Alive to change

Alumni, Development, Headlines, Research — By on October 12, 2016 2:16 pm

Sally Nicholas, who is just completing her PhD in Linguistics/Māori Studies, says her ground-breaking work describing Cook Islands Māori is “preposterous” – but she does so with a smile. Julie Middleton finds out why.

Sally Nicholas’s love for linguistics was born, she reckons, when she was six. She had just started at a Taranaki primary school after her family’s move from Rarotonga, where she had spoken Cook Islands Māori: Te Reo Māori Kūki ‘Airani. Sally clearly remembers the teacher who took her aside and asked, in New Zealand Māori, to say the Cook Islands words for various everyday items.

“I remember being very relieved that someone was speaking Māori to me,” recalls Sally, “and I think that was my introduction to comparative linguistics. Ever since, I have been interested in the language in a meta sense, as opposed to just using it.”

Now 39, Sally, of the Ngāti Te’akatauira tribe from Ma’uke in the southern Cook Islands, is completing her doctorate, which describes the mechanics of Cook Islands Māori – in particular, the variety spoken in the southern Cooks – for the first time. It is, she says, a “preposterous” project, but she’s grinning as she says so. “Preposterous because a human language is inherently indescribable. As long as a language is alive and being spoken, it’s changing every day, and it’s absolutely impossible to capture the entirety of a language. It’s logistically impossible even to get close.”

But you can capture enough of a language’s grammar and sound to create an accurate record – and that’s critical, given the precarious state of Cook Islands Māori. The language has been swamped by English and is now endangered. There are 12,000 people in the Cooks and 65,000 Cook Islanders here: just 12 percent of each group can speak their ancestral language, a proportion that is falling. Most native speakers are over 65, and there is no longer enough inter-generational transmission to nourish the language.

To lose a language is to “lose access to a really important signifier of cultural identity,” Sally says, worry etched on her face. “We lose access to ways of understanding the world, and ways of expressing ideas. Take the word mana, for instance, which is used across the Pacific. When we try to translate that into English, it’s quite difficult, and you’re losing some of the detail.”

And detail is critical when describing a language. Sally started her work by gathering material written by native speakers, opting initially for digitised narratives such as those from the 120-year-old Journal of the Polynesian Society, produced by the University of Auckland. She hunted for newspapers, children’s books, Facebook posts and newsletters in Cook Islands Māori.

Left: Griffith Robati and Niotangi Heather, at her home in Arorangi, Rarotonga, discussing children's songs. All of these people have contributed to the project.

Left: Griffith Robati and Niotangi Heather, at her home in Arorangi, Rarotonga, discussing children’s songs. All of these people have contributed to the project.

The second step was to film native speakers in conversation. Sally had 46 linguistic guinea pigs in both the Cooks and New Zealand, their ages ranging from 11 to 82; she captured them chatting away as well as praying, giving speeches, reading aloud and singing. (Not all of Sally’s subjects entirely understand what she’s doing, she says, “but they are happy that someone is paying formal attention to the language”.) She also hunted down podcasts and videos in Cook Islands Māori. Everything was transcribed, tagged, and entered into a searchable digital database that now holds more than a million words.

The third step was to draw on the database to formulate hypotheses about how the nuts and bolts of Cook Islands Māori fit together. Sally learned the Taranaki dialect of te reo Māori at school and drew on her knowledge of both as she developed model sentences.

Then she sat down with native speakers of Cook Islands Māori to test her assumptions. Linguists call this quest for detail “elicitation” or “grammaticality judgements”. “You change variables in the sentence until it seems wrong to them, and then wind it back to see where the limit is,” Sally explains.

Her research has thrown up some interesting oddities. For example, “kupu” means “word” in the Māori language of both New Zealand and the Cooks – but in the Cooks, it fell out of use sometime in the mid-twentieth century and is making a slow comeback among native speakers only now.

But will Cook Islands Māori as a whole be able to stage a comeback? Sally believes that Cook Islanders in general “are not as afraid as they should be” about the dire state of their language. “They know that there is a problem, but I don’t think that most people understand how critical that problem is.”

She adds, “There’s a tendency for people to blame the kids for not speaking Cook Islands Māori, but that’s profoundly illogical – babies don’t choose what language is spoken to them.” There are nine Cook Islands pre-school centres, all in the North Island, but most of them are English-language with some basic Cook Islands Māori. “They are good for strengthening cultural identity,” says Sally, “but they’re not sufficient for language acquisition.”

Sally, third from left, with Peter Nicholas (left), Reverend Bobby Matapo, Tiki Matapo, Mii Matapo and Reverend Mere Nicholas at a family kaikai in Titikaveko, Rarotonga.

Sally, third from left, with Peter Nicholas (left), Reverend Bobby Matapo, Tiki Matapo, Mii Matapo and Reverend Mere Nicholas at a family kaikai in Titikaveko, Rarotonga.

The struggle to revive te reo Māori shows “how hard it can be to claw a language back”, and this is compounded by the fact that many Cook Islanders are not tightly knitted into their heritage culture: “They don’t have any access back to the cultural infrastructure and those people who are grounded in te reo.” A complicating factor is that those who do live their reo and culture every day find it hard to perceive a problem at all. However, Sally is seeing heartening evidence of a “growing grass roots movement in New Zealand, where people are becoming much more proactive about language revitalisation”.

But it bugs her that New Zealand doesn’t protect all its indigenous languages like it does te reo Māori. Hang on – what other indigenous languages? Constitutionally, Sally says, the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau are all part of New Zealand, but none of their languages receive support and funding. “These are all languages of the realm of New Zealand, but they get nothing. And no one knows that!

There’s no protection, even though the Government is obligated, as a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to look after languages like Cook Islands Māori, Niuean and Tokelauan,” explains Sally. It is, she says, an issue about which “I make a fuss whenever I can. Most people don’t conceive of the concept of New Zealand as including these places. Most people don’t understand the constitutional relationship. It’s not that they don’t care – they just don’t know.”

But people need to know, she says, that just as biodiversity is necessary for the health of the planet, so linguistic diversity is essential for social wellbeing.

There’s evidence that Pacific peoples in New Zealand whose language maintenance remains strong, such as in the Tongan and Samoan communities, have lower rates of diabetes and smoking, and lower rates of imprisonment – areas where the largely monolingual Cook Islands population fares comparatively poorly. It’s a subject Sally’s keen to explore now the description of her beloved language is complete.


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1 Comment

  1. Helen Duff says:


    What an amazing contribution Sally has made. Proud whanau eh!!!
    Love Helen

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