You say tomato, I say it’s all a load of baloney

by Stephen Ross
First Published: New Zealand Herald, Sep 1, 2005


There have been suggestions lately that Maori isn’t being spoken properly, or, as some would have it, correctly. Not the Maori language per se, but specifically, the pronunciation of Maori words by English speakers, place names, in particular.

To paraphrase Ira Gershwin: “You say TAUpo, I say TOEpo, let’s call the whole thing off!”

According to my third-form English teacher, the fundamental purpose of language is to communicate ideas and to be understood. And in 30-odd years, I’ve yet to hear a better or more concise definition.

Mangled Maori place names aside, just how do you say Wellington? WellingTIN or WellingTON?

English speakers aren’t just mispronouncing Maori, they’re also giving English a good thrashing.

For example, most people I know pronounce the word lieutenant as LOOtenant. Anyone from England would be mortified at hearing this, where it’s pronounced LEFTtenant.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Not even the word pronunciation is safe. Most people say proNOUNciation. Strictly speaking, the correct way to say this is: proNUNciation.

The problem here is that you can’t legislate language. You can’t issue a decree about the way people speak.

Ask the French Government. It has been trying for years to eradicate foreign lexical invaders, to purify the French tongue – it’s almost a criminal offence to say something like le car in France, the land of the long white baguette.

The attempt is flatly not working and never will, and the French are one of the most language-proud nations on the planet.

Also, to my mind, suggesting non-Maori speakers speak Maori correctly is simply being pedantic. We all speak differently to begin with. We all have various different accents, regional dialects, and so on.

People from the deep south of New Zealand tend to roll their Rs, and people up north generally don’t. Which is correct?

Should we all perhaps learn to speak English in Received Pronunciation – and wind up sounding like a 1971 TV newsreader?

You can’t legislate language, and you can’t enforce it either. The only way you can truly alter the way people talk is by “lead and follow”. Give people a good reason to want to talk the way you do, and they will.

This explains why kids are so quick to adopt sometimes absurd and inane expressions and phrases popularised on TV and in pop music. They think it’s cool … or kewl … or some other word that’s completely incomprehensible to you and me.

In the end, it’s all about difference, and as far as language is concerned, vive la difference. Diversity is the spice of life.

Mispronouncing something because you don’t know any better is not offensive, it’s just demonstrating that you’re not a native speaker.

After all, do the French take umbrage every time some bright young thing in a takeaway bar in West Auckland mispronounces fillet of fish (it’s fillAYE not fillETT)? I would doubt it?

After communicating ideas and being understood, the other important point about language my high school teacher stressed was this: language can change you, but you can’t change it.