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Revitalising ta rē Moriori, the language of Rēkohu

24 November, 2023

Interview by Nicholas Lindstrom, adapted by Sofia Roger Williams

Doctoral candidate in Cultures, Languages and Linguistics, at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Arts, John Middleton, is currently working with the Hokotehi Moriori Trust to revive ta rē Moriori, the language of Rēkohu, the Chatham Islands. Image: Town of Waitangi on the Chatham Islands - Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that the Indigenous Moriori people likely arrived on Rēkohu, the Chatham Islands, from Eastern Polynesia around 1500 and flourished until European arrival in 1791. 

With the introduction of new diseases from Europe and after two Māori tribes from Taranaki invaded the islands, the Moriori population drastically dropped in the 19th century. 

It is estimated that the last fluent conversation in ta rē Moriori was approximately 125 years ago. 

But the Hokotehi Moriori Trust, which represents Moriori people as a mandated imi (tribe) body authority and commercial, cultural, language, and resource base, hopes to revitalise the language. 

Doctoral candidate in Cultures, Languages, and Linguistics at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Arts, John Middleton, told 95bFM's The Wire that although ta rē Moriori shares similarities with te reo Māori and other Polynesian languages, the language has some unique grammatical rules. 

“There are 15 different ways of saying the word ‘the’ and the type you use depends on the next word and what sound comes at the start of the next word.”

“That kind of diversity with a simple word is not seen in any other Polynesian language.”

Currently, the Moriori language has no native speakers, with the last native speaker having passed away in the early 20th century. 

While Middleton says the Moriori language is “sleeping”, he notes people are still using “bits and bobs” of the language.

“That does not mean there is no Moriori language being spoken. In fact, if you go to the Chatham Islands, there are people using the language in their day-to-day.”

Middleton says there are several cases globally where there are now native speakers of languages that previously were not being used. 

"It is totally possible. They have done it in Australia with a couple of Aboriginal languages."

A way in which the Hokotehi Moriori Trust and advocates like Middleton plan to reinvigorate ta rē Moriori is by transcribing and translating three or four major Moriori texts, and making them more accessible. 

Middleton would like to see the information extracted from those materials about forming questions and using different pronouns in ta rē Moriori.

“Once we do that we can start building up grammar, and building out this major work that covers the full language.”

Listen to the full interview

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air