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Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary



That the Polynesian dialects are related to each other and form but isolated varieties of one great language is by no means a very modern discovery. The first attempt at a comparative table (of forty-seven Oceanic words) was made by Dr. Reinhold Forster, the naturalist who accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage. Mr. Anderson published a table at the end of the third voyage of Cook, in which the comparison was carried further by including the languages of Madagascar and the Malay Archipelago. Anderson was followed by the Abbé Lorenzo Hervas, the Jesuit, who, in his “Catalogue of Languages,” published in 1800, set the case very clearly and intelligently before the public. William Marsden and John Crawfurd, authors of great repute as Malay students, followed with learned essays—the former considering the Polynesians as offshoots from the Malays, and the latter believing that the origin of the Malay and Oceanic languages was distinct. Dumont d'Urville accompanied his report on the French Exploring Expedition of 1825–1829 with a Comparative Vocabulary, published in 1833; at the same time stating his opinion to be that the Polynesians were survivors from the peoples of a now-submerged continent. Adelbert von Chamisso issued a volume on the Hawaiian language in 1837, and was followed by Baron W. von Humboldt in 1838 with his scholarly book on the Kawi Language of the Island of Java. In this very voluminous work Humboldt examines the vocabularies and grammatical construction of the Oceanic languages, and considers that the Tagal of the Philippines is the leading dialect. His vocabularies, however, were of a very imperfect character, and his deductions would have been considerably modified had he possessed the information at present at our service; his Maori being the Maori of Lee and Kendall, and his Tongan, if possible, still more defective and illusory. The more modern attempts, fragmentary in character, have all been marred by imperfect comparison and careless printing, so that they are of no use as authorities for any scientific purpose.


Most of the Polynesian Vocabularies follow the rule of putting all the words commencing with a vowel or continuing with vowels before those having leading consonants. Thus the Hawaiian Dictionary is arranged in following order: A, E, I, O, U, H, K, L, M, &c.; Umu precedes Hau, Heu precedes Hehe, &c., &c. This custom has not been followed in the present volume, where the words, intended for English readers, are arranged in the order of the English alphabet. The exceptions are ng and wh; these are considered as single letters; words commencing with ng follow the completed series of n, and words in wh follow the completed series of w.

There are strong reasons in favor of printing all words commencing with the causative whaka under wh; the main point in favour of this course being ease of reference, especially to those persons not at all acquainted with the language. In a Comparative Dictionary, however, it is necessary to group the words together for convenience of reference. Thus whaka-oti, to finish, must be looked for under Oti; pupuhi and puhipuhi under Puhi; papai, paingia, whaka-pai, and whaka-paipai under Pai. A very little practice in consulting the Dictionary will make the reader accustomed to this order of composition.


I have carefully avoided the use of letters to mark the native words as substantive, adjective, verb, &c. It is an unwise, if not a mischievous, effort to make if we endeavour to force the rules of grammar which fit (more or less) the modern stage of the English tongue upon a language belonging to the utterly unequal grammar-period in which the Polynesian speech is now found. I use these expressions with consideration, because I believe that there is a constant progress or decay in all languages, affecting their character and rendering their forms unsuitable. This is certainly the case in regard to the English grammar, where we have seen case-endings and inflected plurals in a state of flux for the last few centuries and tending to disappearance. The Polynesian (of course including Maori) has been in such a condition of isolation that its changes have not been recorded; indeed, they have probably been fewer than those of peoples where intercommunication has been easy, and where language and dialect have again and again, by conquest or commercial enterprise, overlaid and overlapped the linguistic boundaries. The effort to adapt Maori words to rules of English grammar is evaded by the complex simplicity (if I may use such an expression) of the native language, where one word may serve either as verb, noun, or adjective, according to its context, and wherein particles page xiv whose use only practice can render familiar, are able to link words into sentences capable of rendering very subtle and sensitive expression. If we attempt to retain these particles in the net of English grammar, we shall be in the unpleasant situation of having to lay down rules with more exceptions than examples.

The Accent (as màra, mòna, &c.) has been used to denote a lengthened stress upon the vowel so marked. [Through inadvertence, in a few cases the accent has been printed thus, á instead of à.] Some writers of Maori prefer a double letter, as maara, &c., but this is misleading, as the sound is not that of two distinct vowels. In all cases where accents are not used, the first syllable is more strongly marked than the others, although not with the longthened vowel sound.

The pronunciation of the Vowels as printed in Maori and in all Polynesian writings is nearly that used by the Italians. The vowels are as follows:—

a short, almost like the English short u in smut.

à long; rather longer than in father.

e short, as in bent, sent.

è long, resembling the a in Mary.

i short, as in hit, pit, &c.,

é long, as ce in fleet.

o short, as in lock.

ò long, as in cocoa.

u short, as o in lose.

ù long, as oo in pooh.

The Consonants have nearly the same power as in English. Ng is pronounced like ng in flinging, ringing, &c. It is probable that formerly in some localities the r varied into l and d, the p into b, &c., but the efforts to educate the Maori children in their own language have resulted in the production of a classic form, in which the r and p are distinctly r and p. The pronunciation varies slightly with locality, thus tangata is in some places tanata, but these irregularities of the sub-dialects are very fluctuating and unfixed.