The weapon of language

This week I am looking at Māori language and the historical context for the modern activism that has taken place.  Today’s post tickles the topic of the power of language as a tool to subdue a culture and some of the things that have happened to degrade the māori language.

Poet Adrienne Rich said “This is the oppressor’s languages yet I need it to talk to you.”

bell hooks American author, feminist and social activist.

In her book ‘Teaching to Transgress – Education as the practice of freedom‘, author bell hooks reflects on Rich’s words and the power of language. “I know that it is not the English language that hurts me, but what the oppressors do with it,  how they shape it to become a territory that limits and defines, how they make it a weapon that can shame, humiliate, colonize.”

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o wrote a book about the politics of language in African literature called ‘Decolonising the Mind’.  In it he asks what the colonialist imposition of a foreign language does. “The real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth: what they produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed; to  control, in other words, the entire realm of the language of real life…..Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.”

Ko te reo te mauri o te mana Māori

The language is the life force of the mana Māori

For cultures who have an oral tradition, language is the life-blood of their culture. It is the vessel that carries their histories, practices, beliefs and worldview from one generation to another. Māori have had to fight for the survival of te reo Māori.

maori_te_reoSadly there are generations of Māori today who do not carry their language within them and this can so often be traced back to parents or grandparents who were punished for speaking Māori in school.  This punishment connected their native tongue with shame and fear – something they did not want for their own children. This cuts close to home for me with my own Grandmother and Father affected by my Great-Grandmother’s experiences that led her to choose NOT to share her mother tongue with her children.

Some Key Dates

1850’s – Māori language became a minority language in Aotearoa/NZ.

1867 – The Native Schools Act – this determined that English should be the only language used in the education of Māori children.

1900 – Corporal punishment was the weapon of choice to stop Māori being spoken anywhere at school, including the playground.

1913 – 90% of Māori school children were native speakers of the language.

1931 – The New Zealand Federation of Teachers fought to have the Māori language introduced into the curriculum but were unsuccessful. T. B. Strong was the director of Education at the time and when he blocked their attempt he said “the natural abandonment of the native tongue involves no loss to the Māori.” What a charmer!

1940’s – The 28th Battalion joined the Allied Forces of World War II. Sadly as a result, a generation of male native speakers never made it home and so the number of speakers of the language was significantly reduced.

28th Māori Battalion in North Africa, 1941.

Vision – A Bilingual Nation

“By 1920, some Māori, Sir Āpirana Ngata amongst them, had begun advocating the teaching of the English language in Māori schools, as English had become the language of commerce. It is almost certain that these Māori believed that the marae, the home, and other Māori domains would ensure continued transmission of the language.  The vision was for a bilingual nation, or at least a bilingual Māori population, and they could not have foreseen the disintegrating of Māori communities that arose from the urban migration that followed the end of World War II.”

(John C Moorfield & E. Lorraine Johnston – Te reo Māori – Ki Te Whaiao, 2004.)

I haven’t been able to find a lot of examples of early activism in Aotearoa that was specific to language.  If you have read this far and you do know of some, please do leave a comment. I’m keen to learn!

Next Post Topic: Modern day activism for strengthening te reo Māori.

Further resources about languages around the world

Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language and the dictionary she created in an effort to keep her language alive.

TEDX Talk: Endangered languages: why it matters | Mandana Seyfeddinipur

National Geographic – Disappearing Languages – an interactive world map where you can learn about languages that are disappearing.

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