WELLINGTON (AFP) – Beneath the carved timber roof of a traditional “marae” meeting house at Wellington High School, dozens of students watch entranced as a play performed entirely in the Maori language unfolds.
Many only understand a smattering of the indigenous language, but pick up emotional cues from the performers. Some audience members are close to tears as the production in the New Zealand capital ends.
It is a scene that actor Eds Eramiha says would have been difficult to imagine as recently as two decades ago, when te reo Maori was widely regarded as a dying language not worth teaching.
“Attitudes have changed immensely,” he said.
“When I was at school, te reo Maori wasn’t held in high value, it wasn’t spoken, it wasn’t as freely available as it is to our kids today.”
Te reo was banned in schools for much of the 20th century which, combined with the urbanisation of rural Maori, meant that by the 1980s, only 20 percent of indigenous New Zealanders were fluent in the language.
That number was virtually unchanged by 2013, when census figures showed that just 21.3 percent of the Maori population could converse in te reo.
An official report published in 2010 warned the language was on the verge of extinction.
“Te reo Maori is approaching crisis point,” it said, with older native speakers “simply not being replaced” as they passed away.
The contrast with New Zealand today is striking. The language is enjoying a surge in popularity among Kiwis – Maori or otherwise – embracing their South Pacific nation’s indigenous culture.
Te reo courses are booked out at community colleges, while bands, poets and rappers perform using the language.
Te reo words such as ‘kai’ (food), ‘ka pai’ (congratulations), ‘whanau’ (family), and ‘mana’ (prestige) have entered everyday usage.
Even the way Kiwis define themselves has taken on a te reo tone, with an increasing number preferring to use ‘Aotearoa’ rather than New Zealand.
‘MORE THAN A LANGUAGE’
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is a passionate champion of the language, saying one of her great regrets is not being able to converse fluently in it.
“We have a guardianship role, a duty of care to te reo Maori,” she said this month.
“It’s our job to nurture it because it’s about more than a language.” Ardern chose to give her daughter Neve a Maori middle name ‘Te Aroha’ (‘the love’) when she was born in June.
Her government has set a target of having one million fluent te reo speakers by 2040.