Indigenous rights

The history of Māori Language

The Māori Language Act 1987 declared Māori to be an 'official' language and created a right to use Māori in court proceedings. This article provides a perspective of the history, current use, and likely future of te reo Māori in the light of the new legislation.

Māori is the foundation language of New Zealand, the ancestral language of the tangata whenua and one of the taonga guaranteed protection under the Treaty of Waitangi. It also provides this country with a unique language identity in the rest of the world, as this is the only place where Māori is spoken widely. In more tangible terms, the Māori language is a powerful social force for the reconstruction of a damaged and deteriorated self-image among Māori youth, a vehicle of contribution to society, and therefore a means of regaining dignity. Finally, human freedom is dependent at all levels on choice and diversity; linguistic pluralism can be nothing other than a guardian of individual freedom and identity against the forces of conformism.

Although detailed statistics are not yet available, it is estimated that some 50,000 New Zealanders, almost all of Māori descent, are fluent speakers of Māori, while perhaps a further 100,000 understand the language. While such a figure exceeds the numbers of native speakers of many other indigenous languages in the South Pacific and elsewhere, the picture is far less reassuring when one considers the age profile of Māori speakers: about 40 percent are aged 55 and above, whilst approximately the same percentage are between 35 and 54 years of age. It is equally alarming that there are probably 10,000 fewer fluent speakers of Māori today than just 10 years ago.

In terms of absolute numbers, Auckland has the lion's share of Māori speakers, accounting for almost a third of North Island figures. But areas of concentration are also to be found in the secondary urban centres and rural communities of Northland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty and East Cape.

New Zealand Māori is most closely related to language such as Cook Islands Māori, Tahitian and Hawai'ian, and forms with them a language grouping known by linguists as Eastern Polynesian. It is more distantly related to other languages of Polynesia, such as Samoan and Tongan, and can eventually be linked with the languages of Melanesia, Indonesia, the Phillippines, Taiwan and Madagascar.


Pre-1840: Māori is the predominant language of New Zealand. It is used extensively in social, religious, commercial and political interactions among Māori, and between Māori and Pākehā. Education provided by missionaries is conveyed in Māori.

1840: Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Māori is the predominant language of New Zealand.

1842: First Māori language newspaper is published.

1850s: Pākehā population surpasses the  Māori population. Māori becomes a minority language in New Zealand.

1858: First official census to collect data about  Māori records a population of 56,049 Māori people.

1867: Native Schools Act decrees that English should be the only language used in the education of Māori children. The policy is later rigorously enforced.

1870s: Following the New Zealand Wars, society divides into two distinct zones, the Māori zone and the Pākehā zone. Māori is the predominant language of the Māori zone.

1890s: Many Māori language newspapers publish national and international news. Māori is the predominant language of the Māori zone.

1896: Māori population, as recorded by official census, reaches lowest point. A Māori population of 42,113 people is recorded.

1913: Ninety percent of Māori school children are native Māori speakers. Te Puke ki Hikurangi, Te Mareikura and other Māori newspapers publish national and international news and events in Māori as well extensive coverage of farming activities.

1920s: Sir Āpirana Ngata begins lecturing Māori communities about the need to promote Māori language use in homes and communities, while also promoting English language education for Māori in schools.

1930s: Māori remains the predominant language in Māori homes and communities. The use of English begins to increase, and there is continued support for English-only education by some Māori leaders.

1940s: Māori urban migration begins.

1950s: Māori urban migration continues. Māori families are 'pepper-potted' in predominantly non-Māori suburbs, preventing the reproduction of Māori community and speech patterns. Māori families choose to speak English, and Māori children are raised as English speakers.

1960s: Play centre supporters encourage Māori parents to speak English in order to prepare Māori children for primary school.

1961: Hunn Report describes the Māori language as a relic of ancient Māori life.

Early 1970s: Concerns for the Māori language are expressed by Māori urban groups including Ngā Tamatoa and Te Reo Māori Society.

1972: Māori Language Petition signed by 30,000 signatories sent to Parliament.

1973-78: NZCER national survey shows that only about 70,000 Māori, or 18-20 percent of Māori, are fluent Māori speakers, and that most are elderly.

1975: Ngāti Raukawa, NgātiToa and Te Āti Awa initiate Whakatipuranga Rua Mano, a tribal development exercise which emphasises Māori language development.

1978: Rūātoki School becomes the first bilingual school in New Zealand.

1979-80: Te Ātaarangi movement established in an attempt to restore Māori language knowledge to Māori adults.

1980s: Experiments in Māori radio broadcasting lead to the establishment of Te Upoko o te Ika and Radio Ngāti Porou.

1981: Te Wānanga o Raukawa established in Ōtaki.

1982: Te Kōhanga Reo established in an attempt to instil Māori language knowledge to Māori infants.

1985: First Kura Kaupapa Māori established to cater for the needs of the Māori children emerging from Te Kōhanga Reo.

1985: Te Reo Māori claim WAI 11 brought before the Waitangi Tribunal by Ngā Kaiwhakapūmau i te Reo Māori. The number of Māori speakers is estimated to have fallen to about 50,000 or 12 percent of the Māori population.

1986: Te Reo Māori Report released by Waitangi Tribunal, recommending that legislation be introduced to enable Māori language to be used in Courts of Law, and that a supervising body be established by statute to supervise and foster the use of the Māori language.

1987: Māori Language Act passed in Parliment; Māori declared to be an official language and Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori established. Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust also established.

1989: Education Amendment Act provides formal recognition for Kura Kaupapa Māori and wānanga (Māori tertiary institutions). Government reserves radio and television broadcasting frequencies for use by Māori.

1991: Broadcasting Assets case initiated. Census records Māori population as 435,619.

1993: Māori broadcasting funding agency Te Māngai Pāho established to promote Māori language and culture. More than twenty iwi radio stations broadcast throughout the country.
Mai Time, Māori and Pacific focused youth television programme pilot launched.

1995: He Taonga Te Reo (Māori language year) celebrated. Hui Taumata Reo Māori held in Wellington. A national Māori language survey shows that the number of Māori adults that are very fluent speakers of Māori has fallen to about 10,000.

1996: Aotearoa Television Network broadcasts a trial free-to-air television service in the Auckland area. Mai Time, now broadcast on a weekly basis.

1997: A total of 675 Te Kōhanga Reo and 30 developing Te Kōhanga Reo cater to 13,505 children. There are 54 Kura Kaupapa Māori and three whare wānanga. Over 32,000 students receive Māori medium education and another 55,399 learn the Māori language.

1998: Government announces funding for Māori television channel and increased funding for Te Māngai Pāho. Government also announces that it has set aside a $15M fund for Community Māori Language Initiatives.

1999: Tūmeke, a Māori Language youth programme began screening on Television 4.

2000: Tūmeke changes broadcasters and name to Pūkana now showing on TV 3.

2001: Government announces its support and management structure for Māori Television channel. Government also announces that it will soon begin allocating the $15M fund.

2001: Uia Ngā Whetū: Hui taumata reo hosted in Wellington by Te Taura Whiri

2001: Health of the Māori Language Survey 2001 shows there are approximately 136,700 Māori language speakers.

2002: Uia Ngā Kāinga: Hui taumata reo hosted in Wellington by Te Taura Whiri

2002: Mā te Reo Fund established to support Māori language growth in communities.

2003: 7th Polynesian Languages Forum – Te Reo i te Whenua Tipu, Language in the Homeland

2003: Revised Government Māori Language Strategy launched

2003: Māori Television Service Act passed in Parliament

2004: Māori Television Service begins broadcasting 28 March. First inaugural Māori Language Week Awards held in Wellington 14 September.