Making modifications

As a learner you always come across words you don’t know. If it doesn’t interfere with your general comprehension of the sentence, the usual response is to put them in the I’ll-deal-with-you-later basket.

Then I was at a wānanga talking about some geeky grammar nonsense when the lecturer wrote this up.

tonu mai nei ai
rawa atu hoki
noa ake anō
iho koā
kau pea

I’ll admit that I knew I skimmed over some words in Māori but I didn’t realise I’d ignored an entire group of words. I’m talking about the first column above, i.e. rawa, tonu, noa, and kau. I’d seen and heard them before but there was no way I would have used them in a sentence of my own creation – only in specific phrases (e.g. ināia tonu nei, he pai rawa atu).

Now that I understand them, they’ve completely revolutionised the way I express myself and I want everyone to realise how clever they are too. They’re they key to understanding a lot of the subtleties in te reo. So this is the first post of a series trying to explain how to untangle these five little words.

The first thing to know is that there are some words in Māori are meaty. You know what I mean by meaty, those words that actually mean something (whare, haere, horoi, ātaahua). Other words are incomprehensible out of context (kei, ai, iho). They only have a meaning when partnered with one of the meaty words (kei ngaro, haere ai, iti iho). Guess which group our Super-5 are in?

Yep, 5 little untranslatable words.

The second thing to know is that their job is to subtly modify the meaty word. It’s these little pakas that give all the shades and nuances of meaning to what you say – that’s why they’re so important! If you want to learn them, you have to see them ‘partnered’ in as many different contexts as possible and try to get a feel for what they mean. Could I be any more airy-fairy?

We’re gonna take a look at each one individually and then compare them all, but if you’re playing along at home here’s your assignment. Look up the ‘meanings’ of these 5 words in your dictionaries (as many as possible). The more broadly you can think about each of the words, the better you’ll be able to use them.

Next up: Tonu


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