Amateur Linguistics

One of the most interesting parts of our trip to NZ was seeing Maori culture.  Sure, they package Maori culture specially for Western consumers eager to see something that they think is "primitive" or "wild," but it’s still interesting to see the history of the country’s first inhabitants.  Maori culture and language is (very) distantly related to that of the dominant groups in Indonesia and Malaysia, which is hard to see but you can find it if you look hard enough.  The most apparent way that we found was through comparing the Maori words that we figured out and their Malay/Indonesian equivalents.

As we’ve mentioned before, the greater Austronesian cultural and lingustic group stretches from Madagascar in the west to Easter Island in the east, and all the way north to Hawaii.  Roughly speaking, you can divide the linguistic group into an Eastern Austronesian group that covers all of the Pacific Ocean east of the Philippines, and a Western Austronesian group that includes Tagalog, Malay, Javanese, and the rest.  Naturally it’s far more complicated, but this is a good way to start.  The proto-Austronesian people originated in southern China around 10,000 years ago, and migrated south through the Malay peninsula, into Indonesia and then westward through the Philippines and out to colonize the Pacific.  (They skipped New Guinea and Australia.)  As people moved through the area, they blended with the people already there, except in the cases of the unpopulated Pacific islands where they were the first.  In the western group, later Sanskrit and Arabic influences were prominent in many abstract terms, but were absent in the eastern group.  The Maori only reached New Zealand around 800 AD, which makes NZ the last stop of the great Austronesian dispersion.

As languages grow and change, a general rule is the more basic the word or concept, the more likely it will be to remain the same or only change a little bit.  So terms like "ownership" or "anticipation" would likely be totally different between distantly related languages, but everyday terms would likely be more related.  Also, when a group colonizes a new area, it may have to invent new words for things its members have never seen before.  So Maori has a word for moa (a big extinct bird only found in NZ), but has lost any word for coconut, since coconuts do not grow in NZ.  Things that are common to all people speaking descendants of the proto-language–things like numbers, basic agricultural terms, pronouns, and basic geographical features–usually emerge relatively intact.

Without further ado, here’s our list of common words.  Remember, we only garnered these from museum displays and road signs, so there are probably many many more.  It’s nice to know that an undergraduate degree in linguistics is good for something.

Maori               Malay            English
ahau                 aku                I
koe                  (eng)kau      you (sg.)
ia                    (d)ia           he/she/it
wahine             wanita         woman
lalake               lelaki           man
mata               mata            eye
taringa            telingga        ear
puke                bukit            hill
pohatu             batu             rock, stone
ahi                   api               fire
ika                  ikan              fish
uwhi                ubi               yam
hua                  buah            fruit
mate               mati             die
atua (spirit)    Tuhan           God
pai                  baik             good
rahi                raya             great
rua                 dua              two
rima               lima              five
kapau             kalau             if