New Zealand

Word origins and word borrowing

For a language to cope with a changing world, it would seem there must always be a need for word-borrowing.

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For a language to cope with a changing world, it would seem there must always be a need for word-borrowing.

David Kārena-Holmes is a published author, living in Dunedin

COLUMN: The adoption of new words into te reo Māori has been a topic in the past two columns.

It’s interesting that, as the editor of the Nelson Mail has commented, a view has sometimes been expressed that te reo “isn’t a real language” because of the large number of borrowed words used – it seemingly being ignored that the lexicon of English is composed largely of words “borrowed” from Greek, Latin, French, Germanic and numerous other languages.

For a language to cope with a changing world, it would seem there must always be a need for word-borrowing.

Robert Burchfield was born in Wanganui in 1923, and died in the UK in 2004.

As John Maslin has written (Whanganui Chronicle, 28 Jan. 2018) after interrupting his study at Victoria University in 1941 to serve in the NZ Royal Artillery, two years of which were spent in Italy, he subsequently, with the aid of a Rhodes Scholarship, graduated in linguistics from Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1951 and became chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionaries from 1971 to 1984.

As Maslin puts it: “He saw ‘standard English’ as only a local form of a language which had become global and embraced many different strands, each of which he regarded as equal … and broadened the scope of the OED to include words from many countries including North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan and the Caribbean.”

Several Māori terms “began to appear” in the Concise Oxford Dictionary.

Apparently, the Egyptian word for “sun” was the same as the rā of te reo, writes David Kārena-Holmes.

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Apparently, the Egyptian word for “sun” was the same as the rā of te reo, writes David Kārena-Holmes.

Named “the greatest living lexicographer” by the Chicago Tribune, Burchfield also authored a brilliant short book, The English Language (1985).

Although the focus is specifically on the development of English from 5th century Anglo-Saxon origins, it begins with some broad comments about languages in general:

“The origin of languages is unknown and all theories about this problem are spurious … the faculty of speech therefore precedes recorded history and it is unhelpful to speculate about the circumstances of its origin.”

Such remarks are unlikely to stop people from engaging in speculation – and here (though admittedly on a somewhat lighter note) attempts to connect origins of te reo Māori to ancient Egyptian might be considered.

Apparently, the Egyptian word for “sun” was the same as the rā of te reo.

More intriguingly, the word “pharaoh” originally meant “great house” (being subsequently applied to the occupant of the house).

Is this a possible origin of the Māori word whare? Far-fetched? Maybe – yet isn’t this consistent with the origin of all human beings from the Olduvai gorge, somewhere (a good bit) south of Memphis?

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