Wangavegas or Whangavegas

February 25, 2009 § Leave a comment

Recently Maaori spelling has been in the news with the proposal to rename or respell the the city Wanganui to Whanganui. The move was proposed by a local iwi committee had met strong resistance from the mayor Michael Laws.

With the majority of issues regarding language and linguistics that gain media attention, a wide range of views are expressed by the public and this issue in toponymy -‘geographic naming’ is no different.

The blog attached to the NZ Herald newspaper – everyone’s got a blog these days – records these public opinions, of which here are just a few

When the English arrived not all that long ago, Maoris still hadn’t developed a written language. They still had cave stick figure drawings in fact. Maoris adopted the English alphabet as a result. Jere is the big question. Why do Maoris now say ‘wh’ sounds like ‘f’? The english [sic] who wrote down place names etc when asking the locals would have heard the word Wanganui – not Fonganui. Same goes Whangamata and Whangarei  (not Fongamata and Fongarei). It’s Wh guys, as in Whinge, not WH as in ‘Fred’ .           Margot Campbell (Napier)

 … The locals pronounce it “Wanganui” and so do the  Maori down in that part of the north island becuase the “h” is silent. The indigenous name is Whanganui pronounced “Wanganui” but if you were from Ngapuhi then you wouldn’t drop the “h” you would pronounce it as “whanganui”. Hope that makes sense. Perhaps they changed the spelling to “Wanganui” becuase it is a silent “H”.                Geo  (Ellerslie)

Wanganui as a Proper Noun is a English transcription of the Maorip place name Big bay. In other words Wanganui is a English word. Just like Lisbon is an English word as opposed to the Portuguese Lisboa.                      Rick    (North Shore)

These are but a few and I invite you to read them all at

http://blogs.nzherald.co.nz/blog/your-views/2008/5/13/should-it-be-wanganui-or-whanganui/?commentpage=1

All quotes retreived from the web address above on 25/2/09

Some of them are extreme, and some of them seem a little illogical, many ofter concerns about cost, or suugest local iwi have the right to decide. Many posts on the blog, however, reveal something that sociolinguists have noted about attitudes towards languages for a long time. That is they are more often than not attitudes about speakers of a language rather than the language itself. Most of the time Maaori bear the brunt of these attitudes and misinformation about them in the posts on this <wh>- an extreme example the first I quoted. One writer uses it to have a swipe at changes in the pronunciation of English:

The wh sound when written in English is an aspirated w such as the correctly pronounced “what” or “where” or “when”. That we now use a hard w for these words simply shows that even English has evolved and it is abot time people stop agitating for change for political ends rather than any true understanding of there [sic] history or language.    Nibbler (Marton)

 While on the surface this post appears to be a common sense approach to language change, what do we think the writer means by “correct” when typical production of those forms nowadays does not produce a distinctive sound contrasting with the initial consonant in witch?.

 One commentator, Hua Poraka makes a very wise comment suggesting that we need to divorce issues of spelling and pronunciation in this case:

Unfortunately some confusion is being introduced into this topic by commnetators raising the question of pronunciation. Although the NZ geographic board will always support correct pronuncation, its statutory function is to determine the correct spelling, not pronunciation. Accordingly, should it adjudge Whanganui as the correct endition of the place name, it may awell decide to refrain ofrom commenting on whether or not a glottal stop led to local pronuncation ommission of the “h sound. Kia ora koutou katoa.   Hua Poraka (Dargaville)

 This is an important point, as it suggests that there may be regional differences in pronunciation that need not be reflected in spelling. A state of affairs, upon reflection, we find completely natural for English in its many dialect forms. Australians and NZers pronounce dance quite differently yet we spell it just the same way.

In a follow up post I will suggest a way to understand the problem of <wh> as a dialect one, and that the lack of understanding of the dialect geography and assumptions about the existence of a standard variety of te reo Maaori is at the heart of this debate.

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