Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Aspects of change in the syntax of Māori - A corpus-based study

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posted on 2021-11-15, 12:22 authored by Karena Kelly

In the current climate of Māori language revitalisation, there is ample anecdotal evidence to suggest that not only the vocabulary, but also the syntax of modern Māori is markedly different from its traditional roots, and that it shows significant influence from English syntax. However, syntactic change in Māori has not hitherto been rigorously studied. This thesis aims to provide material evidence of change in Māori syntax, through a corpus-based study of grammatical change in te reo Māori over the period of contact with English.  My methodology involved the compilation and comparison of two synchronic corpora representing the two ends of the contact period to provide a diachronic perspective on the language. Each corpus consists of approximately 102,000 running words of material written originally in Māori. The early corpus contains items published pre-1900. The modern material was written post-1990. The thesis is not only an exploration of the possibility of documenting syntactic change through the use of such corpora, but also tests whether it is possible to do this using corpora significantly smaller than the multi-million word corpora typical in corpus linguistics.  The scope of this methodology is tested by examining three distinct types of grammatical features: a grammatical particle (the preposition mō), a pair of semantically related lexemes that appear to be undergoing a process of grammaticalisation (the verbs taea and āhei), and a widespread grammatical construction (certain types of relative clauses). In each instance, the two corpora are compared for features such as the frequency of occurrence, the associated constructions, and the contexts of use.  In relation to the methodological questions, the thesis concludes that while these corpora are too small to provide adequate data on individual lexical items like taea and āhei, the methodology did make it possible to document change in the other, relatively high-frequency grammatical features.  The thesis also raises the questions of whether the changes identified result from the direct adoption of English usages and constructions, whether they result from insufficient exposure to traditional Māori as a result of the dominance of English, or whether they are perhaps instead the result of internally-motivated Māori language evolution. This leads to a discussion of the likely implications of the changes documented here for the future of the language and the language community. I argue that acceptance of all such change as natural and unavoidable is likely to be detrimental to the future of te reo Māori.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Maori Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Alternative Language


Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Maori Studies : Te Kawa a Māui


Bauer, Winifred; Marra, Meredith; Holmes, Janet