Māori Language Week

Māori Language Week


Māori Language Week

Last week I was walking through downtown São Paulo when I passed a bus parked in front of a hotel that had just disgorged a large number of Paraguayan football supporters who were in town for a match between their team, Cerro Porteño, and one of the two big local teams, Palmeiras (which Cerro Porteño would go on to win). It was early evening and the Paraguayans were agreeably pre-belligerent, drinking and talking in a lively fashion in front of the hotel. The language most of them were speaking was the one they call “Jopará”.

Jopará means “mixture” in Guarani and is spoken by most Paraguayans; it is quite literally a mixture of Spanish and Guarani. The following is an example with the words of Spanish origin underlined:

¡Tereho Paraguaype emba’apo, che memby! Cheapytáta kokuépe. Mientra tengo salú, via atendé por tucriatura, dame nomá sapy’a py’a un poco de pirapire. Mandyju cosecha ha soja opa... no hay ete porvení. ¡Site quedá aquí nemomembychevýta pe bandido hína!

The composite language depicted above is the language of Paraguay as it is spoken today, with varying degrees of Spanish/Guarani content depending on such variables as urban/rural, rich/poor, more/less educated et cetera. As can be inferred from the example above, any speaker of such a locution would need knowledge not only of the vocabularies of both languages but also of their respective morphologies, as the passage quoted evinces not only Spanish and Guarani words but also employment of Spanish and Guarani syntaxes, parts of speech and so on

So what does any of this have to do with Māori language week? A very great deal indeed, as it turns out, because the situation of the Guarani language is a very good analogue for that of Māori, with the crucial variation of it having become a national language spoken not only by the indigenes of the country but also by the descendants of the colonisers and the mestizo people resulting from their union. In this respect, Guarani, at least within the territory of Paraguay, is entirely unique among the languages indigenous to colonised countries. So how come Guarani/Jopará become the community language of all Paraguayans (and the same did not happen with Māori)?

There appear to have been a favourable concatenation of historical circumstances: first there was the relative isolation of Paraguay; then the use of a standardised form of Guarani by Jesuit missionaries in the Amerindian mission communities under their control; also the long dictatorship of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco (1814-1840) who reputedly aimed to establish a utopian and autarchic society along Rousseauian lines. Francia banned intermarriage between Spaniards (permitting only that they marry Amerindians, blacks or ‘mulattoes’), suppressed the church and abolished higher education. He himself spoke Guarani and one of his support bases was the large population of Guarani-speakers who had migrated to Asunción after the dissolution of the Jesuit missions in 1767.

By the mid-nineteenth century Guarani remained the dominant language in Paraguay, and subsequent events (the López dictatorship, the War of the Triple Alliance, the Chaco War and the Stroessner dictatorship) did nothing to change that; in particular, malign neglect prevented more widespread education in Spanish, thus safeguarding Guarani in its role as the language of the majority. Article 140 of the 1992 Constitution states that “Paraguay is a multicultural and bilingual country; the official languages are Spanish and Guarani.” Both Spanish and Guarani are compulsory components of the school curriculum, official documents and signs in public places are often bilingual and both languages can be heard spoken on the streets.

It seems to me that there was a very brief period in the early nineteenth century in which New Zealand and Paraguay were linguistically comparable. That changed quickly after 1840 and the situation now is radically divergent. It would hardly be possible or desirable to recreate the historical trajectory of Paraguay, but I believe it is valuable to consider how an indigenous language can become the true national language of a colonised country – and as Paraguay is the only place in the world where that has happened, it is the only example available for such consideration.

I do not believe that mention of the language in the constitution or the legal provisions making it compulsory in schools are especially important in and of themselves. They are, in effect, instances of the law recognising faits accomplis. What really matters is the mindset behind such legislation, i.e. there must be acceptance of the reality and validity of the other language (I say ‘other’ because the constitution was written in Spanish). Due to their history, and as most people in Paraguay are bilingual, it is very easy for Paraguayans to accept this concept. Most Pākehā New Zealanders are resolutely monolingual and regard foreign languages as languages spoken by foreigners, not something they should or even could speak themselves. This monolingualism is more than a mere absence: it is in fact an active identity, a mindset. Māori is already the official language of New Zealand and yet the average Pākehā knows twenty or thirty words of the language and has no idea whatsoever of its grammar. Surely, if Māori were made compulsory in schools under such circumstances the teaching of it could hardly be effective – indeed, it would quickly be scapegoated by the hostile anti-Māori sentiment that is whipped up every time Māori or their language are seen as being given even the most exiguous favour in any field of public life.

Or maybe it could be effective. One of the classic tools of the most virulent monolinguals is their faith in and propagation of the idea that only their own language is capable of expressing certain concepts. They often assert this by saying things like “I don’t want to learn Māori because it doesn’t have a word for [insert facile example].” This argument draws on deep wells of ignorance and is surprisingly effective; it wouldn’t work in a country like Paraguay because almost all Paraguayans speak enough Guarani to know otherwise; most Pākehā New Zealanders, however, know nothing beyond a few greetings, how to count to ten and a few words for Māori concepts like ‘mana’. Some kind of solid, fundamental education in te reo Māori could at least serve as a means to escape the morass of benightedness in which most of us have long since been bogged down, as well as to rebut the slings and arrows of militant monolingualism.

There are perhaps reasons for hope that New Zealand may, via a circuitous route, achieve its own dispensation à la Paraguay. For while it may be true that most Pākehā wouldn’t know their nono from their whatīanga, it is also true that most of the students filling te reo Māori courses nowadays are Pākehā. These Pākehā learners of Māori, while relatively small in number, are indicative of the best instincts of the community as a whole and may eventually help to form a vanguard in favour of a more widespread reinvigoration of the language. The most important change to be made in order for that to occur will be for the monolingual mindset that hobbles so much language education efforts to be, for want of a more agreeable verb, suppressed. As to whether that will ever happen, only time will tell.