Maori Language Facts and Common Words (With Meanings)

, Staff Writer
Updated August 22, 2014
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Maori is one of the three official New Zealand languages along with English and New Zealand Sign Language. This New Zealand language is spoken by many of the indigenous people and is considered to be one of the Eastern Polynesian languages closely related to the Hawaiian-Tahitian languages.

Although Maori is spoken by the indigenous people of New Zealand, its classification as an official language allows it to be used on a more frequent basis in a very public manner. Explore the history and unique facts of the Maori language along with some Maori language words.

map of new zealand
    map of new zealand
    chrispecoraro / E+ / Getty Images

History of the Maori Language

An old legend states that the native language came to New Zealand from Hawaiki, which is a mythical land many of the Polynesian people use as the base of their culture. Historians believe that the Maori language was introduced to the region that is presently New Zealand in 1280 AD via voyagers from the Southern Cook Islands. It is believed the language was able to flourish without impediment because of the seclusion of the area until the 19th century.


Decline of Maori Language

The Maori language, also known as te reo, remained the dominant language in New Zealand until the English language began to become more commonly used in the 1860s. With the influx of English speaking missionaries, settlers, and other individuals, English rapidly became the dominant language.

Up until World War II most of the native people of New Zealand spoke Maori in their homes. Eventually, even the use of Maori declined as more individuals in the government began to speak the language less. By the 1980s English had become the dominant language, and the use of the Maori language was so sparse that special action was taken to help reintroduce the language to the native people for fear that the native Maori language was being phased out by English.


Resurgence of Maori Language

In the 1980s, New Zealand’s government instituted the Kohanga Reo movement, which was a targeted effort geared towards babies to surround them in Maori language in culture from infancy throughout their schooling in order to reestablish the Maori language. Currently, more than 125,000 Maori people speak one of three major dialects of the Maori language.

Maori Alphabet and Phrases

When learning the Maori language and meanings, you must learn a number of elements. The Maori language consists of an alphabet that has twenty letters. Two of the letters are digraphs, which are two letters placed together to make a sound.

Maori Language Act

The Maori language went through a number of changes and disputes, particularly when it came to establishing vowel length, consonants, and the use of syllables. To create order within the Maori language, the Maori Language Act was established in 1987 by the Maori Language Commission in order to act as the leading authority on the spelling and the correct usage of the language.

To grasp this language, it is important to understand that the Maori language is based on phrases rather than on a word. Likewise, this language uses many particles such as pronouns, particles related to position of timing, particles for verbs, and particles which mark possessiveness.


Maori Words

If you are traveling to New Zealand, you’ll find most of the people are fluent in English, so you may not have to know the Maori language. However, learning a few basic terms used by natives of this New Zealand language can be fun.

  • thank you - tena koe
  • yes - ae
  • no - kaore
  • please - koa (used at the end of phrase)
  • please - tena (used at the beginning of phrase)
  • welcome - haere mai
  • hello - kia ora (informal)
  • good-bye - e noho rā (to the person staying)
  • good-bye - haere rā (to the person going)
  • love - aroha
  • tribe - iwi
  • prayer - karakia
  • sea - moana
  • island - motu
  • son - tama
  • daughter - tamahine
  • ancestor - tipuna/tupuna
  • wife - wahine
  • husband - tane
  • extended family - whanau
  • homeland - whenau
  • gathering - hui
  • awa - river
  • Maori dance - haka
  • 24/7 - ao noa, po noa
  • guests - manuhiri
  • gift - koha
  • bathroom - whare horoi
  • authority - ihi
  • sacred - tapu
  • water - wai

The New Zealand Language: Maori

Maori language is a rich native language of New Zealand with an expansive history. While it declined in the late 1980s, it’s seen a resurgence after becoming one of New Zealand’s official languages. Learn more about native Island languages by exploring the Hawaiian language.