Te reo Māori in Parliament

An interesting post by William Asiata on the use of te reo Māori in the New Zealand Parliament (also with some interesting history of Hansard, not covered here).

Te Pūnaha Matatini: Te Reo Māori in New Zealand Parliament, as recorded in the Hansard Reports

As one of two summer 2017-18 student interns for the Kōrero Māori project with Dragonfly Data ScienceTe Hiku Media and Te Pūnaha Matatini, we were assigned to help collect corpus of te reo Māori text that would be used to train the written language model component of a te reo Māori computer natural language processing engine. When ready, the natural language processor will be used as the base for making software like Apple’s artificially intelligent ‘Siri’, that will be capable of understanding te reo Māori.

One text source in particular was identified that is publicly available online and known to contain te reo Māori – that is the New Zealand Parliamentary Debates as recorded in the Hansard reports.

The written record of Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) make up over 700 volumes of text that span from 1854 to the present day, and daily reports continue to be published onlinewithin a fews hours of each new thing spoken in Parliament.

Across the 700+ volumes, the programme has sorted through over 420 million words to detect about 7400 speech segments that are at least 50% te reo and have a combined total of about 390,000 Māori words.

History of Te Reo in Parliament

Several interesting discoveries were made after examining the result and making a graph (see figure below):

  • Up until the 1980s the proportion of te reo Māori speech in Parliament was barely anything – less than 0.1% for more than 130 years. However over the last 2-3 decades the growth trend in the percentage of te reo spoken in Parliament is very remarkable, even reaching as high as 2% in a year.
  • We found that Māori words make up about 0.2-0.4% of what people say in Parliament on average if they aren’t speaking in te reo Māori – most probably common words like names.
  • A cluster of te reo speeches around the 1940s.
  • Several MP speeches that include other polynesian languages are counted to contain about 50% – 70% “Māori” words – this is due to similarity between languages and alphabets.

Interpretation of the growth trend

The growth in te reo Māori used in Parliament appears to parallel the time period from when Te Kohanga Reo and Te Reo Māori revitalisation movement began, as well as from the time when the process of settling Tiriti grievances began.

That’s not surprising.

Closing thoughts

The sudden upswing in te reo in Parliament in the last 20 – 30 years is astounding. From practically 0 to 1-2% in a couple of decades, imagine what it could look like in years to come:

  • When the percentage of Te Reo spoken in Parliament begins to match the size of the Māori population (~15%).
  • When the percentage of Te Reo spoken in Parliament approaches 50%, and the nation is almost 100% Māori bilingual.

I don’t think it’s astounding. It part it parallels a change of attitude generally to the use of te reo in schools and elsewhere in New Zealand society. In Parliament it has been impacted by MMP, more Māori MPS, even a Māori party has been in Parliament for most of this century, from 2004 (when Tariana Turia won a by-election to retain her Te Tao Hauauru seat after she split from Labour) to 2017 when they dropped out of Parliament.

Will the percentage of Te Reo spoken in Parliament ever reach the approximate size of the population that identifies as Māori? There is some justification for some use of te reo, but if MPs want to reach the widest possible audience then they have to use English.

It’s hard to see the percentage of Te Reo spoken in Parliament approaching anything like 50%, in the foreseeable future at least.

And it’s hard to see the nation becoming anywhere near 100% Māori/English bilingual. Everyone in New Zealand knows some te reo through numerous Māori place names, and most of us know some common terms and phrases.

Being able to understand conversational te reo (or te reo speeches in Parliament) is far less common.

It would be good to see te reo Māori not just survive but also to thrive, but is it necessary for it to become anywhere near as widely used and understood as English?

As well as being the common language of New Zealand, nearly everyone can use some English, it is also the most widely used language around the world, so it is likely to continue to dominate in general use and in Parliament here.

Te reo Māori in Parliament is good for some purposes, but mostly symbolic.Those who want to communicate with the most people will use English most of the time, as happens now.