Something that sets New Zealand English apart from other versions of the Queen’s parlance is its inclusion of a vast number of Māori loan words. And the proportion of Māori words scattered throughout New Zealand English sentences is on the rise: A decade ago, linguists found that 7.7 Māori words were included for every 1000 words used. A more recent newspaper analysis put that figure as high as 35 Māori words per 1000.
Here are 10 Māori words used by all kinds of New Zealanders, Māori and non-Māori alike, that will help take your Kiwi English to the next level of fluency.
A Note On Māori Pronunciation
The lovely thing about learning to speak Māori is that it’s pronounced just like it’s spelled.
Pre-colonization, Māori was an oral language, with western spelling systems first introduced with the arrival of the Europeans. Some linguists say the introduction of spelling diminished the beauty of spoken Māori by reducing it to harsher European sounds. At least as a new learner (who presumably knows their way around the Latin alphabet), you should be able to sound out the spellings with a reasonable result.
Here’s a video song to practice each of the Māori sounds:
One last tip: Make sure to sound out each syllable. For example, tu meke is pronounced “too-meh-keh,” and she’ll be right.
What About Those Macrons?
That little line sitting above some of the vowels in Māori words is called a macron. A macron denotes a doubling of the vowel sound, as seen in the word Māori.
Unfortunately, commonly-used Māori terms have been spelled without the macrons they needed for many decades. Recently, there’s been an increased effort across New Zealand to get Māori pronunciation right. Now, across the country people are trying to add them to words where they have long been missed.
This means that when you’re driving along New Zealand’s State Highway 1 you may notice that some signs pointing to Lake Taupō have the macron, while others haven’t had it added yet. It’s a national work in progress.
Māori Greeting Words
1. Kia ora
- Meaning: Hello, thank you, cheers
Kia ora is the easiest and most useful Māori phrase you can deploy to impress the Kiwis around you. Mostly used as a greeting, it can also be used to thank someone for a kind deed.
- “Kia ora Tony, how are you?”
- “I picked up some ice cream on the way home.” “Kia ora, bro.”
Kia ora can also be used as an interjection if you agree with what someone is saying. For example, “We really need to get this project finished by the end of the month.” “Kia ora.”
2. Ka kite anō
- Meaning: See you later
A friendly, informal way to say goodbye to someone you will see again, and sometimes shortened to just ka kite. Either way, make sure you sound out the TE-sound at the end of kite.
3. Kia kaha
- Meaning: Stay strong, keep going
Used to encourage others, this is one of those emotive Māori phrases you can comfortably use in Māori, but might not get away with so easily in English. Be aware that this phrase invokes pre-battle war songs and, of course, those most mythical of Kiwis, the All Blacks.
Example: “I’ve got to get this homework done by tomorrow.” “Kia kaha mate, you’ll get it done.”
4. Tu meke
- Meaning: Literally “too much,” this phrase is used to say thank you or show you’re impressed
You won’t find this one in the Māori Dictionary, but many Kiwis use it in their everyday lives. Interchangeable with its English equivalent, “too much,” tu meke is used to show gratitude, appreciation and awe.
- “I brought you a coffee, you looked like you needed it.” “Ah, tu meke!”
- “I scored the winning try at rugby this morning.” “Tu meke cuz, that’s awesome!”
- Meaning: The area outside a Māori meeting house, used for formal discussions
While this term officially refers to the outdoor space in front of a Māori meeting house, where leaders of a group or tribe will discuss important matters, marae has come to be used as a catch-all term for the large complex that surrounds these important Māori spaces. That complex includes a meeting house, a dining hall, a forecourt and possibly some other buildings, as well.
Visiting a marae is a great way to learn more about Māori culture and beliefs, and there are a number of protocols to observe. If you are invited to visit a marae, your host should guide you through the process.
- Meaning: Song, or to sing
Waiata is a key part of visiting a marae. Speakers from each side of the interaction (hosts and guests) will take turns addressing the group, with each speech followed by a waiata. If you visit a marae, your hosts may also take time to teach you some of their local waiata.
- Meaning: New Zealand
This is the Māori name for New Zealand, and its most common translation is “land of the long white cloud.” This refers to the clouds hanging over our islands that helped Polynesian explorers navigate to our shores.
- Meaning: tribe, nation, large group of people
When Māori people refer to their iwi, they’re talking about their tribe. In fact, most New Zealand English speakers favor the word iwi over “tribe” when referring to these groups. Most Māori belong to at least one tribe.
- “My iwi are Te Ātiawa, Taranaki and Ngāruahine.”
- “The local iwi were represented at the council meeting.”
Note that in Māori, singular and plural are the same word. Iwi might be one or multiple groups — in this case, the use of “were” tells you it was multiple iwi.
To add to that, in Māori, single words tend to have multiple meanings. For example, iwi is most commonly used to refer to a tribe, but it can also mean “bone” and “strength.” This gives us fantastic insight into the importance of iwi ties to Māori people.
- Meaning: Family
Officially whānau means “family,” but in New Zealand English the term has come to be used for an extended group of loved ones. This may also include friends or people without blood ties.
Example: “Amy isn’t our cousin, but she’s still whānau.”
- Meaning: love, compassion, empathy
Heard all over Aotearoa, aroha can also be built on or extended in various contexts. For example, you can sign off an email to a loved one with Arohanui, meaning “much love.” You can also apologize to someone by saying aroha mai, meaning “sorry” (or more literally, “please show me compassion”).
If you’re a linguistics nerd, you might enjoy researching the connection between the Māori word aroha and the Hawaiian word “aloha.” Some form of this word is found in all Polynesian languages.