Respecting te reo Māori when writing in English

June 2019

Sarah Maclean

By Sarah Maclean

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" – Chinese proverb ascribed to Laozi

Increasing numbers of people are learning te reo Māori (the Māori language) and it’s also used more and more in business and government communications. You can see this if you compare modern media stories to those of 20 years ago. Words like whānau and iwi are no longer translated because they’re an accepted part of our everyday speech.

There is growing recognition in Aotearoa of the significance and value of Māori as tāngata whenua (people of the land). This includes the revitalisation of te reo Māori. It is part of our wider understanding that diversity matters not just in business but also in our country as a whole.

So how as technical communicators can we be part of this? Of course, Māori speakers are best placed to drive the process, but non-Māori and second (or subsequent) language learners can and should also lead – provided they have the right support.

As technical communicators there are several ways we can show we respect te reo Māori when we use it in English text. We can:

  • get Māori words right, ensuring we spell them correctly
  • use macrons or double vowels to lengthen vowels
  • use apostrophes with care when writing Māori words
  • avoid adding an ‘s’ to Māori words to show plurals
  • consider whether a transliteration is the most culturally appropriate choice
  • respect dialectal differences.

In this article, we’ll begin by looking at the resources available and then discuss all these issues. We’ll also look at some of the other issues we need to be aware of.

Resources to help us

The authority for all language questions is Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori/The Māori Language Commission (aka Te Taura Whiri). They have developed many resources and are behind the annual Wiki o te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week):

Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori/The Māori Language Commission logo

There are also many good dictionaries available to help us, both in print and online, including:

  • He Pātaka Kupu by Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, 2008. This is entirely in te reo Māori.
  • A Dictionary of the Maori Language . First published in 1844, it has been reprinted many times since.
  • The Reed Dictionary of Māori Place Names , Third edition, by A.W. Reed, 2005.
  • English-Maori Dictionary by H.M. Ngata
  • Te Aka Māori Dictionary by J Moorfield

Māori Dictionary web image

There’s a careful balancing act around being respectful and culturally appropriate when you promote te reo Māori. You can and should feel comfortable to take the lead – this is one of our national languages after all! From a Māori perspective, we have a national shared responsibility to maintain and promote this treasure. And it’s good to check with more knowledgeable people from your organisation or local iwi to make sure what you’re doing is correct.

Be careful that you don’t assume every Māori in your office is an expert on te reo Māori. Ask them first if they’re comfortable or able to give advice – don’t assume! And when you do find the right person to ask, don’t take that help for granted. Remember that they will have to do it on top of their other work and commitments – use common sense here. Don’t expect help in a hurry and allow plenty of time before your deadline. You should consider paying them or giving some form of koha (gift). Or how about reciprocity? What help could you offer in return?

Getting Māori words right

It’s important to spell Māori words correctly, especially the names of people and places. This is of course part of your writing and process anyway but remember that anything unfamiliar is more of a challenge. Check with anyone you’re writing about to make sure you have their name right. You may also need to ask knowledgeable people in your organisation and/or local area to check your spelling of organisations, iwi and hapū groups, landmarks, places and people.

Lengthening vowels

Macrons (tohutō or pōtae) and double vowels show where a vowel is lengthened, for example, in words like ‘rōpū’ and ‘roopuu’ (group). They are designed to help us pronounce words correctly. Te Taura Whiri prefers the practice of macrons rather than double vowels. However, iwi do have their own preference, so check. More on this below.


In the past few years, macrons have become used more often in mainstream writing. They are sometimes used as part of branding, as in Taupō where the ‘ō’ is dramatic, evoking both the shape of the lake and the town at its top:


Using macrons for brands is fine, but if that’s just as far as it goes, then in my view that’s not enough. Our commitment to working with Māori concepts and words needs to be deeper and more enduring than any marketing trend.

A problem is that some people who use macrons without much thought tend to put one in the word ‘Māori’ but none in the word ‘Pākehā’ – which should have two! They also only put macrons on the word ‘Māori’ regardless of how many other words in their writing need them. This reinforces the colonialist concept of Māori as ‘other’ – and Māori are well over that.

The point is that if you’re going to use macrons you should use them consistently. I’ve heard them described as ‘easy’ and ‘simple’, but for me they’re not. However, most smartphones have them built in these days. And on your computer, just google ‘how to add a Māori keyboard’ and follow the instructions. You can also download fonts with macrons, eg, Arial Māori.

Double vowels

Some iwi prefer to use a double vowel, eg, ‘roopuu.’ That’s true in the area covered by the Tainui Waka (federation of iwi), for example, so if you’re writing for people in the Waikato, then double vowels are the way to go. See the Waikato Tainui website. You can also set up keyboard shortcuts to insert double vowels easily.

Note that some words always have a double vowel rather than a macron because they are compressed forms of what were originally two words. They are not plurals. Examples include ‘manaakitanga’ (hospitality) and ‘whakaaro’ (thought). For a full list of these words, see the Te TauraWhiri orthographic guidelines.

So what should we do?

You’ll find all these forms (a vowel with a macron, double vowels or a single vowel) in written Māori. If we want to use the language correctly, we should never use a single vowel to represent a long vowel sound. Just because it’s been considered acceptable in the past doesn’t mean that it’s true now. We have the awareness and the technology – let’s lead the way! Editors like consistency, and this means that it’s best to stick to one method in a document or website rather than mixing them up. However, there are exceptions to this rule, including quotations and people’s names. Ask the people around you or your local iwi what they prefer.

I’ve found that people don’t always agree about whether a word has a macron or not. It’s good to remember that there are as many Māori opinions as there are Māori people – just as there are for non-Māori. And if that’s not enough, just think about issues like the serial comma, or when to use the title case – some of which have been debated by editors and writers for decades!

Apostrophes to show possession – OK or not?

People often put an apostrophe ‘s’ on Māori words, as they would in English, to show possession or the past tense. You’ll hear both Māori and non-Māori using this in conversation.

There are two schools of thought about this. One says it’s fine because the ‘s’ doesn’t modify the word and it is an English sentence and therefore this English grammatical construct is OK. So you can say, ‘Tāne’s coat’ or ‘Moana’s job’, for example. And the alternative sounds really clunky, such as ‘the coat belonging to Tane’ or ‘the job that Moana does’.

The other viewpoint says that apostrophes are best avoided in written language as they don’t respect the original form of te reo Māori. So to show possession, you would say, ‘the main street of Whangārei’ rather than ‘Whangārei’s main street’. For the same reason, to show the past tense, you would not put an apostrophe ‘d’ on a Māori verb. Instead of saying ‘We hikoi’d down the road’, you would say ‘We walked down the road’.

Understanding plurals

Most plural Māori words look (and sound) the same as their singular form. For example, ‘whare’ means ‘house’ and ‘houses’, depending on the context: ‘Hone went to his whare’ and ‘Hone went to all the whare in the area’.

The exceptions are generally to do with people and here are some examples. They can be shown by macrons:

  • tane (man) – tāne (men)
  • wahine (woman) – wāhine (women)
  • kaumatua (elder) – kaumātua (elders)
  • tangata (person) – tāngata (people).
  • They can also be shown by double vowels:
  • tane (man) – taane (men)
  • wahine (woman) – waahine (women)
  • kaumatua (elder) – kaumaatua (elders)
  • tangata (person) – taangata (people).

One plural has a unique form: ‘tamaiti’ (child) becomes ‘tamariki’ (children).

There is a temptation to add an ‘s’ to a plural as you would in English. But it doesn’t sound or look good: Use ‘The kiwi are in the bush’ rather than ‘The kiwis are in the bush’.

Avoiding transliterations

The modern trend is to avoid transliterations and use the original word, or one approved by Te Taura Whiri. Examples include:

‘Rāmere’ for ‘Friday’ instead of ‘Paraire’

‘Kohitātea’ for January instead of ‘Hanuere’

‘Te Whanganui a Tara’ for Wellington instead of ‘Pōneke’ (the transliteration of the city’s old name, ‘Port Nicholson’)

‘Tāmaki Makaurau’ instead of ‘Ākarana’ for Auckland

Names are the big exceptions to this rule. Many people’s names are transliterations, like Hemi, Kateraina, Pita and Huhana.

Transliterations developed to make it easier to fit Māori sounds into English speech patterns and grammar. Many native speakers use them interchangeably with the original words. So it’s best to follow the preferences of your client or organisation along with the preferences of the tāngata whenua. Some iwi will have transliterations that have been in use for generations and are therefore meaningful and preferred by them.

Respecting dialectal variations

There are many iwi dialects in te reo and therefore many ways of spelling the same word. The dialect relates to the area the speaker or writer comes from. Some of the differences are to do with ‘h’ and ‘wh’, for example, pōhiri (welcome) in the Ngāti Porou area of the East Coast and pōwhiri in the Tainui Waka area. Some are to do with ‘k’ and ‘ng’, for example, Kai Tahu and Ngāi Tahu (the people descending from Tahu) in the South Island.

Just remember that all these variations are correct and try to be as consistent as you can within each document. It’s a good idea to ask for guidance from the tāngata whenua about this.

But wait, there’s more …

Te, ngā, he

Of course, using the words from one language within the grammatical structure of another is always going to be tricky. ‘Te’ and ‘ngā’ (‘the’, singular and plural) and ‘he’ (meaning ‘a’ or ‘some’) are often part of names for people and places in te reo Māori.

Here’s an example from Shelly Davies: ‘What about THE in front of a title that starts with ‘Te. THE Te Wānanga o Aotearoa policy on...’? The the? Really?’ Of course she’s right! My answer is that it’s talking about the policy of an organisation which is called Te Wānanga o Aotearoa and so it makes sense grammatically. But it certainly sounds odd! An alternative is to say ‘The Wānanga o Aotearoa policy on …’. This works better in English, but at the expense of the organisation’s correct name. So there’s no easy answer to this one.

Something to remember is that names like these need to be filed under ‘te’, ‘ngā’ or ‘he’ when you’re listing them in an index, for example, rather than under the word which follows, as we would in English. So the place name ‘Te Taewa’, for example, would be filed as ‘Te Taewa’ rather than ‘Taewa, Te’.

Avoiding cultural appropriation

Some non-Māori organisations have long used Māori concepts and images without gaining the permission of Māori. This was never acceptable and is now strenuously resisted. So don’t be tempted to copy and paste an image from the internet and hope that no-one will notice. It’s not a good look and is likely to damage your relationship with Māori colleagues, clients or readers.

Like many Indigenous cultures, Māori have had everything from haka to images, designs, names, stories and legends culturally appropriated. These have often also been used inappropriately, to brand beer for example, or the name of a famous fighting chief being used for cheese. Because those who take the cultural imagery are interested in sales rather than authenticity the appropriated items are often used incorrectly as well and may mean something very different from the original.

You can read about some of the resistance here from Karaitiana Taiuru who has taken on several companies over it.

There are some promising signs, however. One is the famous haka Ka Mate used by the All Blacks for years, but originally written by Te Rauparaha of Ngāti Toa Rangatira and therefore a taonga belonging to that iwi. Since 2014, the haka has been protected by an act of parliament and there are clear guidelines for its use.

A grey area is that some images which have been used for centuries by many cultures (like the spirals of Celtic tradition) may have international appeal. But it’s still better to avoid the koru (fern-frond spiral) version.

Ask the advice of people who are familiar with the issues involved. Commissioning original new work from Māori artists will always be your safest approach.

We’re all learners

Using te reo Māori in English writing can feel too hard sometimes, particularly if English is the only language you’ve had the opportunity to learn. But it is never too late to learn enough Māori to spell words right and to use macrons or double vowels correctly, for example. There are many ways of learning, from night classes to courses at wānanga. There are also many apps which can help.

If you’ve ever learnt a second (or subsequent) language you’re likely to have some advantage. This is true whether you learnt Mandarin at school or Spanish on your OE. It’s because learning any language makes your brain more receptive to different linguistic structures and therefore it helps you learn any other language. The earlier you start and the longer you do it, the greater the benefit. Of course, it’s easier to make connections between languages which are related. My schoolgirl French helped me learn basic Fijian when I was a young adult. The Fijian meant I then recognised some of the concepts I later met in te reo Māori because both are part of the Austronesian language family.

Speakers of Māori as a second or subsequent language are on a journey and that doesn’t mean getting everything right. The best way is to start wherever you are and do what you can, even if that’s not much to begin with. Aim for continuous improvement, with an attitude of respect. I’ve found it works best when I apologise for my mistakes and try to learn from them.

My experience of working with Māori words and concepts within English documents has increased my understanding of the tikanga (culture) of many of my colleagues and clients. This has given me a deeper understanding of issues that I hadn’t previously been aware of. It has also led to work opportunities.

Many people have begun using te reo Māori, for example in education and in business. They overcome any shyness, learn from their mistakes and inspire others to try it as well. Not only is it one of our official languages, but it is only spoken here. Increasingly, people feel that understanding and using at least some te reo Māori is part of our New Zealand culture and being a Kiwi.

Technical communicators can be part of this change too. Others are also making the same journey and there are resources to help us. The tāngata whenua are often happy to guide and mentor us as we increasingly use and respect te reo Māori in our writing at work. The cause is well worth the effort. Let’s get involved and do it as well as we can!

I’d like to thank Shelly Davies who peer reviewed this article and made many helpful suggestions. Ngā mihi nunui ki a koe.