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Mine Bay Maori Carvings, Lake Taupo | © holgerheinze0/Pixabay
Mine Bay Maori Carvings, Lake Taupo | © holgerheinze0/Pixabay
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11 Beautiful Māori Words and Phrases You Can't Translate into English

Picture of Thalita Alves
Updated: 20 June 2018
New Zealand’s indigenous Māori language (Te Reo Māori) features several concepts and words that can be described but not directly translated into clear-cut English.

These are usually enshrined in spiritual meaning, often demonstrating the various ties someone might have with their ancestral land and the people they interact with. To give you an idea, we have selected 11 common phrases and terms that beautifully showcase the Māori culture, heritage and tradition.

Mana (Muh-nuh)/A supernatural power or force in a person, place or object

Mana is often used to describe a person’s spiritual power, tribal prestige and ability to influence. Objects and places can also have mana, and as such be deemed sacred. In humans, mana is an inherited trait that’s delegated by the spirits (atua) to the most senior person in the family line. A person’s mana can then increase or decrease according to their successes and failures, particularly when it comes to acquiring essential resources like water and land.

Wairua (Why-roo-ah)/A person’s immortal, non-physical spiritual essence

Wairua is the spiritual essence of a person beyond life and death. Some believe that it resides at the heart or the mind, while others contend that it is not found in a specific place. A person’s wairua is said to emerge after a foetus gains their eyes; in the case of a miscarriage or abortion, that spirit becomes a guardian for the family.

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Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings, New Zealand | © holgerheinze0 / Pixabay

Tino rangatiratanga (Tee-noh run-guh-tee-ruh-tuhn-guh)/Self-determination, absolute sovereignty or authority

This one is historically controversial. The Māori version of New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, used this word when stipulating the local tribal chiefs’ (rangatira) power over their land. The trouble was that the English version did not claim that Māori would have full sovereignty (tino rangatiratanga) over their territory – it claimed that they would cede their sovereignty to the British Crown. This mistranslation led to many land conflicts in colonial New Zealand and the phrase still features in present-time debates over politics and race relations.

Tangata whenua (Tuhn-guh-tuh feh-noo-uh)/The native or indigenous people of a place

Whenua is a person’s country of birth or ancestral land. Tangata whenua is traditionally the people (tangata) who hailed from the placenta of their birth land where their ancestors previously resided. In light of this, Māori people typically bury a baby’s placenta on the ground to represent the native connection to the land (whenua) they were born in.

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Māori wood carving | © pruzi / Pixabay

Utu (ooh-too)/ Reciprocation (both in vengeance or in kind)

An important concept in maintaining the balance and harmony within Māori society, utu can carry both negative and positive connotations. It is often used in the context of vengeful retaliation – a way of restoring balance after social or group harmony has been disturbed. Gift exchanges are the most common example of utu in a positive context – it’s a way of establishing, fostering and maintaining strong interpersonal relationships.

Whanaungatanga (fuh-noh-nuh-tuhn-guh)/A sense of family connection or kinship

Family (whanau) plays an important role in all aspects of Māori life, particularly when it comes to social and tribal (iwi) relationships. The concept of whanaungatanga extends on that, encapsulating the shared experiences and collaboration that provides us with a full sense of community and belonging. This can emerge as a result of kinship rights and obligations, and through the development of close familial and friendship ties.

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Wood carving at a traditional Māori meeting house (marae) | © falco / Pixabay

Kotahitanga (koh-tuh-hee-tun-guh)/Unity or solidarity

Tahi is the Māori word for ‘one’; hence kotahitanga is the notion of being one with the people around you. The word refers to the collective action, solidarity and togetherness of a group. Once again, relationships play an important part in developing a sense of kotahitanga – a person needs to work closely with those around them in order to foster strong personal connections.

Tikanga (tee-kuhn-guh)/Protocol, correct procedure, or the right method of doing things

Tikanga is all about morality and social norms – particularly practices that have developed over time and are deeply embedded in the context that they’re taking place. For instance, tikanga Māori is a phrase that generally describes Māori cultural values; tikanga ture is the legal system; and tikanga matatika is a code of ethics.

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Māori warrior in a traditional welcoming ceremony (pōwhiri) | © Barni1 / Pixabay

Manaakitanga (muh-naah-key-tuhn-guh)/Hospitality, generosity and support

Manaakitanga is a measure of the generosity, respect and care that one shows for those around them. This might come through someone’s hospitality, their disposition to help others at a time of need or via simple gestures that demonstrate someone’s ability to extend their love and compassion (aroha) to those looking for some moral support.

Kaitiakitanga (k-eye-tee-uh-key-tuhn-guh)/Guardianship or stewardship

The word kaitiakitanga is used when talking about someone who was appointed to safeguard Māori taonga (treasures) like the land or natural resources. The word can also refer to someone who represents the best interests of Māori people and communities at large – a trustee, board member and so forth.

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In Māori culture the koru (New Zealand fern) is a symbol of creation | © Bernard Spragg / Flickr

Mōhiotanga (moh-hee-oh-tuhn-guh)/Knowledge, intelligence, awareness or insight

Think of mōhiotanga as knowledge or wisdom that is shared, built upon, or passed down from one generation to the next. The word can also be used in a general sense, as you come to find out some bad news or you gain some insight into something you hadn’t previously thought about.