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Putting the ‘h’ back in Wanganui

Governing bodies have a responsibility to protect and respect our indigenous language, and that includes correct spelling, writes Rawiri Taonui.

A battle looms between “Wanganui” rednecks versus “Whanganui” Maori and their enlightened Pakeha cohorts as iwi prepare for another tilt at getting the “h” put back into “Wanganui”.

The spelling issue was raised first before the Waitangi Tribunal and then in an unsuccessful application to the Human Rights Commission. The name of the river was corrected in 1991, but not that of the city. A new application is being prepared for the National Geographic Board.

Te Runanga o Tupoho say “Whanganui” (meaning great harbour or expanse of water) is important because it was named by their ancestor, Hau of the Aotea waka, more than 600 years ago, and that “Wanganui” is a meaningless corruption.

The leader of the Wanganui-ists, Mayor Michael Laws, has told iwi to stuff off and fix child abuse. Mr Laws seems to have one law for English and another for te reo, arguing “Wanganui” is the proper phonetic pronunciation. An odd claim for sure. The English, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Canadians, Americans, Australians, South Africans and New Zealand “R” rolling Southlanders all pronounce English words quite differently. However, spelling remains the same because that is what preserves the integrity of the language.

He applies another cultural double standard, contending that the spelling doesn’t matter either because Maori was an oral language before Pakeha missionaries transcribed it into writing. However, the same applies for all languages – a century or two ago most Europeans couldn’t write. At one time more Maori were literate than Pakeha, hence the “h” spelling mistake.

Further, the “h” in Whanganui is silent, and we don’t delete the silent “h” in honest, and dishonest. And let’s be honest, Mr Laws’ passion for the “h” error has more to do with ethnicity than linguistics.

Unfortunately, such views find fertile ground in the small minds of some villagers, where people like Mr Laws parade as local versions of nationally divisive figures like Don Brash. That sort of rubbing might work with not very bright constituents for a time but it doesn’t work in leadership over the long run.

Patronising attitudes toward indigenous languages are not new. The actions of colonisers and governments varied according to circumstance.

Indigenous languages were popular when settlers were dependent upon indigenous populations for survival, traders wanted to make money, missionaries wished to secure souls, administrators were building infrastructure and indigenous people were useful allies against other colonial powers.

When colonisers no longer required then, first-people languages were stigmatised as obstacles to progress. Indigenous children the world over were beaten for speaking their native language at schools, placenames bastardised, pronunciations corrupted and languages expunged.

Indigenous languages in North America, Australia and New Zealand were weakened to the point of extinction. In New Zealand, Maori, the tribunal, courts and the Crown have done much to address this.

Te reo is a taonga under Article Two of the Treaty of Waitangi. The Crown, who failed to protect the language by actively marginalising it, now executes a duty to revitalise, preserve and protect it; and so Maori is an official language, and the Maori Language Commission, Maori radio and television and Maori Language Week exist.

Placenames have been corrected: Egmont is once again Taranaki, Mt Cook is Aoraki-Mt Cook, Urinui (big descendant) is correctly Urenui (big descendant making thing).

Mr Laws and his council are an extension of governance and therefore have a similar duty of protection and respect.

There is also recourse in International Law. The 1989 International Labour Organisation Convention (No 169) concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries and the recently passed United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) also recognise the duty of countries to respect indigenous languages. Either the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racism or the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issueswould be appropriate forums.

The UN Human Rights Council has already heard and found in favour of several indigenous- language cases. That would put the “h” on the map again.

A 2006 survey claimed 82 per cent of 13,900 Whanganuians did not want change. That view doesn’t resonate with the many Pakeha businesses, tourist operators and Whanganui Health Board who have “h-ed up”. Iwi claim the survey was a stunt.

International law goes beyond that norm, promoting the right of indigenous languages to protection regardless of relative demographic size. Majority groups cannot vote away the culture of a minority partner. Democracy is a right to act responsibly for the benefit of all peoples – not the right to tyrannise minorities by smuggery.

Whanganui is more respectful to the original language, will be in line with international trends and heal some of the rifts that divide what is otherwise a pleasant place. It’s also an opportunity for those tolerant souls with open minds to broaden their vocabulary, improve their spelling and pronounce the name in the regional dialect, a guttural sound for “whanganui”, rather than the uncultured and inferior “wonga-nui”.

Indigenous languages now enjoy protection and status in many places, including Norway, Finland, Sweden, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Hawaii, Wales, Ireland, Quebec, the Canadian Northwest Territories and New Zealand – except of course in one small town with a name that has no meaning, which is a pity because it would be good to see both Maori and Pakeha referring to the same place when uttering the old saying “Ko matou te awa, ko te awa ko matou” (we are the river and the river is us).

Shed the baggage and paddle the great Whanganui River together.

* Rawiri Taonui is head of the School of Maori and Indigenous Studies at Canterbury University.

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