Orthographic reform in Cook Islands Māori: Human considerations and language revitalisation implications

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2013-02-28
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Nicholas, Sally Akevai Te Namu
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Nicholas, Sally Akevai Te Namu
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Cook Islands Māori* is an East Polynesian language spoken in the Cook Islands (approx.10,000 speakers), New Zealand (approx. 9000 speakers) and Australia (approx. 3000 speakers). An orthography for the Rarotongan dialect of Cook Islands Māori was devised by missionaries from the London Missionary Society in the early nineteenth century and a Rarotongan translation of the Bible was published in 1851. The high prestige of this particular text led to the entrenchment of the orthographic system used by the missionaries and the establishment of the Rarotongan dialect as the 'standard'. The publication of the Rarotongan Bible was followed by widespread print literacy amongst speakers of Cook Islands Māori (albeit in the Rarotongan dialect) which in turn produced 160 years worth of written records in Māori. This body of texts is an immensely valuable resource for the Cook Islands people as a whole and for me as a 21st century Indigenous linguist doing descriptive work on my heritage language. However, as with most of the early biblical orthographies in the region, the London Missionary Society's Rarotongan orthography was not ideal. Linguistically speaking, it suffers from phonemic underrepresentation, fails to integrate borrowed terms appropriately, and obscures dialectical variation. Politically speaking, it artificially promoted the Rarotongan dialect to the position of 'standard dialect' by merit of being the 'language of the Bible', creating ongoing resentment amongst some speakers of other dialects. Today, the status of the Cook Island Māori language is extremely fragile, with very low rates of intergenerational transmission and rapidly decreasing numbers of proficient speakers. In the current climate, there is a strong argument for updating the 'Bible orthography' as the problems caused by underrepresentation are more significant to the contemporary language community, the majority of whom are non-fluent speakers. Most younger community members consider Cook Islands Māori to be difficult to read and write 'correctly'. However, most literate native speakers are resistant to change and within the pro-reform camp, there is uncertainty about what any putative new system should look like. This paper will look at how we are negotiating the fraught prospect of orthographic reform as an aid to language revitalisation in the Cook Islands Māori language community. *Ethnologue entry
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