Te Reo Māori is New Zealand’s second language and, although few non-Māori New Zealanders speak it fluently, it’s a bi-cultural society and Te Reo words are often used interchangeably with English in everyday language by everyone. This beginner’s guide to Te Reo Māori pronunciation and commonly used words will arm you with all the basics.
‘Kiwi English’ is a bit of a mishmash of British English, American English, Kiwi slang and Te Reo so alongside this post, I’ve also written a guide to Kiwi slang, which you can find here.
A beginner’s guide to Te Reo Māori pronunciation
Te Reo Māori has 15 distinct sounds, including 5 vowels (a, e, i, o, u), 8 consonants (h, k, m, n, p, r, t, w) and 2 digraphs (two letters that combine to form one sound; ng, wh).
The vowels can be a short sound or a long sound and they can also be combined (into diphthongs). A long sound is denoted with a macron (a line above the letter). You have to be careful to get this right as the length of the vowel can change the meaning of the word.
The consonants not listed below are pronounced the same as in English.
a – a (as in aloud)
ā – ar (as in are)
ae – ai (as in eye, said with a rising intonation)
ai – ai (said with a falling intonation)
ao – aow (as in crowd)
au – oh (os in ‘oh dear’)
e – eh (as in entry)
ē – ehr (as in there)
ea – eh-ah
ei – ey
eo – eh-oh (said with a rising intonation on the ‘oh’)
eu – eh-oh (said with a falling intonation on the ‘oh’)
i – ee (as in eat)
ī – ee (as in three)
ia – ee-ah
ie – ee-eh
io – ee-or
iu – ee-oo
ng – pronounced like the ng in ‘singer’
o – or (as in ordinary)
ō – or (as in pork)
oa – or-ah
oe – or-eh
oi – oi (as in oil)
ou – ohr
r – pronounced as a rolled r, which can sound a bit like a d. For example Kauri sounds very like Cody and is a popular boys name, as well as the name of a large indigenous tree.
t – At the beginning of a word, it sounds like a normal English ‘t’ sound but after vowels it’s much softer. After ‘a’, ‘e’ or ‘o’ it has no sibilant emphasis, almost like a ‘d’, and after ‘i’ and ‘u’ it only has a slight sibilant sound (tip: just bring your tongue further back on the roof of your mouth further from your teeth).
u – oo (as in two)
ū – oo (as in loot)
ua – oo-ah
ue – oo-eh
ui – oo-ee
uo – oo-or
wh – f (as in forest)
A beginner’s guide to Te Reo Māori words and phrases
Tip: When reading Te Reo, break the word into each syllable ending after every vowel (or diphthong).
New Zealand. Literally ‘Land of the long white cloud’.
Family (note that the Māori definition of family may be more extended than you are accustomed to; it may include anyone of importance including non-blood relatives, close friends and neighbours). Pronounced ‘faar-no’.
Traditional style of Māori cooking in an earth oven.
Large native conifer tree. Pronounced ‘ko-rrree’ with a rolled ‘r’.
I hope this guide to Te Reo Māori pronunciation and commonly used words is of use during your time in New Zealand. This may not be the only hurdle you encounter while conversing with Kiwis though! Some of the slang is just as puzzling if you’re unfamiliar with it! You can find a guide to Kiwi slang here.