If it doesn’t communicate, what practical use has a language?

Can Maori language be anything more than an intellectual or cultural indulgence?

During my short stay at grammar school I learned some Latin and French (as well as English). French was never much use to me but Latin, in later years, became more and more valuable because it is not only at the heart of much English but has also helped with what little Italian I’ve needed for several trips to that country.

I think French was taught in mid-last century because it still held some residual power as a language of diplomacy, but these days it seems to me that the French only insist on the importance of their language as an international form of communication for petulant and xenophobic reasons. Today it might be of more utility, I suspect, for Japanese and Mandarin to be taught as second languages despite the fact that in the political, legal and financial forums (fora?) of the world the Japanese and Chinese are smart enough to know that English will get them anywhere.

The endearing thing about English is that it requires no accents to be placed over or under its characters. Apart from separate phonetic pronunciation aids that draw the dictionary reader to some basic common ground - received pronunciation or standard English I believe it’s termed - nobody has the arrogance or pedantry to tell the user how to pronounce the language. Thus the spoken English of the Englishman ranks equally with that of the Scot, Welsh, Irish, Australian, New Zealand, Indian, American, Patagonian, Aborigine or Maori.

Despite it being a whore of a language incorporating anything useful from any other language, English, once its little irregularities are mastered is simple yet comprehensive. It is no longer partisan; it’s a language that belongs to nobody and everybody and if you want to strut on any part of the world’s stage it is absolutely vital to all and any international transactions.

Maori, on the other hand, has no other value than as a cultural and intellectual exercise. Like Gaelic it is a poetic language of interest but to be able to speak it fluently and mellifluously will take the speaker not one metre along the road to international discourse. If you were to grow up speaking only Maori you would be vastly disadvantaged in the rest of the world; and even in New Zealand, where we have a modern history of leaning over backwards to accommodate minorities, it surely cannot be easy to use Maori to make a case or present an argument even when its status as an ‘official’ language demands that it be interpreted into English if a Maori speaker decides to stand upon his rights or decides to be bloody-minded!

I’ve been a New Zealander for over 48 years (longer, I suggest, than most of the present Maori population) and can honestly say that I have never needed to speak Maori. Certainly I know many Maori words because New Zealand English has taken them on board in the time-honoured meretricious fashion of picking up anything useful. It would not be of much use to me to learn Maori; much as I might enjoy the exercise there are many other things I need to learn that take priority.

And I must say that I am put off the language greatly by the mystifying addition of macrons to some of its vowels, a practice born of political correctness that simply complicates a language that might be pronounced differently from one iwi to another (aren’t Aoraki and Aorangi the same word?). That macrons are a confounded nuisance was evidenced in tables published by the Department of Statistics, some of which could not render the accent as a single straight line but instead use the umlaut - two dots like twin pinheads.

I recall when local Maori decided to paint ‘KURA’ on the back of the Rotoiti school bus (I’m not sure whether they still do). I could understand where they were coming from but it made no sense to render into a language that’s only wholly or passably familiar to less than five percent of New Zealand’s population a message that could, in fact, be a matter of life and death. Admittedly Maori is an ‘official’ language (as is sign language) but whatever the reason that might have been given for its use on a school bus. the only conclusion I can draw is bloody-mindedness; I’m not sure how you say that in Maori.