Whatu ngarongaro te tangata, toitū te whenua


    There are a lot of us, I suspect, who wish we had learned the Māori language well before now.

    Like playing the guitar, the facility for other languages calls for sets of synapses in the brain that we honour in the breach. Europeans have it.  Anglo Saxon colonials remain rigidly, if regretfully, tin-eared and tongue-tied.

    It would be so easy if we’d earned those synapses early.  My three-year-old grandson flicks into sign language whenever he recognises a hand movement.  At six, another has already launched enthusiastically into bilingual classes, translating his activities for me and embarking on surprisingly long and graceful sentences at the dinner table. Ably copied by his younger brother.

    Not that we had a choice of learning Māori in my day as we studied our future high school subject options within the grey stone of Vauxhall Primary School. Nothing to see here. Take French.

    I do have a folder of notes from night classes in te reo Māori taught by a friend in Massey but barely reached a minimal mihimihi, such benefits as I noticed being a certain satisfaction about correcting my pronunciation of Māori place names as I tooled the car down country.

    At this end of my life, the world’s roughly 7000 known languages are disappearing faster than species, with a different tongue dying approximately every two weeks. Endangered and extinct languages include Eyak in Alaska, whose last speaker died in 2008, and Ubykh in Turkey, whose last fluent speaker died in 1992. The disappearance of Pacific languages is especially terrifying – the primary threat to linguistic diversity being economic development. Linked, presumably, to 21st Century economic necessities.

    For Polynesian friends, one or two generations has been the difference between fluency in their grandmother’s tongue and no comprehension at all, to their great regret. And – as we all learned with Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow – with the languages go the connections, sensibilities and rhythms of the natural world.

    Currently, a new Māori language version of Moana is being recorded, with Hunt for the Wilderpeople filmmaker Taika Waititi putting out a casting call for a star who can speak te reo.

    Meanwhile, here on the island, one of the delights of this year’s Matariki has been the obvious renaissance of te reo and of the spiritual and emotional connections inherent in its cultural traditions, at least among our young.

    How ironic it will be if the generations we fear will grow up living life in virtual reality actually end up with a bone-deep connection to land and roots that Europe and its colonies have lost for 200 years.

    Whakapapa generally refers to the recitation of genealogy but it translates literally as ‘place in layers’ or ‘create a base’. It locates people in a wider context, links people to a common ancestor, ancestral land, waterways and tribal (and sub-tribal) groupings. It adds up to a broader meaning of ancestry and the expansive nature of its ‘layers’.

    People, and therefore relationships, are the essence of being Māori. The importance of foundational relationships derived from whakapapa dictate possible human links in history and geography but also set the foundations for mindful daily life: greeting the dawn and farewelling the day, gathering food and ensuring collection methods are sustainable for future generations, farewelling loved ones who have passed, communicating with Atua and calling for their protection and guidance, preparing natural fibres for clothing and going about the day.

    The proverb ‘Whatu ngarongaro te tangata, toitū te whenua’ (People will perish, but the land is permanent) speaks to the underlying truth.

    As with the thread through so many indigenous traditions, the inherent connection to  ‘all of it’ is a sentiment that resonates with Greek neo-Platonism and the 17th Century philosophies of Benedict Spinoza and his followers.

    As last month’s British election showed, the next generation of voters around the world is beginning to try its wings. If they discover for themselves that we are social beings, that the wellbeing of one is dependent on the wellbeing of all and that the land is indeed the nearest manifestation we have to the Divine, a lot of things would fall out of our present, rather toxic public discourse.

    My desktop is littered with stories from around our own country about towns, regions and regional parks being plundered for water extraction (and the usual derisory royalties). Nightly, some representative of an extractive and contemptuous government intones: ‘No one owns water’.

    A wholesale change of societal settings will be required. Citizen status for the Whanganui River was a good start. Te reo Māori and the younger generation may give us the key to more wholesome foundations. Liz Waters

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