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Kate Peebles / © Culture Trip
Kate Peebles / © Culture Trip
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11 Beautiful Words That Will Make You Fall in Love With the Māori Language

Picture of Thalita Alves
Updated: 23 July 2018
Te Reo Māori (the Māori language) holds a special place in New Zealand’s cultural identity and history. The Eastern Polynesian language is believed to belong to the same family as those spoken in Hawaii and Tahiti, and uses a limited number of letters and very clear vowel sounds to convey its terms in a relatable manner. Colonisation in the 1800s led to the language’s decline. But today, thanks to ongoing revitalization efforts, Te Reo Māori is officially recognised as one of the nation’s three official languages.

Aroha (uh-roh-huh)/ love, compassion, tenderness

The word aroha is composed of two essential components: the mind or seat of emotions (aro) and the breath of life (ha). It is similar to the Hawaiian word aloha, which also has the basic meanings of love, compassion, peace and mercy. Besides depicting one of life’s most beautiful notions, Aroha is also a popular girls’ name in New Zealand. Remember to always roll your r’s when pronouncing Māori terms.

Ihi (e-he)/ power, charisma, a beam of light

Ihi differs from mana in that it is the power one gains from their ability to influence – their charisma or ability to impress a watchful audience, for instance. Outside of an interpersonal context, ihi can be used to describe a sun beam or a ray of light. In both cases, it’s the radiance of the person/object that’s at the forefront.

Tapu (tuh-pooh)/ sacred

Tapu is quite similar to the English word ‘taboo’, both in sound and in meaning: not only is it used to describe something that’s holy or sacred, the word can also refer to a thing that’s forbidden and inviolable. People, places and objects viewed in Māori culture as ‘tapu’ should never be touched by human hands – in some instances, you shouldn’t touch or get any close to them at all.

Aotearoa (ao-teh-uh-roh-uh)/ New Zealand

Originally, Aotearoa was used to denominate New Zealand’s North Island. Nowadays it’s used in reference to the entire country. The word’s origins are somewhat contentious. But the most widely accepted version is that it is derived from ao (cloud), tea (white/clear/bright) and roa (long), while an alternative claim posits that the word comes from Aotea (the migratory canoe that Māori settlers used to reach the country) and roa. Either way, the most common translation for New Zealand’s Māori name is the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Taonga (tuh-on-ga)/ treasure

In contemporary parlance, taonga can describe just about anything that is of high value – this may include objects, words, or even a precious memory. It is often used when talking about special heirlooms and artefacts (for instance, Wellington’s Te Papa Museum has its own taonga collection) as well as treasured natural resources like geothermal springs, ancestral lands or rivers.

Mana (muh-nuh)/ power

In Māori culture, mana is the power and authority that comes from social status and material gains. It is believed that there are three types of mana: the type that comes from one’s genealogy and ancestral ties, the recognition one gains for their deeds and actions, and the collective mana of the groups one might belong to – be it your tribe (iwi), family (whānau) or wider community (hapu).

Tāngata (tahn-guh-tuh)/ people, humankind

Macrons in Māori words are typically used to depict elongated vowel sounds – but in the case of the word tāngata, it is also used to differentiate the plural form from its singular counterpart (tangata). Both forms are commonly used alongside the people they might be talking about: for instance tangata Māori would be a Māori person, while ngā tāngata katoa is the phrase for ‘everybody’.

Whenua (feh-noo-uh)/ land, country, nation

Māori have always had a strong spiritual connection to the land and sea – this is quite evident in myths and traditions that are passed from one generation to the next. The word whenua, describing the country or the nation, is often used alongside tāngata: ‘tāngata whenua‘ being the local people, the people of the land, the indigenous owners of a territory. In Te Reo Māori, ‘wh’ is a letter of the alphabet commonly pronounced with a soft ‘f’ sound (though this may differ slightly according to dialect).

Whānau (fah-noh)/ extended family

Whānau is commonly translated as ‘family’, but its meaning is more complex than that. The word incorporates both the spiritual and physical dimensions of Māori family life, including tribal affiliations, emotional ties and genealogical ancestry. A traditional whānau is believed to comprise three generations – an elder and his wife plus their direct descendants – but this notion has evolved along the centuries to reflect the changing social and family dynamics of contemporary times.

Karakia (kuh-ruh-key-uh)/ prayer, incantation

Karakia is both the noun (prayer) and the verb (to recite a prayer). Traditionally, the delivery of a karakia was viewed as carrying just as much importance as the message it conveys. Any mispronounced words, omissions or signs of hesitation could be deemed disastrous. These prayers are used in all aspects of life, from major rituals to the simple act of saying grace before a meal, and often take shape of a chant or song.

Mauri (moh-ree)/ essential life force

Don’t confuse mauri with the word Māori – they are very different in meaning and differ in intonation (the latter is pronounced mao-ree with an elongated ‘ah’ sound). Mauri is a term to describe the elements that bring vitality to an individual being or an entity – their life essence, source of emotions, life principles and special nature. It can also be used when talking about an object, person, ecosystem or social group in which the essence of mauri is found.