Thursday, 27 March 2014


Note: The inconsistent use of macrons in this article is not a reflection of their linguistic importance, but only of the laziness of the author.

There aren't many linguistic challenges for an Australian moving to New Zealand, but the adoption into NZ English of words from Te Reo Maori does provide a few.  The ki ora when the plane landed was straight-forward enough, and whanau was clear from context.  Mana is a thornier term, but that's why it's a good import: it's a concept for which there is no one simple English equivalent.  When I first encountered the word pakeha, a kiwi colleague explained that it meant "white people" (my term; the usual term here is "New Zealand European"), but she didn't like it much because it literally meant "foreigner" (or something similar).

That made sense: names of peoples that boil down to "us" and "them" are pretty common around the world.  Consider the word Welsh: its root meaning is also "foreigner" (a bit rich from the invader).  The word Maori itself just means  "normal" (or "usual", or "natural"), hence they speak Te Reo Maori, "the normal language".  So in referring to themselves as Maori, and others as Pakeha, they are just displaying the usual cultural chauvinism.

However, recently I heard a very different meaning for pakeha: "pig eater".  Such a term could be applied to Europeans and their New Zealand descendants because the Maori ancestors did not bring any pigs to Aotearoa (it's a fair way off the usual Pacific routes, so presumably they ate any pigs they had during the journey).  It's a perceived meaning that causes some discontent.  It's a common phenomenon that we are disgusted by the idea of eating things we don't normally eat, and I guess that disgust can be transferred to the people who eat it. 

Alternatively, Wikipedia says:
It is also sometimes claimed that 'Pakeha' means white pig or unwelcome white stranger.
Have I misremembered, or is this another variant?  In any case, pakeha is clearly perceived by some white New Zealanders as a derogatory term.

Hmm, conflicting stories...what to do?  Well, here's what the OED says:
Etymology:  < Maori pākehā stranger.
1. A person who does not identify as Maori; spec. a New Zealander of European descent.
...and so forth.  The first cited example is quite early: 1817.  No mention of any dietary preferences.  Whilst the OED is authoritative, this is straying somewhat from its expertise.  Fortunately, there is also a New Zealand Oxford Dictionary.  The NZOD provides an equivalent definition, but is much more cautious about its etymology:
origin -- Maori Pākehā, of uncertain origin.
How coy!  The Maori Dictionary again simply has "New Zealander of European descent", but perplexingly marks it as a loan word (borrowed from a non-Polynesian language)!  The first cited usage it offers is interesting, however:
When the Māori heard the soft and loud sounds of the language of Captain Cook and his sailors the Māori called them 'Pakepakehā', which was shortened to 'Pākehā'. The Māori created this name. which is still used.
This is from a 1911 Maori language newspaper, and I fear a folk etymology.  The same dictionary gives:
pakē: (verb) to make a cracking noise, crack, creak, rustle.
Is it the implication of the above quote that Pakepakeha is built from pake and is therefore onomatopoeic in origin, akin to the Greek βάρβαρος?  I suspect the changes in vowel length could be informative, but alas am too ignorant of Polynesian languages!

The venerable Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary says that a Pakepakeha is:
a fairy.
I wonder if the typical Kiwi bloke would feel reassured knowing he's not being called a pig, but a fairy.  Wikipedia picks up this line of inquiry:
The etymology of Pākehā is unknown, although the most likely sources are the words pākehakeha or pakepakehā, which refer to mythical human-like creatures, with fair skin and hair, sometimes described as having come from the sea.
which is, I guess, a long way of saying "fairy".  And, certainly, Wikipedia will have no truck with this pig theory:
There is no etymological or linguistic support for this notion [pakeha > poaka, "pig"] – like all Polynesian languages, Māori is generally very conservative in terms of vowels; it would be extremely unusual for 'pā-' to derive from 'poaka'.

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