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Publishing • Production • Communications
  • Writer's pictureGrant McLachlan

How much of our culture is contrived?


A pipe band in Dunedin. PHOTO: ODT FILES



Is our changing culture making us any the wiser Grant McLachlan asks.


New Zealand’s culture is constantly changing.


The ways that it is changing to incorporate Maori, other ethnicities and orientations is a hot political topic. I am concerned that the reasons to justify adaptations lack robust fact-based scrutiny.


The incremental substitutions with Maori terms during the news hour has drawn controversy. "It’s Pidgin English," some say. "We’re being brainwashed", "I’m being socially engineered", "it’s woke rubbish," others say.


Accusations of racism and cancel culture often follow. Some question whether it is reasonable that media use more colloquial Maori terms as a condition of government monetary assistance.


English is a natural progression of an Anglo-Saxon Germanic language with Latin influences following the Norman invasion. Emigration, trade and colonisation assimilated language from other cultures.


Samuel Johnson’s original 1755 dictionary had 42,773 words. At last count, the Oxford English Dictionary had over 600,000 words, adding 650 new words in the past year.


So-called assimilation policies, however, banned the use of Gaelic and Welsh in British schools, much like the Maori language was prohibited in many New Zealand institutions. Now, government policies are incrementally increasing the use of Maori words and philosophies in journalism, signage and the branding of government agencies.


Many have suggested that New Zealand’s approach is based on Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Canadian methods. There are several noticeable distinctions.


Diacritical marks (those dashes above letters) often don’t appear on Gaelic, Welsh and French words. In those countries, names of government departments use direct translations rather than incorporating obscure spiritual references.


Take, for instance, legislation created the New Zealand Transport Agency — NZTA. The brand Waka Kotahi (which translates to "single vehicle") does not appear in any law. The same goes for the rebranded Ministry of Heath, Te Whatu Ora ("the living eye"), and the many incarnations of other agencies.


French names appear alongside English names in Canada. Here, either Maori names have appeared above or replaced familiar English names altogether.


Adding macrons to vowels is a recent adaptation. The uniformity of the Maori language dismantles the dialects that make iwi distinct.


My clan has the most pronunciations, mispronunciations, spellings and misspellings, yet we rarely see the need to correct people or ask for diacritical marks as we recognise that the differences record our history.


During the 18[3]0s* Highland Clearances, my family settled in Otago. Our Scottish understanding of the local Maori dialect spelt Otago and Kai Tahu that way in the same way that the "h" was silent in Whanganui and "wh" pronounced as a "f" by others. Any suggestion to "correct" the spelling to Ōtākou and Ngāi Tahu snubs history.


Dutch cartographers came up with the name New Zealand. When Tahitian navigator Tupaia assisted Captain Cook’s charting of New Zealand, Maori didn’t have a name for this archipelago. The two main islands were known as Ea Heinom Auwe (Te Ika a Maui) and Toai Poonamo (Te Waipounamu).


When James Busby and Tamati Waka Nene drafted the 1835 Declaration of Independence, our country was Nu Tireni — the transliteration of New Zealand. In the Treaty of Waitangi, this changed to Nu Tirani.


The first use of Aotearoa appeared in 1854 and many consider the term to exclusively refer to the North Island. Much like the silver fern appeared next to the koru on black aircraft during the flag debate, Aotearoa appeared on passports and names of government agencies as a subversive branding exercise with little scrutiny or well-informed democratic process.


With this in mind, Asia once only referred to an area in Turkey. Canada originally referred to the Iroquois village Kanata but became the name of a country through a democratic legislative process.


Satirist Thomas Bracken wrote a meaningful five-verse poem ridiculing the division ingrained in our culture. When Hinewehi Mohi sang a te reo version of that poem (written by a Native Land Court judge from England) at the 1999 Rugby World Cup, there was little constructive debate about what God Defend New Zealand actually meant.


My Scottish culture is as romantically contrived as any. We were superstitious, territorial cannibals who raided and enslaved. We assimilated tartans from France, bagpipes from Turkey, haggis from England, and then Sir Walter Scott and Robbie Burns sanitised and glorified the culture after the clans were crushed in the mid-1700s.


Our centuries-old systems of government are secular for good reason. The recent devolution of spiritualism without transparent scrutiny has fuelled divisive rhetoric, such as whether Maori deserve indigenous status.


Maori may have settled in these lands after the Battle of Bannockburn was fought in Scotland but the British recognised Maori sovereignty when they asked chiefs to cede it in exchange for property and human rights. Leaders like Sir Apirana Ngata reiterated that and argued successfully for redress to progress the nation as one people. Today’s leaders could learn a lot from them.


But, instead, here we are. Are we any the wiser — or united?


Grant McLachlan is a researcher and fifth generation alumni of the University of Otago.


*Relatives settled at Otago Heads in the 1830s, followed by other relatives who settled in Waikouaiti in 1849.

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