About the Author

Avatar photo

David Round

The “H” Battle

Print Friendly and PDF
Posted on

The arguments about the ‘h’ in Wanganui will clearly be around for some time to come. The citizens of Wanganui, led by their firm no-nonsense mayor Michael Laws, have no intention of giving up without a fight. The Geographic Board has recommended to the Land Information Minister, Mr Maurice Williamson, that an h be inserted, but the city and citizens of Wanganui intend to make an issue of the matter. Some commentators have argued ’Why don’t they just give in? After all, it’s just one tiny letter’. By the same token, one could argue that, if it is so tiny and unimportant an issue, the supporters of the h should give in. But the h’s supporters clearly think that the issue is bigger than one tiny letter, and so the h’s opponents can hardly be blamed for thinking the same way.

In fact the arguments over the h mirror so many of the arguments we are having over race and the Treaty. In this particular controversy we see the whole world in miniature. This is not just an argument over one letter; it is another battle in the war that has been tearing us apart for a generation, and the arguments are strangely familiar.

Let us look at some of the issues in their wider setting.

In itself, of course, the argument is over something absolutely trivial. But at this point we have to agree with Michael Laws in his reply to the Maori schoolchildren of Otaki. You will recall that a number of eleven and twelve year old pupils at Otaki School’s kura kaupapa unit all wrote letters to him (in Maori) supporting the h. Mr Laws replied, inter alia, that it was a pity that the children had not been concerned about more pressing issues such as Maori child abuse and murder. He has a point. If children are going to study current social issues, surely they should study the big important ones, not minor trivialities. To focus on the h and ignore the crime rate, for example, is to choose to see Maori as oppressed innocents and ignore brutal reality.

This is a mirror of our society. There is no doubt that Maori are vastly over-represented in all the wrong statistics ~ illiteracy, school truancy, delinquency, domestic violence, crime and prison occupancy, drug abuse, unemployment, poverty, single parenthood…Yet what preoccupies Maori leaders and the news media? Pointless and destructive arguments over what exactly the vague words of the Treaty can cover 169 years later, and over one letter in one word. We concentrate on the tiny things and ignore that elephant standing in our living-room. To raise the other issues would be a racist diversion from the ‘real issue’ of white oppression. We celebrate a kapa haka competition and believe all will be well.

The school claims that these letters were the childrens’ own idea, but I am afraid I have my doubts. Busy-body teachers anxious to indoctrinate their charges in politically-correct thought are not unknown elsewhere. Enlisting children in ones political causes is not a wholesome thing to do. It is the kidnapping, one might almost say the corruption of young minds. It may be inevitable that our parents transmit their opinions to us; we expect well-paid self-styled professionals to be rather more professional. We respected teachers when they kept their political opinions to themselves and taught their pupils how to read and write. Now many teachers seem unable to accomplish any of these basic tasks. To judge by what their pupils say, much of the ‘history’ taught in our schools seems merely a contemplation of the innocence and pacifism of the primitive Maori and the beastliness and worthlessness of the white man and his civilisation.

There is no doubt at all that in the local Wanganui dialect the word was always pronounced with a ‘w’ and not ‘wh’. The most vehement activists concede this. The present spelling, then, accurately reflects longstanding pronunciation. To insist on the ‘wh’ is to insist on a spelling that does not reflect pronunciation. This is absurd. I readily concede that I am not in favour of spelling reform of the English language. But neither I nor anyone I know is arguing that we change English spelling so that it is further away from actual pronunciation than it is now. As a general principle, surely, spelling should reflect pronunciation. (It is just that the spelling reform of a worldwide language like English with a hundred different ways of pronouncing words would cause more trouble than it was worth.) But the supporters of the h in Wanganui are arguing, as a matter of principle, that spelling should not reflect pronunciation.

The fact is that when the white man came there were many dialects and local variations in the Maori language. That is hardly surprising in a primitive and often warlike society where people lived in the same places all their lives. When would Northland and Southland Maori ever have a chance to speak to each other? The first missionaries, arriving as they did mostly in Northland, wrote down the language as they heard it there. This Northland pronunciation and spelling became standard. All other Maori pronunciation was ‘corrected’ to this Northland model. The Maori spoken in the southern South Island , which is believed to be an older form, closer to the language as it was spoken by the very first Maori settlers, has suffered particularly badly in these corrections. It suffers the ignominy of being described as a ‘dialect’ when it would be more accurate to describe it as the original form, and all other variations as the dialects. Because it is so different from Northland Maori, its spellings are often ‘corrected’. So the word is spelt Otakou, but has always been pronounced Otago. The tree has always been pronounced goai, as my grandfather called it, not kowhai. Southerners who pronounce the words in the original way are accused of mangling the Maori language. On the contrary, they are merely refusing to succumb to North Island cultural imperialism. The pronunciations found in the South follow recognisable patterns: the northern k is pronounced as g ~ hence guri (dog) instead of kuri, gigi (Freycinetia banksii) instead of kiekie. The northern ng is pronounced k ~ hence Waitaki instead of Waitangi. The wh may be completely silent ~ hence the northern hinahina (the whitey-wood) is ina-ina, and Whangaroa is the southern Akaroa. The northern r, indeed, may be pronounced as l ~ Akaloa. (The Maori aroha is the aloha of Hawaii .) The final vowel may be almost, or completely silent ~ Wakatip rather than ‘Wakatipoo’. And so on. The Kilmog, the hill to the north of Dunedin over which State Highway 1 passes, is not, as I had always supposed, a name of Scottish origin, probably to do with a dead cat; rather, kilmog is the ancient pronunciation of the plant known in the north as the koromiko (Hebe salicifolia).

I digress. Maori had dialects, and the local pronunciation of the North Island Wanganui has always been Wanganui. The proposed spelling ‘correction’, then, is to a spelling that does not and never has reflected the true local pronunciation. One advocate of the h has actually written that the spelling ‘correction’ is ‘reasonable, because the mistaken spelling [without the h] was based on the regional dialect’! One uniform spelling is to be imposed over the whole country, regardless of whether it accurately reflects ancient local pronunciations. I am amazed that local Maori are supporting this. I would be up in arms at the destruction of my local tradition.

I wonder, incidentally, how far these corrections are to go. As explained above, different South Island spellings reflect distinct South Island pronunciations. Are these to be next? Logically, it would seem so. If the Geographic Board deliberately ignores a North Island local pronunciation it is unlikely to respect a South Island one. There is even a Wanganui River on the West Coast, near Harihari, and a Little Wanganui south of Karamea. Presumably these are next. Then it will be the turn of Akaroa and the Waitaki…

In the name of diversity, then, uniformity is to be imposed. This is a familiar story also. In the name of freedom we are all more and more required to think and speak in the same way. No diverse views on the Treaty; one politically-correct attitude on many matters; less and less freedom in a thousand ways to live our lives as we would like to.

Another thought occurs to me about Wanganui. If we must have the name with an h, then I assume that to change the name of the city completely to something else would be even more offensive. Would that be a reasonable assumption? After all, to change ‘Wanganui’ back to ‘Petre’, say, (the town’s original name) involves altering quite a few letters. I can imagine that Wanganui’s case might well be used in future as a precedent for arguing that the ‘real’ names of all places are the Maori names, which we should return to and which may never be altered. Let us wait and see….

What is even more offensive is that this uniform h is being imposed at a time when there is less respect for the English language than ever before. The standard of English displayed by many teachers and news media presenters is disgraceful. I am not just talking about pedantic minor points, but gross errors of grammar and pronunciation. We can hear them in practically every news bulletin. As for the apostrophe…..! I would have more sympathy for Maori language purists if the same degree of respect and care were to be accorded to English. But when our own native tongue is despised and abused I see even less reason to entertain a spurious Maori claim.

We notice the pathetic resort to legalism. It seems that the name without the h has never been officially gazetted ~ official practice being a little more relaxed a century and a half ago. This is supposed to make the name change all right. In the same way divisive biculturalism and long Maori speeches to audiences that do not understand them are justified on the ground that Maori is ‘an official language’ of New Zealand . It is indeed; but that legal status does not render it automatically comprehensible. Long speeches in any incomprehensible tongue are not done for the purpose of communication; they are rather making a political point, as well as being gravely discourteous; and I cannot but think that it is a political point, rather than any concern about pronunciation, that lurks behind the h.

And then there is the question of democracy. Treatyists have never been keen on this, because they know full well that their extremist views enjoy little popular support. I learnt long ago never to believe the pious cant that Treatyists ‘disagree with what I had to say but would fight to the death for my right to say it’. Treatyism has always been very intolerant of other points of view, and the mere fact that another point of view is held by the majority of the population does not make it any better. Their attitude is that ‘error has no rights’. There is no doubt that a majority of the citizens of Wanganui ~ and indeed of the whole country ~ would prefer their city’s name to stay as it is. A recent New Zealand Herald poll found that 71% of all New Zealanders would prefer to keep the name as it is now, and only 20% were in favour of inserting an h. 75% believed that the wishes of the citizens of Wanganui should be respected, and only 17% thought that local wishes should be overridden.

Yet as usual the popular will counts for nothing with the Treatyists. Treatyism is a matter of alleged ‘rights’, and ‘rights’, as we already now, cannot be the subject of debate! Rights are thing which one is entitled to, and the duty of everyone else is simply to hand over the demanded thing at once, no questions asked. This refusal to recognise the validity of democratic opinion is standard practice in all Treaty arguments. Very often there is not even an attempt made to justify it. In 1999, for example, Professor Jock Brookfield of the University of Auckland wrote an entire book of great foolishness (Waitangi and Indigenous Rights: Revolution, Law and Legitimation) which, although allegedly considering questions of justice, virtually ignored the claims and even existence of the majority of the population. Only in the conclusion were non-Maori mentioned, and even then only as a narrow-minded impediment to what would otherwise evidently be a happy reconciliation between that mysterious ‘Crown’ and Maori. For most of the book, you might have thought that there were hardly any non-Maori in New Zealand , and that they were living under an absolute monarchy that could do what it pleased.

(When a justification is offered for a failure to respect democracy, it is usually the entirely specious argument that the Treaty was between Maori and the ‘Crown’, and the people of New Zealand , not being the Crown, are not entitled to any say in the matter. I shall deal with this argument more fully in future, but it is nonsense. The Crown is not just Her Majesty, but the government of New Zealand by the people themselves. Parliament and people captured the Crown some centuries ago. In the last resort, we, the people, are the government; in a constitutional monarchy we are, in a very real sense, the Crown.)

Anyway: in the matter of the Wanganui, as in all Treaty matters, the will of the people counts for nothing. I imagine this point is, sadly, reasonably clear.

Pita Sharples, the Minister of Maori Affairs, clearly uneasy about this lack of popular sympathy, has urged people to ‘embrace’ the Geographic Board’s decision and ‘accept it as a powerful unifying force in the life and future of the city’. This is a bit rich. How about accepting the will of the majority as a unifying force? But no, the Minister imagines that the wishes of less than one fifth of the population should be imposed on everyone else and then accepted by them as a ‘unifying force’. This rather reminds me of the doomed campaign several years ago to change our country’s flag. Even after it became quite clear that only a minority of the population wanted to change our flag, the Sunday Star-Times urged in an editorial that this unpopular change should be forced on a majority of the population as a symbol of national unity!

Not only do the supporters of the h have no time for democracy, they have no time for history either. As I say, it is clear that the local pronunciation has never had an h, and that is reflected in the spelling of 170 years ago when the local settlers petitioned the Governor to change their town’s name to Wanganui from the earlier Petre. If they were the sort of people who despised the Maori tongue and desired to mangle it, after all, they would hardly have wanted a Maori name for their town in the first place. But leave that aside for a moment. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the original pronunciation had had an h. Even then, 170 years have gone by since. The name without the h has taken on a life of its own. The English and Maori parts of our history would have come together in this new word, just as the races themselves have come together. To remove the h would be to deny our history.

(In the King Country there is a settlement called Utiku. Utiku is not a Maori name; it is a Maorified form of Utica , the city in North Africa where that great austere Roman republican Cato the Younger (later known as Cato of Utica) took his own life rather than submit to Caesar. A nineteenth century Maori chief of the locality so admired Cato that he named his own settlement Utica . By the Geographic Board’s argument, we would have to change Utiku back to Utica .)

Even were the h there originally, Wanganui without the h is now a word in its own right, and reinserting it would be swimming against the tide. Indeed, the tide is running out for the Maori language itself. Despite all attempts to promote it, it is spoken ‘fluently’ by only about 18,000 New Zealanders, and some of the most prominent Maori activists are not in that number. Many more can utter a few standard phrases, of course. Maori is becoming like Latin, a language of ceremonial and ritual only; just as a genuinely distinct Maori race is inevitably being absorbed into the greater population. Arguments such as this one over the h, even if based on better history than this one is, can only promote popular impatience and irritation, and do the cause of the Maori language more harm than good. But in any case, the extinction of Maori as a living language is only a matter of time. That will be a matter of regret in one sense, for it is sad to see variety and richness disappear from the earth; but insofar as it removes one ground of dispute and brings us a little closer to becoming one people, it will not be altogether a bad thing.