The day I called the Wellington Central Library a toliet

I confess.  It’s true.  I called the Wellington Central library a toilet.

It was completely unintentional.  You see, I called it a wharapaku (pronounced FAR-eh-pah-koo), instead of a whare pukapuka (FAR-eh-poo-kah-poo-kah).  The importance of this will soon become clear.

I have always loved languages.  Over the last few years I have slowly been delving into Te Reo Maōri, which is the Maōri language.   It is an evocative, beautiful language.

But even if I didn’t love learning new languages, living in New Zealand requires a very basic understanding of many common Maōri words and phrases.  Regardless of whether you’re Maōri or Pakeha (non-Maōri European), everyone knows that you eat kai (food); that when you say Kia ora, you’re informally saying hello; and that the world needs more aroha (love).  Morena is “Good morning” and ka kite ano (pronounced kah KEE-tay AH-no), roughly translates to, “See you again.”  Iwi (pronounced EE-wee) refers to a tribal family, but it also means bones. 

Place names in New Zealand are often made up of component words and are poetic translations.  You can usually puzzle out what many words mean simply by knowing what each component means.  For instance, Aotearoa (OW-te-ah-row-ah) translates to land of the long white cloud and is the Maōri name for New Zealand. 

Another good example is Wainuiomata (pronounced Why-new-ee-oh-mah-tah).  Wainuiomata is a suburb of the HuttValley, just outside of Wellington.  Wai means water.  Nui means big.  O means of, and Mata could refer to a person’s name.  So, one possible translation is ‘the place of Mata’s big water’. 

I did a little bit of Googling to see if I was right.  According to wainuiomata.net, I was close.  It states:

The origins of the word are disputed, but one commonly accepted translation refers to the women who came over the Wainuiomata Hill to evade marauding tribes from the north, and who sat wailing by the stream after the slaughter of their menfolk. From this we have ‘faces streaming with water’ or ‘tears’ although it could equally refer to the large pools of water which lay over the swampy surface (face) of the northern end of the Valley, and which led to that area being known to the first settlers as ‘The Lowry Bay Swamp’.

 See?  Fabulous.  There are all sorts of great stories behind the origins of Te Reo Maōri words. 

Te Reo Maōri is also constantly evolving.  For instance, traditional Te Reo Maōri didn’t have a word or concept for airplane.  So the Te Reo Maōri translation for airplane is waka rereangi, which literally means canoe sailing in the sky.  (Generally speaking, waka refers to any and all forms of transport). 

As part of that evolution, you find a lot of transliterations in Te Reo as well.  The traditional word for Monday, for example, is Rāhina (RAH-hee-nah), but its transliteration is “Mane” (pronounced, MAH-neh). 

To be fair, though, knowing a little Te Reo is like knowing a little French—you generally wind up unintentionally insulting someone when trying to ask for a glass of water.  And that’s exactly what happened when I called the Wellington Library a toilet.

The word for toilet in Te Reo is wharepaku, which (as I understand it) translates roughly to small (paku) house (whare).  (Though in this sense, I think “small” is less of a description of size—which would more likely be “iti’—than a description of stature). 

The word for library whare pukapuka roughly translates to house of books. 

I realise that these are very distinct concepts and words.  However, for someone who knows so little about the language, wharepaku sort of kind of maybe sounds a bit like whare pukapuka. 

So, as T and I strolled through theWellingtonCBD one Saturday afternoon and I pointed to the grand Wellington Central Library and said, “Look, it’s the wharapaku!”, you can imagine why he choked on his soda and started laughing. 

As you can see, the Wellington Central Library is not insubstantial. And it is definitely NOT a toilet!

Te Reo Maōri is an official language of New Zealand, but there was a time when children in school were forbidden to speak it.  There was a time in the not so distant past when it seemed as if Te Reo would die an unceremonious and needless death.  Through many recent efforts and much encouragement—both private and public—there is now a slow and steady movement towards more New Zealanders having a working fluency in Te Reo. 

I tell this story (and give you this lesson) because I think it’s important to preserve indigenous culture.  A huge part of that preservation is maintaining a base of knowledge of the language.  Without the language, we are lost.  I realise it may seem odd that an American living in New Zealand is saying this.  Maybe it is odd.  I don’t know.  I guess part of it is that so much of the Native American culture is now lost, as are the people, the languages, the crafts.  The history.  Perhaps that’s why I’m so keen on this topic.  For me (and for my wounded pride) I hope that means that many, many more people will proudly (albeit mistakenly) point to the library and exclaim, “Look!  There’s the toilet!”

Advertisements

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trevor
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 17:27:18

    The whare pukapuka has a wharepaku!

    Reply

  2. seamunchkin
    Sep 19, 2011 @ 18:40:25

    Ba ha ha ha ha! Brilliant!
    10 points for trying though! Bislama is much easier. A toilet is ‘blong pis pis’ xx

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: