Dinosaurs, aliens and string theory

I was caught out twice in one week about my carefree/careless use of the words ka and kua. Damn students. Well, at least I know someone’s listening.

According to my students, ka and kua are tense markers, i.e. these word show whether an action will happen in the future or has happened in the past. They think that because that’s what I told them they mean.

Liar, liar, pants on fire! Nose as long as a telephone wire!

All teachers are liars; lying about grammar things makes life easier in the short term and this ka & kua thing is one of the great myths that we like to perpetuate. In truth, these words have nothing at all to do with the time at which something happens, but its progress, i.e. whether an action is starting or ending.

Imagine time is a long string. Far in the past dinosaurs ruled the earth, far in the future aliens will drive hover-craft taxis, and we’re currently somewhere in-between.

If we’ve completed an action we use kua, if we start a new action we use ka.

Timeline showing present

Kua kai ahau
I have eaten.
(The action of eating was completed at or before the present time)

Ka moe ahau
I will sleep.
(The action of sleeping will begin at or after the present time)

So far it seems as if ka and kua are tense markers that correlate to the future and the past. Well, that’s just a coincidence.

Timeline showing future events

Ā te Kirihimete, ka hararei mātou ki Fiji.
Next Christmas, we will holiday in Fiji.
(The holidaying will begin at or after next Christmas)

Ā te Kirihimete, kua hūnuku whare mātou.
By next Christmas, we will have moved house.
(The moving will be complete at or before next Christmas)

The house-move and the Fiji holiday are both future events (they’re on the alien side of ‘now’) so if the lies are to believed all sentences should use ka. Right?

Wrong! Ka and kua are always relative to the point of time that you are speaking of, regardless of tense. Essentially what we’re saying is Christmas is the ‘end-point’ for moving house, and the ‘start-point’ for the holiday.

Or – if you like time-travel mind-benders – if jump in our DeLoreans to ‘Xmas’, then moving house will be in the past despite the fact that it’s in our present future.

I told you ka and kua have nothing to do with tense!

Timeline showing past events

I te tau 1840, ka hainatia te Tiriti o Waitangi.
In the year 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed.
(The signing didn’t begin until the year 1840)

I taua wā, kua noho ture kore Ngāi Pākehā.
At that time, Europeans were living in a state of lawlessness.
(They were lawless prior to the aforementioned time)

A lot of people get confused with historical accounts and other types of narratives being written mostly with ka but if you remember that it is used to show the beginning of the next action it makes lots more sense, especially as accounts tend to relate events in the order they occurred. Let’s try something a bit more complicated.

Timeline showing sequence of events

I taku haerenga ki ngā toa, ka kai tahi mātou ko ōku hoa i te wharekai Thai, ā, ka hokona he waea hou i te mea kua pakaru tāku i taku tama. Ka kitea ētahi hū papai rawa atu heoi kua pau kē āku putea i te waea.

When I went to town, I had lunch with my friends at the Thai restaurant and I bought a new phone because my son had broken my old one. I saw some really great shoes but I’d already spent all my money on the phone.

I only used one time phrase at the very beginning (i taku haerenga) to give context. Then each subsequent phrase becomes the new point of time for the following one. We ate lunch after going to town, so ka. I spent the money before seeing the shoes, so kua.

This language feature is one of the great advantages Māori has over English and makes writing in the correct tense a doddle. In fact, if I wanted to change this whole story to the future tense, I’d only have to change one letter (the first I becomes an Ā) but in English it requires 10 changes in just two sentences. Yay te reo!


4 thoughts on “Dinosaurs, aliens and string theory

  1. Pingback: Back to the future | upokopakaru

  2. Tautoko katoa ana au i āu kōrero e hika e! Kua roa nei au e whakaako ana, pēnā i a koe. (I a au e pānui ana, i paku kata au ki a au anō haha!) Āe, he māmā ake te rūkahu (paku nei), ā, taihoa ake, kia waia ai rātou ki te āhuatanga o tō tātou reo, ka āta whangai atu ai i ēnei momo ture. Ka mutu pea tāu whakamārama!

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