The Comms team at UC passed on a query to me the other day from an overseas expat reader of one of our regular university newsletters who was concerned about the possibility of a “hybrid” language evolving in New Zealand. That is, a language which is a mix of Māori and English, rather than two separate languages. The writer was referring to our university’s use of Māori and English titles alongside each other, such as Tū ki te tahi|Stand as one – the University’s blog site. Mention was also made of place names such as Hakatere|Ashburton and Aoraki|Mount Cook.
I crafted a polite reply addressing the writer’s concerns at face value, as if they were legitimate and serious. In hindsight I could have saved myself time and energy and sent them a link to this 4 minute video by Andreea Calude at Waikato University which ably covers most of the relevant points.
But really I was (and still am) seething inside – and here’s what I should have written … because, you see, what was really underlying the writer’s “concern” was blatant racism and white privilege …
To begin with the writer’s use of the word “hybrid” alludes to an underlying notion of impurity, harking back to ideas of racial purity which has its roots in 19thC fascism. There is racism underlying the writer’s “concern”, a racism that is somewhat cloaked in an apparent worry for what is happening to language in New Zealand. Talking about language rather than people is a way to project racist thinking without appearing to be racist.
We know that the writer’s thinking is racist because English is the most “magpie” language in existence. That is, when English speakers see a shiny and useful new word from another language – they promptly bring it into English. So much so that we don’t even notice that many of our English words are from other languages. Everyday words like kennel (Norman), algebra (Arabic), pyjamas (Hindu), cookie (Dutch) and guitar (Spanish) are but a few examples. We accept these words without blinking, including relatively new borrowings such as Uber and avatar. But the email writer is selectively concerned with the use of Māori words and phrases.
Linguists have long noted that the most notable feature of the lexicon of New Zealand English is its incorporation of Māori words. Initial borrowings in the 19th century focussed on flora and fauna hitherto unknown to British settlers (for example, kōwhai and kiwi) but over the last 20-30 years New Zealand English has seen an increase in the use of Māori socio-cultural words such as whānau, tamariki, kai, hui, and puku. So part of the writer’s “concern” could be that Māori words are “taking over” New Zealand English. A quaint idea since it was English speakers who so successfully colonised the Māori population and their language a couple of centuries ago.
Why would the increase in use of Māori words worry our English speaker? It signals that the New Zealand they knew when they were a child and young adult is changing in a way that challenges them and their identity. These ideas are largely associated with the older Pākehā members of our community. For the last 20 years, since Hinewehi Mohi sang the national anthem in Māori at a rugby test in 1999, schools have upped their use of Māori in the school environment. Today anyone under 30 in Aotearoa|New Zealand will at the bare minimum be familiar with Māori numbers, colours and a few waiata and phrases. For example, I increasingly hear non-Māori New Zealanders referring to New Zealand as Aotearoa and talking about their whānau.
When white people express concerns at being overrun by anything non-white they are using their white privilege in a barely concealed manner, and in a way that calls for the maintenance of existing power elites and the continued supression of non-white worldviews.