Paul Moon – Ka Ngaro Te Reo

t. 87, GARRICK COOPER on Maori language [1]

Ka Ngaro Te Reo: Māori language under siege in the nineteenth century by Paul Moon.
Dunedin: OUP (2016).
RRP: $39.95.
Pb, 336pp.
ISBN: 9781927322413.

Reviewed by Garrick Cooper.


Paul Moon is a prolific author.  As an historian and scholar working within Māori Studies, he is perhaps without peer in terms of books published; and probably in many other disciplines.  Ka Ngaro Te Reo: Māori Language Under Siege in the Nineteenth Century (2016) continues a theme of his work looking at the colonial history of Aotearoa New Zealand. This book is an historical look at the Māori language, during, as the title informs us, the 19th century. Ka Ngaro Te Reo offers an account into how te reo Māori was regarded – largely through the accounts of 19th century Pākehā administrators and settlers.

Ka Ngaro Te Reo, literally the ‘language will disappear’ or ‘is disappearing’, is the product of an extensive amount of research drawing from a range of primary sources, and published and unpublished material. Moon has woven a captivating narrative out of this material.  Again, as the title suggests, the narrative’s tāhūhū or central theme is one of te reo Māori being under siege. This is perhaps the most controversial part of the book, though not wildly so.  I was not entirely convinced by this thesis and will return to this later.

Ka Ngaro Te Reo addresses the Māori language during a period in our history that has not received a lot of scholarly attention, and it is a fascinating must read for those who are interested in te reo Māori, our colonial history, and views about languages generally. Moon’s discussion on the relationship Māori have with te reo Māori provides an insight for readers into a relationship that moves beyond instrumentalism, to one that is more embodied and textured.  For example, he discusses how te reo Māori reflected a worldview that did not strictly divide the world into the sacred and the secular and, therefore, sanctions around the use of some words applied.  Such a view of language demonstrates a respect for the power of words to convey much more than simply ideas; they have the potential to affect change and, therefore, caution is important.  We can contrast this view of language with modern times where media and social media lend themselves to an almost never-ending purge of less considered and thought-through reports, commentaries and opinions.  The idea of pausing before one utters is as refreshing as it is instructive.

A feature of post-colonial literature, as exemplified by Edward Said’s canonical work, Orientalism (1978), is the idea that indigenous people were ‘othered’, and constructed as savages.  Moon gives us plenty of colourful examples in his book to demonstrate that such a dominant narrative of Māori was indeed maintained by colonials. He also, however, shows us that there were dissenters. He cites, for example, a clergyman in 1869 who commented that Māori were ‘…“born disciples of inductive science”.  Never did I meet with men more averse to hasty generalisations …’  (p 30). Truly a view not of his time and possibly not of this time!

One of the strengths of the book in my view was the amount of research conducted and the details that Moon was able to coalesce around the theme of te reo Māori.  Indeed I found this aspect quite surprising.  Whilst in modern times “language shift” and reversing language shift is an established field of socio-linguistic enquiry, the idea that te reo Māori was under threat during these early colonial times – when te reo Māori was certainly the first, if not the only, language for most Māori – seems odd.  Moon, though, was able to put together a strong case that colonials viewed te reo Māori as an impediment, and sought to introduce policy and practices that supported colonial objectives. Colonials maintained what linguists call a “subtractive”, as opposed to an “additive”, view of bilingualism. That is, the acquisition of a second language is hindered by, and must come at the cost of the first language.  Even today in Aotearoa New Zealand, as a publically monolingual country (for most practical purposes), that idea still holds.  Most linguistic evidence today supports the opposing view – that the acquisition of a second or third language is not hindered by the first and is actually supported.

In my view, one of the weaknesses of the book is that right throughout the period that Ka Ngaro Te Reo explores te reo Māori, there was a rich body of newspaper comment, and literature written and published by Māori, and, in some cases, printed. Moon does indeed refer to such literature and acknowledges it as a limitation of the book. What this body of print literature demonstrates is that while colonials denigrated the value and place of te reo Māori, their views had little impact on the day-to-day linguistic affairs of Māori. Furthermore, whilst I acknowledge it would be a huge undertaking to work through te reo Māori print literature, it might have given the reader an insight into how Māori viewed and valued te reo Māori.

Let me return to the central thesis of the book: Māori language under siege in the 19th century.  It is a matter of record that te reo Māori suffered its most significant decline in the 20th century. Ironically, this led to the development of perhaps the most dynamic educational interventions – eg., kohanga reo, kura kaupapa Māori, Te Ataarangi and whare wānanga. Far from being saved, te reo Māori still has an uncertain road, but less so.

The underlying premise of Ka Ngaro Te Reo is that such a language decline started and was manifest in the previous century.  This is the more controversial element of the book. Paul Moon is no stranger to a little controversy though. His book on the Māori practice of cannibalism, This Horrid Practice (2008) received some criticism from Māori scholars. One of the most cited pieces of Māori language decline evidence was Professor Bruce Biggs’ submission to the Waitangi Tribunal during the Te Reo Māori claim.  Biggs gave evidence that in 1913, 90% of Māori children could speak Māori, but that by 1953, this figure had declined to 26%. This would suggest that te reo Māori was still very healthy at the beginning of the 20th century.  Certainly it seems that most Māori were choosing to speak to their children in te reo Māori during this period, even if they held more ambiguous views about its value moving forward. Moon clearly demonstrates that colonial administrators and Pākehā viewed te reo Māori negatively, but this does not necessarily translate into Māori choosing to stop speaking Māori. What Moon demonstrates compellingly, in my view, was that the foundations for the 20th century decline of the language was established in the 19th century.

Garrick CooperGarrick Cooper is a Senior Lecturer at Aotahi School of Maori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Canterbury Te Whare Wananga o Waitaha. His research attends to philosophical decolonisation, in particular the borders between indigenous and non-indigenous knowledge systems, highlighting critical ontological dimensions of indigenous knowledges. Prior to his current position, Garrick was an educational researcher for nearly ten years researching Maori immersion education.

First published takahe 88
December 2016