Friday 27 February 2009

What's in a name?

"Wanganui" or "Whanganui"? History has dropped the "h".

I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t allow this posting by Lew over at Kiwipolitico to pass without comment.

Waxing eloquent on the perfidy of Wanganui’s "grasping settler" community, and its refusal to change the name of their city to "Whanganui", Lew has this to say:

They live here, and they grasp, but generally they make few and feeble attempts to engage with tangata whenua, seeing them as outsiders, as enemies, and as competitors because on some level there is a recognition that they retain a moral claim to resources, discourse and authority. The settlers, despite this recognition, consider that it is their land, and their river and their town, and any arguments or evidence to the contrary are met with hostility and the rhetoric of assimilation.

Mayor Michael Laws:

"Wanganui is not a Maori name. It has assumed an identity, a heritage, a history and a mana of its own."

You’ll go far to find a more convenient statement of revisionist ignorance in NZ identity politics. This forms the sole and entire argument in principle against the name change; it’s been that way for ages, so the word no longer means what it once meant – or more plainly, it’s an old mistake so it’s no longer a mistake. If this were to hold everywhere, then the mis-transliteration or misspelling of any word would necessarily destroy any connection to the original in every case: a patently idiotic idea.

But is it?

Take the name of this blog as a case in point.

The proper noun "Bowalley" is a corruption of another proper noun, "Bewley", which is itself a corruption of the French adjective "beaulieu" meaning "beautiful view", which was transformed into a proper noun by Charles Suisted, the Swedish settler who, having acquired that part of the North Otago coast lying to the north of the Waianakarua River and east of Mt Charles in the 1850s, bestowed this name upon it. When, nearly a century later, the property was purchased by my father, "Beaulieu" was still its name.

By that time, however, the locals, who struggled with the correct French pronunciation of "beaulieu", had taken to referring to the property as either "Bewley" or "Bowalley" (the name given to the road that leads past the farm). Another variant of "Beaulieu" was "Baldie" – which eventually became "The Baldie", signifying the little creek which runs through the property, and empties, via a marshy delta, into the Pacific Ocean at the end of Bowalley Road.

The English-speaking peoples are notorious for this sort of linguistic mutation, it’s what lends such richness and colour to the landscapes in which they settle.

Lew castigates the people of Wanganui for daring to express a preference for the name their forefathers bestowed upon the town. But Michael Laws is right: history has normalised the spelling; "Wanganui" has become the name of the settlement. And yes, of course, we all know it's a corruption of the Maori whanganui – just as "Bewley" is a corruption of Suisted’s "Beaulieu" – but that’s just the way language works, and the way a culture evolves.

What’s more, Ken Mair’s demand that the pre-colonial appellation be restored is, I strongly suspect, part-and-parcel of a much more ambitious plan to reclaim his people’s sovereignty over the entire region. To do that, however, Ken and his people would have to fight the colonial wars of conquest all over again – this time emerging as the winners.

So perhaps the "grasping settlers" Lew condemns are smarter than he is willing to admit. Perhaps they see right through Ken’s seemingly harmless demand that the spelling of the city’s name be changed. Perhaps, by resisting this little challenge today, the Wanganui District Council and its Mayor can avoid resisting much more dangerous challenges tomorrow.


Unknown said...

The forefathers of the white people of Wanganui did not bestow the the name upon their town. It was already called Whanganui when they arrived. And that's the difference between Bowalley and Whanganui. Whanganui is not a made up name in a foreign tounge. It's an indigenous name. The people who named Whanganui still live there and have no problem pronouncing or spelling it. Surely they should be accorded the respect to spell their name how they prefer.

Anonymous said...

The people who named Whanganui still live there and have no problem pronouncing or spelling it

Hey Chris (commenter, not ex-Critic/Dragonfly editor), so just how did the locals spell Wanganui in pre-European times?

Anonymous said...

Chris Trotter, I think you are right.

If Maori is to be a live, working language rather than a cultural artifact it needs to adjust to changing use, just as English does.

It's not a question of which is right, but of what is common use, as you point out. Problems in the past and present with translating an originally unwritten language like Maori into an ever changing language like English will never end.

Maori needs to be flexible to live with English.

Ken Mair, from his name and appearance seems to have a dual British-Maori heritage. This bothers him, I suspect.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't it merely spelled as it was pronounced at the time?

Anonymous said...

I have noticed the Whanganui Maori seem to pronounce 'Wh' more like 'w' - many times I have heard the Maori Party co-leader say (what sounds like) 'war-now' for 'whanau'. This would explain the original error in the spelling (yes error. The real issue is the lack of respect for Maori displayed by many in the town and area. As a sing of respect - give them the H back. It need not change the pronounciation.

I do realise that respect is earned, so perhaps Ken and co. might need to think a little on that.

Anonymous said...

"Hey Chris (commenter, not ex-Critic/Dragonfly editor), so just how did the locals spell Wanganui in pre-European times?"

Maori have no native written language, so it was written phonetically in English as the settlers first heard it. It was never written down prior to this... meaning Maori was probably a very dynamic language in terms of pronunciation.

I fear some elements of the Maori community are falling into the trap of thinking pronunciation should never change over time, rather like those boring middle aged white people who write and complain to the papers about "kid these days"...

I think it would be more relevant to get rid of the "Wh" in most other names... perhaps replacing it with a "Ph" or even... "f"!!

I still reckon this whole WH thing started because the Victorians couldn't bring themselves to write "Fuckatarney" :)

DetMackey said...

Wow. I've seen many writings by Trotter that predict violent uprising, but none - until today - that somehow, somehow, require a spelling correction to occur first!

The only thing more astounding is that Michael Laws is all that saves us from such dangerous goings on.

Anonymous said...

Wanganui should be re-named Lawsville because the whole damned town is continuously subjected to the ranting of this arrogant sod who uses the local media, his radio programme, the district council web site and every possible public occasion and issue to put himself in the limelight and bombard the city with his inflexible views of how things should be under Laws.

Anonymous said...

Yes, pass me a rhock please....

backin15 said...

Chris, this is a great way to respond to Lew's piece. I'm in his camp, but clearly see the merit to your perspective. I do wonder though if Laws wouldn't use the spectre of Motoua Gardens to defeat what, to me at least, is a reasonable request? Mair's presence doesn't negate the claim.

The anglicisation of this and other names may well be predictable and common, but what rights to the dynamic indigenous people have if not the right to their name?

Clement Ruruku said...

Wanganui is not a engish or a maori name it has no meanig the mayor of Wanganui and residents
should look up the old english dictionary from
1850,1851,1852,1853,1854,1855 and wanganui cannot
be found in the maori dictionary