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A Māori-immersion school in Seatoun, aiming to revitalise this ancient language. | ©WikiCommons
A Māori-immersion school in Seatoun, aiming to revitalise this ancient language. | ©WikiCommons
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21 Essential Māori Phrases You Need To Know

Picture of Thalita Alves
Updated: 26 February 2018
Te Reo Māori is one of New Zealand’s official languages, along with English and New Zealand Sign Language. While you don’t need to be fluent in Māori to get by, having a few phrases under your belt certainly helps – especially since its words are very much ingrained in daily life. Here are 21 need-to-know terms you’ll likely stumble across during your visit.

Essential greetings

Whether you’ve just landed in Aotearoa (that’s the Māori name for New Zealand) or you’ve already started ticking off the items on your travel bucket list, these are some of the most common greetings you’ll see and hear. Remember to always roll your r’s when pronouncing Māori expressions.

Kia ora (kee oh-ruh): Hi

An informal way to say ‘hi’ that is very much a part of New Zealand English these days. In a literal sense, kia ora can be a way to wish someone good health; depending on inflection, it might also be used to show agreement or say thanks.

Mōrena (moh-reh-nuh): Good morning

This is the most common way to say good morning. An alternative you might also hear is ata marie (ah-tuh mah-ree-eh), which essentially means the same thing.

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Sign welcoming people to Te Puia | © Henry Burrows/Flickr

Tēnā koutou (teh-nah koh-toh): Formal greeting to many people

This greeting is commonly used in formal gatherings where someone is addressing a large crowd: like in a ceremony inside a marae (a traditional meeting house), for example. Often the word katoa (kah-toh-uh) will be added at the end if the person speaking wants to address everybody in the room. Use tēnā koe (teh-nah kw-eh) when talking to a single person and tēnā kōrua (teh-nah koh-roo-ah) when addressing two people.

Haere mai (hi-reh my): Welcome

Often seen in welcome signs when you enter a new city or a public building, and commonly used during welcoming ceremonies at large. It can also be used as a way of saying ‘come here’.

Haere rā (ha-eh-reh rah): Goodbye (from a person who’s staying)

Similar to haere mai, this phrase often features in exit signs alongside their English equivalent.

E noho rā (eh noh-hoh rah): Goodbye (said by someone who’s leaving)

The type of farewell you might hear at the end of news broadcasts or local TV shows.

Haere mai sign, Auckland Airport
Haere mai sign, Auckland Airport | © Daily Sublime/Flickr

Commonly used phrases

Some of these are among the first sayings you might be taught when learning Māori, while others are just used in daily parlance.

Ko wai to ingoa? Ko…ahau (koh why toh in-goh-uh; koh … ah-hoh): What is your name? My name is…

If you’ve ever tried to learn a second language, you’ll know that asking a person’s name is one of the first things anyone gets taught. It’s likely that you won’t need to use this in an everyday setting, but it’s nice to know how to ask and answer this basic question nonetheless.

Kei te pēhea koe? (kay tee peh-he-uh ko-eh): How are you?

Only used when spoken to a single person. As with the tena koe/koutou/kōrua greeting, replace koe with kōrua for two people and koutou when addressing three or more.

Kei te pai (kay tee pie): I’m fine

An answer to the above question.

Tu meke (too meh-keh): Too much

Contrary to what you might think, this one is meant to show appreciation. ‘Too much’ i.e. tu meke is a slang term used when telling someone they did a good job, or as an alternative to saying ‘awesome’.

Ka pai (kah pie): Good

A colloquial way – used by Kiwis of all ages – to show approval or to tell someone they did a good job.

Kia kaha (key-uh kah-huh): Be strong

An affirmation often used to show support during tough times. Think of it as an equivalent to ‘my thoughts are with you’.

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A couple in Christchurch, New Zealand | © Pablo Heimplatz/Unsplash

Cultural practices

Whether you’re getting involved in a Māori cultural experience, you’re going to see a traditional Waitangi Day ceremony or you’re participating in another special celebrations, here are some terms that are guaranteed to come in handy.

Pōwhiri (poh-fee-ree): A welcoming ceremony

As a verb, pōwhiri means ‘to welcome’ or ‘to invite’, but its most common usage (as a noun) is in reference to the welcoming ceremony that enables people to enter a local marae. If you’re invited to traditional Māori meeting place, make sure to brush up on the protocols and etiquette that come with this privilege.

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Powhiri (welcoming ceremony) for U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno at the Auckland Museum | © The U.S. Army/Flickr

Tapu/noa (tah-pooh/noh-ah): Sacred/unrestricted

Two words commonly associated with cultural practices and norms. Tapu is similar to the word ‘taboo’ and is used to signify the things that deemed spiritually and culturally restricted. Noa is the antonym and may be used in reference to freeing oneself from tapu practices.

Iwi (ee-wee): Tribe, nation, kinship

Family ties, ancestry and heritage are highly valued among Māori. Most, if not all, will be able to tell you which iwi (tribes) they belong to, while some might even be able to talk about specific ancestral facts like the mountains and rivers that represent their communities.

Māori Carvings at a Marae
Māori Carvings at a Marae | © falco/Pixabay

Whānau (fah-noh): Family

In a traditional sense, whānau is one’s extended family and primary economic unit. These days it might also be used to include close friends who are considered to be part of one’s family.

Karakia (kah-rah-kee-uh): Prayer

Māori might recite a karakia before a meal (just like you would if you were saying grace), during a special ceremony or prior to carrying out their daily duties.

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Dawn karakia ceremony at the Waitangi Treaty grounds | © Royal New Zealand Navy/Flickr

Food

Food is an important component of all cultures. These three words in particular are often used among Māori and Pākehā (New Zealand Europeans) alike on a day-to-day basis.

Kai (k-eye): Food

It’s not uncommon to hear someone say in plain New Zealand English that they’re going to ‘get some kai‘.

Kumara (koo-mah-ruh): Sweet potato

Nobody in New Zealand uses the term ‘sweet potato’, they’re always referred to as kumara. The word features in daily conversations as well as supermarket signs and local recipes.

Hangi (hahn-guee): A traditional cooking method

The hangi is a traditional practice whereby you cook food (meat, potatoes, and kumara being the most popular ingredients) in an underground oven. You’ll get to see this in action on traditional cultural experiences, or if you’re invited to a Māori gathering where this type of meal is served.

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Hangi: A traditional Maori feast | © JSilver/Flickr

Numbers

Knowing your basic numbers (one to 10) will not only impress the locals, it will also set you up for learning the larger figures if needed. Here’s the first lot to get you started:

Tahi (tah-hee)/1

Rua (roo-ah)/2

Toru (toh-roo)/3

Whā (fah)/4

Rima (ree-mah)/5

Ono (oh-no)/6

Whitu (fee-too)/7

Waru (wah-roo)/8

Iwa (ee-wah)/9

Tekau (teh-koh)/10

With larger amounts, you just need to learn the words for the whole number (20, 30, 40 etc.) and then add mā + the smaller figure to it. For example, 20 is rua tekau; to make 22 you just add mā rua i.e. rua tekau mā rua. Just follow this list if you need a bit of extra guidance with the bigger sums.

This article was originally written by Ngarangi Haerewa and has since been updated.

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Maori numbers, seen in a playground in Waihi, New Zealand | © Jen Parke/Flickr