Sunday, February 19, 2006

E bro, don't diss my language

This proposal to change the spelling of the town name "Wanganui" to "Whanganui" has been generating a lot of debate in the New Zealand news recently. Whanga in Maori means "harbour", therefore Whanganui = "big harbour". Wanga, on the other hand means "a bunch of white fellas weren't listening carefully when they transcribed this word into their sucky spelling system".

I acknowledge that my over-privileged position as a middle-class white chick might be preventing me from truly understanding the situation. But I'm finding it hard to see what all the fuss is about. Since the Latin alphabet is an imposition of Pakeha culture anyway, why is it worse to write "Wanganui" than it is to write "Whanganui"? Especially seeing as the spelling "wh" implies that there are two phonemes happening here, rather than one sound (which I can't represent because I don't have the IPA font I usually use available on this computer). The same with "ng", when it comes down to it.

I do not agree, however, with the people who compare this to cases like the corruption of (originally Norse) place names in England, so that places like Mikilhryggr turned into Meiklerig. People of non-Viking ancestry do not have advantages in English society over those descended from Vikings, therefore no one sees it as "symbolic" that the Norse meanings of these words are no longer visible. The drive to change Maori place names to a more appropriate spelling is more analogous to the recent changing of the South African place name "Triomf" back to the older "Sophiatown".

I've also been expecting people to come up with the objection that if we have to change originally Maori names back to the appropriate spelling, then Maori who are named Irihapeti, Hone, and Maaka should have to change their names back to Elizabeth, John and Mark, respectively. I haven't seen anyone suggest this yet, but for similar reasons to the above argument about Norse place names, it wouldn't be a valid analogy.

What I also don't understand, though, is why any of the residents of Whanganui/Wanganui care if the name does get changed. It's just a name. No one is going to stop them pronouncing it however they want. And it's not like English spelling and pronunciation is consistent at the best of times, so if people keep saying "Wanganui" but writing "Whanganui", who will notice or care?

This is a by-product of being a linguist that I have noticed before. Words to us linguisticky-type people are just words. Most linguists can't get themselves worked up about "abuse of the language" or misspellings to the same extent that the (wo)man on the street does. Letters are tools for making words. You can use them how you like. They aren't sacred. You won't lose your language* just because you spell some words inconsistently.

I think this is similar to something else I've noticed recently. There seems to be a correlation between how much people use printed material on a daily basis and how much they revere it. Academics tend to belong to the ranks of those who scribble in the margins of their books, highlight directly onto photocopies of articles, fold corners of pages over, and dump texts all over their office floors. Your average guy on the street who reads one book every few months is more likely to replace it carefully on the shelf, be horrified at penciled-in notes in the margins, and even wash his/her hands before touching a book (I saw someone do that recently, and they were horrified I don't).

But back to the Maori place name debate. It's summed up for me in the implications of Tania Turia's remark that "The name is meaningless unless spelt Whanganui". The real problem, you see, is that no matter how the name is spelt, it is meaningless to most Pakeha (and a good number of Maori). I reckon that Maori and the public's perception of Maori would benefit a good deal more if people would take the energy and effort they are putting into getting outraged about place name (mis)spellings and channel it instead into educating people about the Maori language in general.

* A
language, on the other hand, can, and maybe should, be sacred to a community as an expression of their identity and repository of their history. But it's the existence of the language that matters here, and how much it is used, not the way individual words are spelled or whether there has been linguistic change or not.

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