When soccer fans land in New Zealand this month ahead of the Women’s World Cup, they may find themselves welcomed not to Auckland or Wellington, but to “Tāmaki Makaurau” (“Tah-mah-key Ma-kow-row”) or “Te Whanganui-a-Tara” (“Tay Fung-a-noo-ee a Tah-rah”).
Those names — what the cities are called in the country’s Indigenous language, te reo Māori — are reflected in the official documents for this year’s Women’s World Cup, which has placed Indigenous languages and imagery unapologetically at the forefront.
Every city that will host a match is listed with its English and Indigenous names, and FIFA announced this month that it would fly First Nations and Māori flags in every stadium. The effort came after soccer and government officials in the host nations pushed for a more inclusive approach, and it “will mean so much to so many,” the head of Australia’s soccer federation said.
In New Zealand, the decision reflects an ongoing conversation about the nation’s identity. For decades, many New Zealanders routinely mangled and mispronounced the Māori names of the country’s cities and towns. Taupō (“Toe-paw”) was pronounced “Towel-po.” Ōtāhuhu (Oh-tah-hu-hu) was “Oter-hu.” And Paraparaumu (“para-para-oo-moo”) was sometimes simply referred to as “Pram.”
More recently lawmakers, broadcasters and much of the general public have cast out those mispronunciations as part of a concerted national effort to say the names correctly. At the same time, many are choosing to use their cities’ original Māori names over their English alternatives. Last year, a formal petition to rename the country altogether and restore all Māori names was signed by more than 70,000 people.
“Before, it felt like a choice to say the names right,” said Julia de Bres, a linguist at Massey University in New Zealand. “And now it feels like a choice not to.”
Visitors should absolutely use those names, as well as the common greeting “kia ora” (“key ow-rah”), said Hemi Dale, the director of Māori medium education at the University of Auckland.
“Once you grasp the vowels, you can get your tongue around most of the words — long sounds, short sounds, the macron,” the horizontal line above a vowel that indicates a stressed syllable, he said.
(A note: New Zealanders overseas — of any descent — will often permit themselves an internal wince at how foreigners say the word “Māori.” The correct pronunciation is closest to “Mao-ree,” and never “May-or-i.” The plural is simply “Māori,” without an “s,” which does not appear in the language.)
The championing of Māori place names is visible throughout New Zealand life: Increasingly, New Zealanders call their homeland Aotearoa, the Māori name that is often translated as “land of the long white cloud” and that has been used by Māori to refer to the country for decades, if not centuries. Māori and English names are used by the country’s weather forecasting service, on newly released official maps and on signs on the nation’s roads.
The changes are an effect of a decades-long movement to revitalize a language that risked being extinguished by colonialism, said Rawinia Higgins, the country’s Māori language commissioner.
As English-speaking settlers became the dominant population, Māori and their language were sidelined and suppressed. As late as the 1980s, Māori children were beaten at school for speaking the language, and many adults chose not to pass it on to their families.
Starting in the 1970s, the Māori language revival movement has led to te reo’s being adopted as one of the country’s two official languages, alongside sign language, and the establishment of nearly 500 early childhood schools in which Māori is spoken exclusively.
Many non-Māori New Zealanders have embraced the change, and there are long wait lists for Māori language courses. The government aims to have one million New Zealanders — roughly one-fifth of the population — speaking basic Māori by 2040.
But for a small but vocal minority, a bicultural society is viewed as divisive rather than inclusive.
Last year, after the chocolatier Whittakers temporarily changed the packaging on its milk chocolate bars to read Miraka Kirīmi (Creamy Milk), some in New Zealand called for a boycott of the brand. The question of bilingual road signs has taken on outsize importance ahead of this year’s general election, where questions of racial politics have become a feature of the center-right’s rhetoric.
Place names, as some of the more visible examples of the shift, have become caught in the fray. Lost in that debate is the reality that the country’s colonial names often had little to do with the places they related to.
Christchurch, for instance, was named to recall a college at the University of Oxford, while the name Auckland was bestowed as a thank you to George Eden, the Earl of Auckland. Eden was the boss of a former governor of New Zealand, William Hobson, who chose the name. Eden never set foot in the city.
By contrast, Māori place names reflect location-specific information, including important stories or where food might be found, said Hana Skerett-White, a Māori teacher, advocate and translator who has worked with artists such as the singer Lorde.
“The Māori names tell us stories,” she said. “They speak of our history, of important events, and they actually act as pockets of knowledge, which is how we transmit information from generation to generation.
“When those names are taken away, so too are our knowledge systems disrupted in the process.”
English translations for Tāmaki Makaurau, as Auckland is known in Māori, vary. One version indicates that the city, with its palm-fringed harbors and volcanoes, is a place desired by many. Another tells the story of Tāmaki, a beautiful princess, and her many admirers.
From a Māori perspective, each understanding is equally valid, and individual tribes, or iwi, may approach it differently, said Pāora Puru, a Māori language advocate and a co-founder of the Māori social enterprise Te Manu Taupua.
“People have their own interpretations, their own meaning,” he said. “I liken it to an invisible umbilical cord that connects you to that place, and to your ancestors’ traditional connection, association, occupation or use of that particular area.”