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Meghan Markle spoke Māori in New Zealand. Here’s why that matters

Posted by
Janina Matthewson
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To hear te reo spoken by a member of the royal family, as if it’s a given, as if it’s expected, reminds us that its value is inherent. 

When the Duchess of Sussex appeared in New Zealand’s Government House to speak about women’s suffrage, she began her speech with a Māori greeting.

“Tēnā koutou katoa.”

She didn’t have to say that. She could have gone with the more casual, and more widely known, “kia ora.” It’s difficult coming into a foreign country and speaking the language – I don’t know about you, but I can just about knock out a passable “bonjour”, as long as I’m not in France. To be honest, as a New Zealander living in the UK, I’ve run into trouble saying the word “10”. Seriously, the Kiwi accent bends that vowel in a way that completely baffles the English.

When you’re in a predominantly white country whose indigenous words are spoken barely anywhere else in the world, it gets even harder. And when it’s in a public speech that will be broadcast to the entire world, well - that’s even harder.

So it wasn’t easy for Meghan Markle to say those three words.

meghan markle royal tour new zealand

“It wasn’t easy for Meghan Markle to say those three words”

The phrase she used is common in speeches and formal greetings in New Zealand, although usually the longer form, “Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa,’ is used. It translates as “greetings, greetings, greetings to you all”.

There was a hint of nerves about the Duchess as she said it, and a slight look of relief afterwards – but she didn’t need to worry, as the greeting was met with appreciative cheers from her audience, and I have no doubt, smiles from New Zealanders around the world.

New Zealand is a small country, and when you move out of it, you realise immediately how little anyone knows about it; even in the UK. Despite the fact that we are a British colony, that we are still loyal to the British crown, that we still have the Union Jack on our flag, precious little about our culture is known or appreciated by British citizens. 

It’s not surprising. We’re a small country, we don’t have a significant impact on international politics, and we’re habitually left off world maps. In fact, when I started researching why we’re left off world maps, the second “people ask” option that Google gave me was “Is New Zealand a part of Australia?”. No, Google. No, it is not.

So a guest as important as Meghan Markle bothering to learn an unfamiliar phrase in New Zealand’s native language makes me – and I’m sure plenty of other kiwis – feel seen.

It’s like being the school nerd and finding out that the popular kid knows your name. Not only that, but they know something about you – they’ve noticed you and thought you were important enough to remember.

It’s just manners, of course, to know someone’s name. Meghan was just doing her job well, using a Māori greeting in a speech in New Zealand. She did her homework before a diplomatic visit, as well she should.

But when you’ve seen so many people forget their manners, when you’ve seen so many neglect their homework, those small gestures go a long way.

“To hear her make an attempt to speak te reo Maori makes me extremely proud,” says Charlie Pānapa, a Kiwi living in London. “Our language is our point of difference, it’s beautiful and unique. The best way for a language to flourish is for it to be used and to be seen.”

meghan markle royal tour new zealand

The royal couple meeting Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister

And Meghan speaking te reo (the language) makes a timely statement, as debate in New Zealand continues over how much it should flourish.

Since being named an official language of New Zealand in 1987, te reo Māori has come back from the brink. As is common in colonised countries, it had begun to die. But 30 years after a successful campaign to revitalise te reo, it has become more and more common in public life, although this is not welcome news to everyone.

There are still many people in New Zealand who object to the use of te reo in radio and on television, as well as criticising the idea of making it compulsory subject in schools.

Former leader of the opposition, Don Brash, has described te reo as having “no value outside of New Zealand”, claiming that learning it is a waste of time. These arguments serve to further oppress a people and a language that he, and many like him, still seem to view as unimportant. 

meghan markle royal tour new zealand

There are still many people in New Zealand who object to the use of te reo

But a language’s value isn’t determined by its usefulness on the international stage, but by how much it means to the people who use it, and what is says about them, to those on the outside.

To hear te reo spoken by a member of the royal family, as if it’s a given, as if it’s expected, reminds us that its value is inherent. It is a part of our identity, both at home, and overseas.

It is the language of our land, it is part of who we are as a country, and we are, in turn, made more valuable by it.

So thank you, Meghan, for recognising that. 

Images: Getty

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