Friday, February 5, 2010

Encyclopedia Drew and the Missing Maori Fuck

I may not be taking a break from New Zealand-related posts here, but I’ll at least stop posting photos. I’d hate to make you readers feel like your trapped in my living room, watching an endless slideshow of pictures without people in them, but I do have a bit to say about the experience of spending the first month of the year over there, down there, tucked in the corner of the world.

Many New Zealand cities retain the names given to them by the indigenous Maori people. This is especially the case on the North Island. Being Americans driving from one place to the next, we’ve always had fun trying to accurately pronounce these place names. The short ones are easy. Those beginning with the ng sound, like Ngongotaha and Ngunguru, continue to trip me up. And long ones — Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu foremost among them — are really tough, even if Maori is pronounced almost phonetically.

Before this most recent trip, I would have said that Maori was fully phonetic, but it’s not, apparently. Among many Maori, some non-Maori New Zealanders, and basically anyone speaking in an official capacity, there’s now a movement to pronounce the letter combination wh like an English f in order to pronounce it more like Maori would have before the arrival of Europeans. (Attempts to represent this language using the Roman alphabet may have changed the pronunciation, I would assume as a result of Europeans writing down what they thought they heard rather than what was actually being spoken. Wikipedia notes, however, that the pronunciation of wh is variable.) Thus, the town whose name I’ve been pronouncing as Whangarei should actually be Fangerei. Whanganui is Fanganui. And Whakatane is, unfortunately, Fakatane, a fact that I’m sure lots of people have fun with, especially if they don’t care for that particular town.

Yes, this is where I’m going with this: the F-word.

With the wh-f switch in mind, listen to the strange thing that happened to us while we traveled through Rotorua. We stopped at a place I’d never been before: the “thermal village,” Whakarewarewa. It’s a geothermal hotspot, a historic but still-active Maori village, and place where Maori people celebrate their culture. At the beginning of the tour, the guide walked the group through the pronunciation of the site’s full name, Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao but also noted that most people today just call the place Whaka for short. Now, knowing how wh is supposed to be pronounced, Whakarewarewa, Whaka and the long version should seemingly be pronounced with an f sound at the beginning. However, during our tour, it never was. Weird, right? I mean, if any place was going to use the allegedly proper Maori pronunciation, it would be this one, right?

I didn’t realize this strangeness until after the tour and therefore didn’t get to ask about it, so I’m now left to make one of three conclusions.

First, there’s the possibility that the English f sound just isn’t right. Though the letters wh in Maori words sometimes gets pronounced with an f — or, if you want to be technical about it (and why shouldn’t we?) the IPA [f], which is described as a labiodental fricative, literally a noise made by the friction of air between teeth and lips. But the Maori wh can also be a sound represented by the IPA symbol [ɸ] — a bilabial fricative, a sound made by friction between both lips. (Side note: I love when the IPA symbols actually look like a human mouth making the associated noise.) There’s an example of this noise here. (Warning: You may find it kind of hilarious.) But I can’t really hear the difference between it and [f]. At most, it sounds like a cross between someone blowing out birthday candles and a dismissive air puff released by a person who is incredulous or annoyed. (You may be making this noise now.)

Then there’s the possibility that not all Maori people think they should change their pronunciation of wh, which seems possible since this group as a whole may not always agree. Why should they? They’re human and regional differences are things humans seem to love creating.

Finally, there’s a third possibility that I think may be the correct one. If you’re a Maori person, and you’re stoked on your culture and especially stoked on showing off both your culture and your home to foreigners who are curious to learn about it, you might not appreciate snickering every time you speak the name of where you live. With the f pronunciation, Whakarewarewa would sound a lot like Fuckarewarewa. And when it’s truncated to Whaka, it would sound almost exactly like the New Zealand pronunciation of the word fucker. And that would be enough the make people laugh. And that would me awkward. (Believe me: When I was in London, particularly in museums or historical spots, I had to suppress laughter every time someone spoke regina in the British way.) In my head, it doesn’t seem out-of-the-question that the Whakarewarewans would convene and one day resolve to continue with the old w sound, even if f was more accurate, just so they and their guests would never treat the site like a joke. Furthermore, it may also be the case that the Whakarewarewa residents, proud thought they might be, don’t want to sound rude to foreigners, and this politeness may be trumping correctness.

In the end, I don’t know the real answer. Maybe people more Maori-savvy than I am will Google their way here and set me straight. Also, I have sent off an email to the best address I could find in hopes that someone can give me an official answer. I hope whoever reads it sees that I’m genuinely curious and not trying to poke fun, lest they tell me to whuck off.

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