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If te reo is the door, as in the title of this compilation of the words of Tā Tīmoti Kāretu and Tākuta Te Wharehuia Milroy, it is the threshold between the wharenui of the past and the open courtyard of the future. Standing at the paepae, these kaumātua describe the transformations they have both witnessed and led in te reo me ōna tikanga, the language and its customs, creating a taukaea, a bond, from past through present to firmly anchor the future.
Kāretu and Milroy’s work to revitalise te reo me ōna tikanga could be compared to the restoration of poupou (carved panels) in the wharenui of te reo. Guided by knowledge handed down to them, Tā Tīmoti and Tākuta Te Wharehuia carefully bring the faded panels to life, revealing the figures within that will guide new generations of orators as they breathe life into almost forgotten words.
It is fitting that He Kupu Tuku Iho is written entirely in te reo. With its conversational style and personal stories grounding the discussion of core tikanga, the language reaches out even to the learner. Lively discussions between the pair hold the reader’s attention by deftly varying spoken rhythm and subject matter, from the lofty heights of spirituality to earthy humour.
The transcribed words of the authors reflect their voice, cadence, and favoured turns of phrase and expressions leaned upon and brandished for emphasis like tokotoko (walking sticks). This is a written record of an eloquence rarely heard, let alone read.
Tā Tīmoti and Tākuta Te Wharehuia have kept the linguistic fires burning despite passing showers of pessimism about the future of te reo. Now, ka rite ki te kōpara e kō nei i te ata, like the bellbird singing in the morning, te reo rangatira resounds throughout the motu, adorned by vocabulary restored and reintroduced by these kaitiaki reo.
Tā Tīmoti is known for arguing te reo is in better shape than often feared, though he recognises it is changing. Whatever shape those changes finally take, this book preserves the language wielded by these tohunga reo for future speakers, teachers and learners.
Yet this book is a door to far more than language. In chapters on wairua and tapu, Te Wharehuia leads readers through the mist into the world of his childhood, of kēhua (ghosts), tohunga, and a white-feathered guardian morepork that dodges stones thrown by mischievous boys.
And as befits the sharing of such knowledge, there are stern words about treading neither on tikanga nor on the wrong place in an urupā that will echo in readers’ ears long after turning the final page. But on the other side of the kapa (penny), there is warm and helpful advice on how to find the right balance between humour and remembrance when speaking at a tangi.
Complementing Tākuta Te Wharehuia’s kōrero on tikanga, Tā Tīmoti shares his lively but piercing analysis of te reo of yesterday and today. He spots English words dressed in Māori kākahu, and observes the changing flow of the language as it is channelled into the thought patterns of speakers whose first language is English.
Their book sits in a unique space between wānanga and a talk between koroua; between history, current affairs and musings on the future; between autobiography and chronicle. It is informative, never dull, and sometimes hātakēhi (hard case).
As a path in te reo to the pou (pillars) of te ao Māori, this work has few rivals. It is the fruit of two lifetimes of gathering and sharing knowledge. Although the language may challenge some, the rewards of taking this wero and opening the door are many. Ka mau te wehi!
Reviewed by Paul Moenboyd
He Kupu Tuku Iho: Ko te Reo Māori te Tatau ki te Ao
by Tīmoti Kāretu and Wharehuia Milroy
Published by Auckland University Press