Keep it simple stupid*

(*Or Keep It Simple Student if you grew up in a more politically correct era)

I’m always on the lookout for simple sentences in te reo. While there are some people who eat new vocabulary for breakfast, I’ve always been in awe of the phrases that appear basic and yet say so much. Sometimes, I’ll stare at a sentence only a few words long, trying to understand what makes it work. I’ll know every word in the sentence so – in theory – I should be able to construct it myself. Like this one:

Koia nei koe.
This is who you are.

Damn! Why can’t I do that?! Why is it so much more difficult to learn simple sentences than it was to learn complicated ones?

I’m pretty sure the key to greater fluency is throwing away every sentence structure I’ve ever learnt and replacing them. For example, I might say something like this:

He tere te oma o te hoiho.
The horse runs fast (i.e. The running is fast)

There’s nothing exactly wrong with that sentence but it’s just plain ugly. A nicer way to say essentially the same thing would be:

He hoiho tere ki te oma.
It’s a fast-running horse (i.e. the horse is fast)

While my English translation might be a bit odd, the Māori phrasing and rhythm is a lot nicer to the ear than the first example. I learnt both of these types of structures years ago so it’s not as if they’re new, but I tend to use the first when I could just as easily use the second. If you’re a second-language speaker, you probably make the same type of… well, not mistakes, but inelegant choices.

Find a nice short phrase in te reo written by a native speaker. Translate it into English. Then try translating it back to Māori in your own words. How much do you want to bet that it’s longer, uglier or more awkward than the original?

pēnā koe i konei
if you’re here
mehemea kei konei koe

So I’m starting a campaign. Whenever I find a day-to-day phrase that I think is particularly eloquent I’m gonna share it, and I’m gonna give some props to those supposedly ‘basic’ sentences which can actually be quite clever. Maybe one day they’ll sink in. Koia nei au.


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