Thursday, December 12, 2019

New Zealand or Aotearoa? Let the people decide

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, Stuff regional papers and, December 11.)

It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that for years, a determined campaign has been underway to rename New Zealand.

It’s being driven by activists, bureaucrats, teachers, academics, politicians and people in the media who think “New Zealand” is too Eurocentric and insufficiently reflective of the biculturalism that is said to define us as a country.

It’s not a formal, co-ordinated campaign but a spontaneous, unofficial one that started small and has steadily gathered momentum as more people take up the cause.

Radio New Zealand was an early adopter and remains in the front line of the push for change, as it is with usage of the Maori language generally. Aotearoa is frequently used by RNZ journalists and presenters in preference to New Zealand, and lately the same trend has been creeping into the print media.

In defence of the practice, it can be argued that every New Zealander knows what Aotearoa means. But some RNZ journalists go a whole lot further – for example, by referring to Christchurch as Otautahi and Auckland as Tamaki Makaurau.

That’s overstepping the mark. It’s arrogant and elitist, and shows contempt for listeners because it leaves them to guess what place the reporter is talking about. The intention, clearly, is to encourage people to adopt these names in everyday usage. But arbitrarily renaming cities is not one of the statutory functions of Radio NZ.

This is not to say there isn’t a good case for a public debate about the adoption of Maori place names. But let’s be transparent about it, and follow democratic process rather than having change imposed by gradual indoctrination.

That debate might start with the fact that “New Zealand” says nothing about us or our place in the world. It was conferred by historical accident and treats us not as a country in our own right, worthy of our own distinctive name, but as an offshoot of Europe.

We can only conclude that the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman displayed a mischievous sense of humour when he named New Zealand after a province of his homeland. By his own description, the country he sighted in 1642 was “a large land, uplifted high” (he was looking at the mountains of the West Coast).

So what did he do? He named it after a low-lying, mainly flat province that was largely reclaimed from the sea. Zeeland’s highest point, as far as I can ascertain from Google, is 54 metres.

It can be argued that this striking mismatch between name and place gives Aotearoa a head start in any debate about what we should call ourselves. It’s also more euphonious, more poetic and more descriptive. And it’s exclusively ours, not a 17th century hand-me-down from Holland.

Another ground for objecting to “New Zealand” is that it conveys the Eurocentric implication that the country didn’t exist until Tasman gave it a name, although Maori had been here since the 13th century.

But hold on a minute. There are other factors to consider, starting with the fact that we’ve been known as New Zealand for more than 300 years.

Admittedly other countries have changed their names. Ceylon became Sri Lanka, Persia became Iran and Burma became Myanmar, to name just three examples. The world got used to the new names and moved on, but it would be wrong to ignore the enormous economic cost and the long, hard process of adjustment and acceptance required.

And like it or not, the name New Zealand stands for something in the world – in trade, tourism, diplomacy, sport, war and the arts. It’s a powerful brand, built up over two and a half centuries. We mess with that legacy at our peril.

Then there’s the pronunciation to consider. Aotearoa isn’t a name that the world could effortlessly get its tongue around. Even well-meaning New Zealanders struggle with it, and they’re not helped by te reo purists who sneer when people get it wrong.

These are all factors that could be explored and weighed if we were to have an open debate, as we did over the national flag. There’s no reason why the Aotearoa/New Zealand issue couldn’t eventually be decided by referendum.

New Zealanders have shown they are not averse to the adoption of Maori place names. The acceptance of Taranaki as an alternative to Egmont, and increasingly of Aoraki in place of Mt Cook, is proof of that. Expect Whakaari to replace White Island before long, too.

There’s scope for many more places to revert to their Maori names as the significance of names bestowed during the colonial era recedes into the mists of history. How about Ahuriri instead of Napier, for starters, or Taitoko for Levin?

But let’s do it the proper way, through open, public debate and consensus rather than by stealth. Until such time as New Zealanders indicate by democratic means that they want a name change, New Zealand should remain just that: New Zealand. 


rowang said...

New Zealand, even if named something else, will still be called New Zealand.

Punch said...

How about we start with Aotearoa New Zealand, then gradually slip into just Aotearoa?
As for pronunciation, there are places in the world that confuse foreigners to this day. Is Myanmar pronounced with an "ai" or an "ee" in the first syllable? And is the emphasis on the first syllable or the second?
Is the province formerly known as Transvaal said as How-teng or Gow-teng?
I'd be happy with the idea. We'd march into the Olympic and Commonwealth Games ahead of Australia. Then we could all go to bed because the rest of the opening ceremonies are boring anyway.

Andy Espersen said...

The ground rule, the guiding principle, about language in general and words in particular must be that as the people who are speaking it we must simply leave it alone. Let it develop like human languages have developed for 100,000 years, namely without any planning or directive whatsoever. Yes, that goes for both spelling, pronunciation and the meaning of particular words. If Paekakariki becomes Piecack, let it. If New Zealand becomes Aotearoa, let it - I personally prefer that poetic (and truer) Maori name rather than that wholly inappropriate Dutch one. If we in New Zealand end up with a whole lot of Maori words mixed up in our English, that is fine also - ONLY PROVIDED that this is not ever artificially driven but happens so slowly and naturally that at all times we, all of us, understand the meaning of the new words spoken. Let me add that it is a physical impossibility to revive a dead language - the rich, grammatically complicated, powerful, poetic original te reo can never be revived. Only Israel has ever managed to revive a language, Hebrew, by decree - and that took a generation plus banning any other official language in the country.

Odysseus said...

New Zealand is more than a brand. It is our history, it is the sum of our achievements on the world stage, it is the essence of who we are. When the battle cry "Stand for New Zealand" went up on Crete in May 1941 as the German paratroopers descended my uncle and his comrades including the men of the 28th Maori Battalion did not flinch. But "stand for Aotearoa", a 19th century confection that did not denote any nation? Who thinks of themselves as an Aotearoan? Most retribalized Maori prefer to list their tribal affiliations to suggest their sense of who they are. This is about much more than changing a name, it is a coordinated campaign by ethno-nationalists and cultural Marxists, with the usual useful idiots like RNZ following along for the pc smug dividend, to expunge the memory and the meaning of a nation.

khrust said...

Whilst I have no particular problem with prominent geographical features in our country having their original Maori names re-instated, I draw the line at attempts to rename our towns and cities. These did not exist in pre-European times, they were founded and built up by pioneering colonists and it is absolutely reasonable that they carry forward the names given to them by those colonists. Thus, I totally reject the use of Tamaki Makarau and Otautahi for Auckland and Christchurch respectively. There may well have been Maori names for the general locations where these cities grew but that does not mean the cities should carry those names.
I agree with Odysseus that the cultural Marxist left are stirring this all up for the purpose of sowing division. As for Aotearoa, I like the sound of the word but the world knows us as New Zealand. This is a matter for a referendum - maybe a new flag at the same time ... haha.

Vaughan said...

So should we suggest that Australia changes its name, and that Indonesia selects another one too? Both names have origins elsewhere.

United States of America could switch to Trumpistan. Germans don't call their country Germany.

Planet earth could be called Gaia.

In the past three decades, New Zealanders have started referring to themselves as "Kiwis", a tag once reserved for shoe polish and rugby league players.

So could it be "Kiwi-land", a nice mix of cultures -- and one already used by many Australians.

I think we could all agree that the "Shaky Isles"should be avoided. And please don't decide that the inhabitants be called Pig Islanders, as they once were.

hughvane said...

I’ve waited a few days to let my mild apoplexy subside before responding to the notion of a name change for New Zealand, How about Niu Zild - which is how a lot of the lazy moderns pronounce it anyway.

Radio NZ is quoted as being at the forefront of the “push for change”. To add to your description of some of its presentation as “arrogant and elitist”, I would add … ‘a simmering pot of double standards and patronising tokenism’. On one hand it requires its presenters, reporters, et al to border on breaking their jaws to pronounce Maori correctly, while steadfastly declining to apply the same rules to the correct enunciation of English - as she is spoke. One prominent news reader continues, for example, to use ta and fa instead of to and for. A minor blemish, one might suggest, but an ongoing symptom of the laziness in applying rules to what is, like it or not, NZ’s principal spoken and written language - English.

The discussion about changing New Zealand to Aotearoa - a name which itself may be a myth in origin - takes little stock of how others beyond our borders will view it. Maori is all very well in Aotearoa/New Zealand, but as a means of communicating internationally, it will achieve very little. To proceed with a name change simply because it is, somehow, our ‘identity’, is both blinkered and short-sighted.

Linda Reid said...

My passport already has both Aotearoa and New Zealand on it - I was stunned by this. This must be the definitive document that identifies me internationally as a New Zealander - and an Aotearoan? No one asked me.

Doug Longmire said...

I agree - the media would be better serving the viewers if they spoke English properly (and stopped waving their hands around).
I have no problem with the name "New Zealand", in the same was residents of New York, New Hampshire and Newfoundland have no desire to change those names.
The ongoing push back into history to change these place names is quite pointless.
We have put behind us the war atrocities of Nazi Germany and Imperialistic Japan.
It is pointless to keep reliving the real or imagined wrongs of the past.