W hat I believe to be genuine and authentic the collected publications of William Colenso



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§ III. Philological.


40. The New Zealand tongue is a distinct dialect of the great Polynesian language; spoken more or less throughout most of the numerous isles in the Pacific Ocean lying east of the longitude of New Zealand. It consists of fifteen letters—five vowels and ten consonants; of the latter, two may be called double, though having each but one sound. No two consonants can possibly come together, and every syllable and every word ends with a vowel. The New Zealand dialect has ten principal subdivisions, which cannot however, with propriety, be termed subdialects, viz.:—(1) Rarawa, or Northern; (2) Ngapuhi, or Bay of Islands; (3) Waikato; (4) Roturua and Taupo; (5) Bay of Plenty; (6) East Cape and Poverty Bay; (7) Hawke’s Bay to the Straits; (8) Ngatiawa, or Wellington to Taranaki; (9) The Middle Island; and (10) [45] Chatham Islands. In all these sub-divisions the grammatical structure is the same, with very slight variations; the principal differences being found in words and idioms. There are, however, three exceptions as to the change or dropping of a consonant:—(1.) The Bay of Plenty, where n is used for ng; (2.) The Ngatiawa tribes, from Wellington to Taranaki, who alone, of the New Zealanders, have a very peculiar mode of expressing the h by a kind of guttural click, or half expressed hiatus, or semi-stop; and (3.) The Ngaitahu in the Middle Island, who use k for ng. It is highly worthy of notice, that all these differences are also found in the dialects of the various island groupes, though not as in New Zealand—all in the one dialect of one island, or group.

41. Its Grammar is peculiar, as compared with those of western languages; having neither declension of nouns by inflection, nor conjugation of verbs as there obtains; all such being clearly done by simple particles affixed or suffixed. Its singular is changed into the plural number by prefixing a syllable. There is no auxiliary verb “to be;” but the particle ano often supplies its place. Every verb has a causative, as well as active and passive meanings. Intensitives, superlatives, and diminutives abound. It has double dual pronouns, and also a double plural; both of which may be termed inclusive and exclusive; allowing of great grammatical precision in speaking. It has several articles, singular and plural, and is rich in prepositions, adverbs, conjunctions and particles; each bearing delicately different shades of meaning. The New Zealanders all speak grammatically from their infancy, and never make any mistake in pronunciation. The same may also be said of the writing of the most untaught among them; with the exception of their elision of terminal and initial vowels, and their division of words. These, however, arise from their close adherence to their quick pronunciation.

42. The Language is remarkable for its euphony, simplicity, brevity, clearness, and copiousness. For its euphony, it is not only indebted to its not having two or more consonants coming together, and no word ever ending with a consonant, but to the copious use of the vowel i, (pronounced ee,) to the sound of its semi-liquid r (approaching l,) and to several vowels often closely following, together with a quick flowing elision of others. Its simplicity arises from one word, or root, being noun, verbal noun, adjective, or verb; requiring merely the addition of a simple short particle; and from the peculiarity of its idiom. It knows of no circumlocution. All long, involved parenthetical sentences, are utterly foreign to it. Its brevity is often quite laconic; and while exceedingly terse, contains great beauty and power of expression. It is very clear and exact, as shown by its many singular and plural articles, and double dual, and double plural pronouns; its various modes of address, according to age, sex, and rank; and its many intensitive and diminutive particles. While its copiousness may be readily inferred, from its having proper names for every natural thing however small—different names for a tree and its fruit, and for every part of a vegetable whether above or below ground, and for young and adult fish of the same species—for everything made by them, and for each of all its various parts—for every kind of tattooing, and each line and marking of the same—and upwards of fifty names for a sweet potato, and forty for a [46] common one. Nevertheless, in words for abstract ideas, unknown to the New Zealanders, such as hope, gratitude, mercy, charity, etc., it is deficient; as also for many new things. It does not, however, follow, that an intelligent New Zealander, wishing to speak of any such, would not easily find suitable expressions wherewith to make himself quickly and clearly understood, and convey a very correct idea to the minds of the hearers. The writer has never known an old New Zealander (or a young one who knew his own language), ever to be at a loss accurately and minutely to describe whatever he wished of any new thing or transaction to his countrymen; at the same time it is believed by him, that the New Zealand language is but a remnant of what it once was, and is fast going to decay.

43. There is one Peculiarity of their Language, or rather, of their manner of dealing with it, that requires notice. If a principal chief should bear the name of anything, or be named with any word in common use, that thing would thenceforth, by his own tribe and friends, be called by some other name, and the word be changed for another. After his death, or after he began to be forgotten, such new names and words might drop, and the old words be again commonly used; but if such a chief had lived long, had great influence, and was either severe or greatly loved, (so as to make him to be respected, and the disuse of the said words more general and certain,) it is easy to see that the old terms would not always be restored; which in time must tend to make a great alteration in the language. No doubt to this source not a few of its strange aberrant words are to be rightly attributed. {Note 31}

44. They have many Proverbs and Sayings, and not a few Fables, most of which are very amusing, even to a European. Their proverbs are mostly derived from observation and experience; many of them express much wisdom, and serve to prove how very highly industry and skill was prized by their ancestors. One or two may be here quoted, although, like all others, they lose much by translation:—

“For the winter seek fuel, but food for the year.

“Plenty of food, plenty of vigour.

“Stand (to work) and thrive, squat and want food.

“Hasty to eat, lazy to dig.

“The seeker finds.

“Lazy hand, gluttonous throat.

“A wooden spear can be parried, not so a mouth one, (an accusation.)

“Will the escaped wood-hen return to the snare?

“Dark-skin and red-skin united will do it, (that is, the cultivation by chiefs and slaves together; formerly the chiefs always anointed themselves with a red pigment.)

“With the brave in war is great uncertainty, with the brave in cultivation is sure reward.

“A lazy and sleepy man will never be rich.

“Labour’s gains are carried off by do-nothing.”

Their sayings were mostly laconical expressions of men of other days, indicative of their feelings at having lost, or gained; and (as their stories were well known) were used as cautions and warnings. Their Fables were very natural and correct, and mostly conversational between animals, or natural objects; such as:—between the large rock lizard and the red gurnard; the cod-fish and the fresh water eel; the common [47] shark and the large lizard; the rat and the green parroquet; the sweet potato and the edible fern root; and the paper mulberry tree and the New Zealand cork tree. Had they more and larger animals, they might have had a volume of fables, rivalling those of Æsop, or of Pilpay.



Their Poetry was plentiful and various, and suited to all times and conditions—peace or war, work and ease, love and death, constancy and despair. Being naturally of a cheerful disposition, they were often humming a stanza, or verse; and frequently beguiled the monotonous drudgery of some of their heavier work, performed together in company, with suitable inspiriting chaunts and songs, in which all joined in chorus, and which always had a surprising effect. In many of their old songs, as in their proverbs, industry is highly praised. Such heavy work comprised, paddling of war canoes—or dragging them out, when new, from the forests (which they sometimes did up and down hill and ravines for many a mile)—or over necks of land (peninsulas) on their voyages—or when digging together in their cultivations, or fern lands, with their wooden spades. The funereal wails and dirges, were only used on occasions of death; to attempt to use them at any other time was considered highly improper. Their war-songs and defiances, contained horrible curses, and were truly ferocious, and must especially have so sounded in the ears of a New Zealander. Several of their love songs possess tender and affecting passages; a selection from them would bear comparison with the most celebrated ones of Britain. Their sentimental songs, expressive of abandonment, loneliness, and despair, contain much pathos, and simply sung in their peculiar low notes and melancholy cadence, are very affecting. They had also baby-songs, which they chaunted to their infants. The whole of their poetry, while often possessing pleasing natural images and strong gushing sentimental utterances, was equally destitute of rhyme and metre; which deficiency they managed to get over in the using, by lengthening and shortening vowels and words—much after the manner of a chaunt. Proving here, as at the antipodes, that the popular mind always conceives of something in poetry far higher than mere versification. From a close examination, however, of their poetry, it is apparent, that the New Zealand poet had taken some pains towards rhythm—a first step as it were, towards shapeliness; the blocks and logs had been rough-hewn and riven, though neither file nor chisel had ever approached them. This is seen—in the frequent omission of grammatical particles, in the abbreviation of proper names—in the ellipsis of portions of words and sentences—in the curious divisions of words at the end of a line, (half being in one line and half in another)—in the unusual lengthening of vowels—and in the peculiar reduplication of syllables. It is this which makes it so difficult to understand or translate. Much of their poetry is very old; none, worthy of notice, has been produced by the present generation. All the various poetical effusions—praises and laments—which from time to time during the last twenty years have appeared, respecting our several Governors, Her Majesty the Queen, the late Prince Albert, etc., etc., are old, and merely hashed up again (perhaps for the hundredth time) and dexterously improvised for the occasion. A characteristic of the New Zealander, and one in which they greatly excel. Much of the so-called “translations” of New Zealand poetry, which have been from time to time printed, are not really such; (not [48] even allowing the utmost latitude to the translator;) they are mostly wild paraphrases, not unfrequently lacking the ideas of the original.

46. Like other rude martial unlettered nations, the New Zealanders had many Traditions, Legends, and Myths. These were on all subjects, from the gravest and most sublime to the most puerile and ridiculous; not unfrequently the same myth containing both. Some of them are, no doubt, of very ancient date; others, while still old, are more modern, and have modern interpolations. The language in all is modern, much more so than in several of their songs. With most, if not all nations, their early religion and early history is blended with fable; but there is this difference with the New Zealander, that the large proportion of his traditions and myths are neither religious nor historical, and were not believed to be such by the intelligent among them. Their common myths vary a little; a few considerably, in the various districts (especially those relating to the arrival in New Zealand of their immigrant ancestors); but not more than might be reasonably expected from such a people. They all show their common New Zealand source; and, as far as is known, vary very much indeed from anything similar among the Polynesian race. To understand them they should be read and studied in their original New Zealand language; in their roughness and originality; not in either the meagre, or the polished semi-classical, dress, which some of them have been made to assume in translations. The celebrated myths of dry land and sky; of Maui fishing up the North Island of New Zealand; of his obtaining fire for man; of his seizing and beating the sun, to have longer daylight; and of the untimely death of the hero through the laughing of the little New Zealand flycatcher; of the ascent to heaven of Rupe and of Tawhake; of the arrival of the first New Zealanders in this country; and many others;172 are all so many indications of the mind of man groping after truth in ages long past. In the writer’s opinion many of those myths will be found to be allegorical.

“The intelligible is food to that which understands.—For the paternal intellect, which understands Intelligibles, and adorns things ineffable, has sowed Symbols through the world.”
Zoroaster

47. A few words must be said about their Oratory, or rather, oratorical language. Some of the New Zealanders were truly natural orators, and consequently possessed in their large assemblies great power and influence. This was mainly owing, next to their tenacious memories, to their proper selection from their copious expressive language; skilfully choosing the very word, sentence, theme, or natural image best fitted to make an impression on the lively impulsive minds of their countrymen. Possessing a tenacious memory, the orator’s knowledge of their traditions and myths, songs, proverbs, and fables, was ever to him an exhaustless mine of wealth. For the New Zealander, both speaker and hearer, never tired of frequent repetition, if pregnant and pointed. All the [49] people well knew the power of persuasion—particularly of that done in the open air—before the multitude. Hence, before anything of importance was undertaken, there were repeated large open-air meetings, free to all, where the tribe or confederates were brought into one way of thinking and acting by the sole power of the orator. Their auditories applauded and encouraged with their voice, in an orderly manner, as with us. Not unfrequently has the writer sat for hours (some twenty or thirty years ago) listening with admiration to skilled New Zealand speakers arousing or repressing the passions of their countrymen—scarcely deciding which to admire the most—their suitable fluent diction, their choice of natural images, their impassioned appeals, or their graceful action! No young New Zealander of the present generation knows anything practically of natural Maori eloquence; arising not so much from colonisation and its many new things and ideas, as from a real deficiency in his knowledge of the past, and of the New Zealand language.



48. Several Europeans now speak the New Zealand language; few, however, correctly; still fewer idiomatically; and scarcely any in such a way as to be wholly grateful (reka) to a native’s ear. The reason is, their ideas, language, and gesture (if any) are altogether foreign. They have never thought, or cared to think, in Maori; hence, while many of them are ready to speak of the meagreness of the New Zealand tongue, the leanness is entirely on their own side. There are not a few Europeans who have grown grey in service in New Zealand, and who have been speaking (in their way) the language every day of their lives, who neither speak it correctly nor clearly understand it. Some Europeans have even ventured to write “learnedly” upon it! using (without acknowledgment) the material obtained by others, and racking and distorting by turns Hebrew, Sanscrit, Arabic, Greek, Coptic, Spanish, and many others; never once suspecting their own ignorance of that of New Zealand! It is surprising how few words—and those of the common every-day sort—suffice to talk daily with natives (or ourselves), especially when that intercourse is mainly of one kind. It is also remarkable how very soon natives get to know the true mental calibre of a white man; to gauge, as it were, his knowledge of their language and of themselves, and to say and act accordingly. Setting wholly aside for the time, with him, their own true grammar, pronunciation, and idiom, to suit and accommodate him; while he does not perceive or suspect it. Not a few of our old missionaries, officials, and settlers, are thus continually being politely treated by them—from the old native woman down to her little toddling grandchild. It is also to be regretted, that not unfrequently the translations made for the Government of English documents into the New Zealand language, are more or less faulty; partly, no doubt, owing to the translator’s contracted knowledge of the English language, and partly to the faulty correction of such printed documents. As, in the New Zealand tongue, the typographical error of a single letter is sure to alter the meaning of that word, and not unfrequently the whole sentence!

49. It is an astonishing fact, and one worthy of close attention from future philologists, that the Polynesian language, of which the New Zealand is a branch dialect, is commonly spoken by people scattered over [50] one-tenth of the whole globe! Throughout an island area, containing eighty degrees of latitude, and seventy degrees of longitude, from the South Island of the New Zealand group, in 47° S. lat., to the North Island in the Sandwich group, in 22° N. lat., and from the west coast of New Zealand, in long. 167° E., to Easter Island in 109° W., is this great Polynesian language spoken. It has also been detected,173 in names of places, and in sentences used, in the Island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean; although, from its not having been adopted by the Missionaries there in their translations, it is considered (viewed from this distance) as probably belonging to an older form of the present Malagase, or to a distinct and more ancient language. The Polynesian is therefore peculiarly an island language, being nowhere found on the main land in either the east or west continents; or in any of the larger semi-continental islands of the world. Another interesting fact is, that while there are many known dialects in use, some of which differ greatly among the various islands and groups within the above-mentioned area, the extreme outlying ones, viz., the Sandwich Islands on the north; New Zealand on the south and west; and Easter Island on the east, are those possessing the dialects nearest to each other, in several instances the words and sentences being identically the same.174 Williams, of the London Mission, (who spent many years among the islands,) considered the principal dialects as being eight in number, viz.:—The Sandwich, the Tahitian and Society, the Marquesan, the Austral, the Hervey, the Samoan, the Tongan, and the New Zealand. The number of letters required to form an alphabet in each of these dialects is about the same; although while one, as the New Zealand retains the h, the Hervey dismisses it; for the New Zealand wh, the Tahitian, Samoan, and Tongan have f; for the New Zealand w, the Austral and Marquesan have v. The nasal New Zealand sound, ng, is also used in the Hervey, Samoan, and Tongan, but it is rejected from the Tahitian, Sandwich, Marquesan, and Austral; the New Zealand k is also rejected by the Samoan, Austral, and Tahitian, while it is used by the Marquesan and Hervey Islanders, and serves for t in the Sandwich group. There can, however, be but little doubt, that had those dialects been reduced to writing by one man, or one party of men, the few differences which appear would be even less than they now are. At present it is almost difficult to say which of those eight should be considered as the standard or leading dialect; but while the writer has always inclined to the New Zealand, (partly from internal philological considerations, observed in comparing it with the cognate dialects,) and partly from the fact of its having—as already stated—remarkable affinity with those the more distant, e. g., Sandwich group and Easter Island, he is now strengthened in his opinion, in finding that Mr. Williams, (L.M.) was also nearly of the same opinion, although he knew very little indeed of that of New Zealand. He says, “I shall select the Tahitian as the standard, and compare the others with it. I do this, however, not because I think it the original; for the Hervey Islands dialect appears to possess superior claims to that title, as it is so much more extensively spoken, and bears a closer affinity to the [51] other dialects than the Tahitian, but because the latter was first reduced to system.” Now, as the Hervey Islands (Rarotonga) and the New Zealand dialects are very near each other, it will not perhaps be too much to assume that the New Zealand dialect (spoken, as it is, by the largest number of natives, and over the greatest area) is the standard or leading dialect; but this will be still more clear when its philological claims come to be considered.


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