Sorry Ms Plum, I want more of that 'nonsense'

By Rituraj Sapkota


I was overseas, in transit, when I first came across this article.

I had just flown from Kathmandu to Dubai and my connecting flight to Auckland would have a stop in Kuala Lumpur. Not the shortest trajectory but quite similar to the social media maze I had to navigate to get to this piece. Someone on Facebook had shared a Spinoff article which had a link to a Twitter thread, which had an image of a newspaper cutting of this article in the Otago Daily Times. The Twitter thread belonged to the radio journalist this columnist was taking a shot at, and the piece had reached her after going through a few transit stops in its own right.

I downloaded the image and saved it for easier reading while I waited to board my flight and envied those who had access to the business class lounge. The column was yet another person complaining about the use of te reo Māori on air, except it hadn't been written in caps lock like your ordinary keyboard warrior post. The punctuation was spot on and there was even some attempted humour, all indication that it was written by someone with a platform and penmanship (I found some forum threads where other people, presumably of the same age group, gushed about how smart his humour was.) 

I don't know who Joe Bennett is, because I am still quite fresh off the boat, and I decided not to look, for fear that I would "understand" why he would think this way, go "oh, no wonder!" and leave things at that. But the issue here is that an op-ed like this got the platform it did and probably resonated with the Mesozoic-era remnants of an audience who re-read it in glee and clapped their hands.

I also stopped to think about whether I should write a response at all. After all, the announcer had already responded as had a prominent member of the Language Commission, and I am but an outsider.

This is precisely why I decided to write this. To put it out there that, unlike what the character in Bennett's piece feels (the one he seems to very much agree with), there isn't too much of that "Māori nonsense stuff" on RNZ.

If anything, there's too little of it.

Tolerance for ambiguity

One of Bennett's contentions appears to be that the grammar and syntax of reo Māori and English do not overlap. But he doesn't follow that up with a call for action. Stop mixing the two in a sentence? Stop alternating between the two languages in consecutive sentences? Or stop mixing at all? The exact ask is unclear. 

I have heard presenters (including the presenter Bennett is taking a shot at)  on national media flow in and out of te reo Māori. I have never struggled to understand, even when I hadn't started learning te reo, perhaps because more often than not they would usually repeat in English what they just said. 

There is something called tolerance for ambiguity in language. It is believed to be within human capacity to listen to a few words or phrases whose exact meaning one does not know mixed into a conversation that is otherwise understood and emerge from this oh-so-confusing experience unscathed. This is how children learn languages quickly, and adults can use it too, to either learn a new language, or to sit through an RNZ National broadcast without having insecurities about the purity of their language being diluted because the presenter said "Ki te whei ao" before saying "coming up after the break."

For the record, in the way these presenters are doing it, te reo Māori and English mix quite well. Hei aha te grammar me te syntax! 

The bilingual child

I quite liked the story Bennett tells of the bilingual child whose parents spoke different languages and it was some years before he could discern one language from the other. Oh, the agony of it! And I should know because I grew up learning three languages. My sisters four, my mom five. Today I speak nine languages and boy, how well Bennett understands and illustrates the ambiguity and uncertainty of the years between the ages of three and five that I had to live through!

But there is insecurity and then there is spite. Bennett makes a reference to (and steps into the shoe of) a monolingual Māori speaker who, he asserts, would find no value in the presenter’s use of reo e rua, perhaps knowing full well that there are no monolingual adults speaking only te reo Māori. Here or anywhere in the world. And aren’t we all aware of how that came to be? 

This is all the more reason for the presenter to use more te reo Māori in her broadcast and not less. 

'Wasting her time'

Bennett signs off with this succinct paragraph: “In short, she was wasting her time. In doing so, she was alienating Ms Plum, educating no one, patronising Māoridom and barking up a barren linguistic plum tree.”

He's got a point there about losing Ms Plum, especially if Ms Plum can’t bear to listen to seven seconds of te reo Māori at the start of a 10n-minute interview in her beloved English. The presenter is definitely not barking up a barren linguistic plum tree (can someone please verify that this plum has been put for the express purpose of humour? I don’t get it.) This tree is rather laden, to the contrary, and tauiwi like me are not just learning te reo Māori, but using and advocating for it. Te reo Māori on prime time broadcast media is the future, not the past. 

As for wasting time, it may appear that it is in fact Mr Bennett who has wasted his. It is unlikely RNZ is going to cut down on “all the Māori nonsense” on reading his article or for fear of losing Ms Plum’s patronage. If anything, it will grow in the days to come and an increasing audience will find meaning and value in it. 

To quote a columnist I read while transiting in Dubai, “languages exist for one reason only - to communicate meaning”. 

Rituraj Sapkota is Whakaata Māori’s videographer based in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. He enjoys travelling and does not feel threatened by hearing words on radio he cannot understand.