carries the sense of agreeing with something the person has said. And to issue a command, you can use the verb in the passive – the passive form of “haere” is (usually) just “haere”, so that would just be the sentence “haere”, though you might emphasise the manner or direction in which they are going with words like “mai”, “ra”, or “atu”.
There are lots of ways to negate these kinds of sentences. “Kaua” could be for a negative command (“you should not go”) or a prohibitive (“don’t go”), such as in “Kaua e haere”. “Kāti” is a word with more immediacy - “Kāti te haere!” is more like “Don’t leave!” or “Stop going.” And there is “Kei”, which is like a warning - “Kei haere koe” could mean “Watch out if you go” or “Do not go”; perhaps something bad will happen.
We can see that Māori is well-stocked for these kind of sentences. It makes several distinctions English does not, and to say their equivalent would often require you to restructure the entire sentence or add extra modal verbs or particles. It’s therefore a shame to see the more generic “Me kaua” becoming the predominant way to negate imperatives and prescriptives - “Me kaua”, like “mō” and “taea”, appears to be a calque of the English phrase “should not”.
Even how we pronounce Māori has changed. The diphthongs “ai” and “ae” are converging. They sound identical in New Zealand English, and in Māori they are also quite similar, but distinct enough, with “ai” ending in a vowel sound made closer to the front of your mouth than “ae”, which is made closer to the middle. This is more distinctive among old speakers than young, to whom “pai” and “pae” may very well be homophones.
Languages do always change, but the speed of Māori language loss means that any change risks the loss of cultural knowledge. If a culture has found deep expression through poems, novels, and books, then its essence might outlive language change - or even extinction, in the case of Hebrew, which was extinct but became a living a language after the foundation of the modern state of Israel. Much of the blood and marrow of Māori culture still lives outside of written texts, having existence only in the memories of kaumatua, in the whakairo of meeting houses that require a special skill that very few have, or in a smattering of anthropological texts.
The language is therefore in a precarious spot. Older, native speakers sometimes lament the “book Māori” that has come out of government departments, commissions, and ministries in the last few decades. And I don’t fault the often good work they’ve done. But as Book Māori is written down and promulgated by government documents and Māori TV, it is in less danger of going extinct, while the Māori of the last generation may well be slipping out of memory. To the kuia and kaumatua who were born with the language, we might well sound like we are saying “You am helping I” instead of “I am helping you” - yet it is Book Māori that will become the norm, and not their Māori which was organically passed down like a living language ought to be. And that must feel bewildering.