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What is the New Zealand Language?

What language is mostly spoken in New Zealand?

English is the predominant language of New Zealand with over 96% of the population able to speak it.

However, there are only 2 official languages of New Zealand, Māori and New Zealand sign language.

The indigenous language of the Māori people was made an official language in 1987. 

Sign Language New Zealand Official Language

New Zealand recognised sign language as the second official language in 2006. 

Te Reo Māori - the Māori Language

Maori Language New Zealand

Māori written language first started out as pictographs and petroglyphs as per the below images.

Maori Pictographs New Zealand

 Beautiful rock carvings can be found in rock outcrops throughout the country.

Maori Petroglyphs Carvings New Zealand

This 14m (45ft) detailed and symmetrical face carving is found in Mine Bay Lake Taupo. You can take a tour boat to get an up-close view of this remarkable carving.

Maori Petroglyphs Carvings Lake Taupo New Zealand


The Māori language is similar to other pacific cultures.

It is unique only to New Zealand and is nowhere else in the world.

When more European settlers arrived the need for written Māori communication increased.

To allow the Europeans a method in which they could learn the local language to be able to communicate with the Māori.

Missionaries made a first attempt at writing down the Māori language in 1814.

Thomas Kendall was in the first batch of missionaries to come to New Zealand.

He wrote the New Zealanders' first book [A Korao no New Zealand] which was sent back to the famed linguist Professor Samuel Lee in England to complete Grammar & Vocabulary of the New Zealand Language.

He did this with the assistance of the Māori Chief Hongi Hika and Waikato. However, it did not please everyone. 

So Hongi, Waikato, and Kendall got a ship and traveled back to England in 1820.

Illustration of Thomas Kendall, Chief Hongi Hika and Waikato in England

Illustration of Thomas Kendall, Chief Hongi Hika and Waikato in England.

They worked alongside the famous linguist Professor Samuel Lee from Cambridge University publishing A Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language of New Zealand in 1820.

A Grammar and Vocabulary of the Language of New Zealand -Thomas Kendall and Samuel Lee (1820)

Samuel Lee Maori Language First Book NZ

On the left is the first widely published book on the Grammer and Vocabulary of New Zealand. On the right is a portrait of Samuel Lee the famous Cambridge linguist who helped complete the work.

This book was the first widely published book on the Māori language and seen as the first international research collaboration with the Māori.

Treaty of Waitangi New Zealand

Illustration of the treaty of Waitangi being signed in New Zealand.

Despite the official status it struggles to continue being lost to time.

During the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, it was said Queen Victoria herself promised the Māori that their language would be protected.

Maori Rock Carvings New Zealand

Hypocritically the Māori language was not encouraged in schools in fact discouraged.

By the 1920s there were only a few schools around the country teaching Māori grammar and language.

Many Māori at the time also encouraged their children to speak English as it was essential for work and other activities involving opportunities with the English. 

Recently Māori language has started to gather more widespread support and is currently commonly used and taught in both media and schools.

When you visit New Zealand you will quickly notice the Māori language in our place names, for example, Kaikoura, Whangarei, Manukau, and many more.

There are also various Māori cultural experiences around the country you can visit to learn more about their culture, traditions, and food.

Learn some Māori

Here is a list of some of the common Māori language phrases you can learn:

  • Aotearoa (New Zealand – literally means - Long white cloud)
  • aroha (love)
  • hangi (traditional food feast prepared in an earth oven)
  • haka (war dance)
  • iwi (tribe)
  • kai (food)
  • Kia ora (Hello, greetings)
  • Haere mai - (Welcome)
  • Tena koe - Greetings to you (said to one person)
  • mana (Prestige, reputation)
  •  (traditional Māori hill fort)
  • Pākeha (New Zealander of non-Māoridescent, usually European)
  • pounamu (greenstone)
  • waka (canoe, vehicle)
  • whānau (family)


Despite English being the predominant language of New Zealand it is not officially recognised as an official language of New Zealand.

New Zealand Sign Language and Māori are the only recognised official languages of New Zealand.

Initially, Māori was not a written language until the English missionaries came in the late 18th century to assist turning Māori into a written language. 

After years of trial and error, New Zealand's first Grammar and Vocabulary book on the Language of New Zealand was developed in 1820. 

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