Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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William Colenso’s Māori-English Lexicon

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posted on 2021-12-07, 14:55 authored by Thompson Darling, Charlotte Frances

William Colenso, one of Victorian New Zealand’s most accomplished polymaths, is remembered best as a printer, a defrocked missionary, botanist, and politician. Up till now, his role as a lexicographer has been largely neglected. His major biographies touch only briefly on his attempt to compile a Māori-English dictionary while Colenso himself spent 30 years on this project. His Lexicon, published the year before his death, is only the incomplete letter A of Māori to English and a handful of pages of English to Māori. The neglect by Colenso’s biographers is a surprising omission given the length of time Colenso spent on his Lexicon, the amount of extant material that relates to it, and the richness of the Lexicon itself as a resource. This thesis asks what William Colenso’s Maori-English Lexicon contribute to our understanding of Colenso’s life, and about the history of language in New Zealand?  In chapter one, a brief outline of Colenso’s roles as a missionary, a botanist, a school inspector and a politician establish important biographical context for considering his attempt to compile a Lexicon. The main resource drawn upon is the 30 years’ worth of correspondence between Colenso and the New Zealand government relating to the Lexicon, which affords an overview of the project. The Lexicon itself is a rich resource. In chapter two, I have drawn on a methodology suggested by Ogilvie and Coleman in their paper Forensic Lexicography in order to interrogate the Lexicon. Lastly, in chapter three, themes and discourses found in the archive are considered.  Examining the Lexicon demonstrates how rich of a resource it is. The findings establish the wealth of information that the Lexicon can contribute to historical lexicography, and the history of linguistics in New Zealand. Colenso is revealed a ‘splitter’ in his lexicography, just as he was in his botany. He overwhelmingly drew on printed sources as citations when compiling his Lexicon, which raises questions about what ‘authority’ means when recording a language with an oral tradition.  Te reo Māori was a means for Colenso to access many aspects of te ao Māori. The Lexicon also reveals Colenso as a life-long language learner. The archive reveals Colenso as man deeply anxious about his professional standing. His insistence on what he referred to as fair and reasonable remuneration is an insistence on the worth of his knowledge.  This thesis argues that Colenso’s Lexicon is a product of language contact and cultural exchange. And it is a window into Colenso’s life as a man who learnt another language.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

New Zealand Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970121 Expanding Knowledge in History and Archaeology

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

Stout Research Centre


Wevers, Lydia; Shep, Sydney