May I? or Can I?

I have vivid memories of mealtimes at my grandmother’s house. On the plus side they ate five times a day, but on the down side each meal was a lesson in manners and etiquette. It is solely due to Nana that I know the right way to:

  • eat anything from soup (the far side of the bowl) to salad (no knife) to bananas (with a knife)
  • butter bread (break off a bite-sized piece, butter it, eat it)
  • fold and use napkins (dab, dab)
  • place the cutlery during (at 4:40 position, tines down, handles off table) and after a meal (at the 4:20 position)
  • pass and serve dishes (serving spoons at 4:20, never dish up another’s serving).

And of course I learnt all about the word MAY.

May I have the salt? Yes you may.
May I have a slice of cake? No you may not.
May I please be excused? No, you must wait until everybody has finished.

Why do I bring this up? Because many people don’t know the difference between CAN and MAY, i.e. what is possible and what is permitted.

I CAN have more cake (there is cake and I have a mouth)
but I MAY not eat it (so that there’ll be some left for Granddad).

In the same way, people are often confused about when to use TAEA and when to use ĀHEI.

Ka TAEA e au te keke te kai (arā te keke, anei te waha)
heoi anō e kore au e ĀHEI te kai (kia waiho ētahi mā Koko).

See? Taea is used when it’s possible regardless of whether it’s allowed. Āhei is used when it’s permitted or approved of regardless of whether it’s actually physically possible. This also extends to tikanga, i.e. what is permitted by culture.

Kua kore e TAEA e koe te noho ki runga i te tūru (kua whati ia),
ā, e kore koe e ĀHEI te noho ki runga tēpu (ko te tikanga)

You can no longer sit on the chair (because it’s broken)
and you can’t sit on the table (because it’s impolite)

There’s a whole lot more I need to write regarding how to use ĀHEI (because it can behave as both verb and stative depending on… well, personal preference I suspect) but in the meantime here’s another couple of examples.

Ka TAEA e te tangata te hoko waipiro ki Aotearoa engari e kore koe e ĀHEI, he taiohi tonu koe.
A person can buy alcohol in NZ but you may not because you’re underage.

Kua ĀHEI koe ki te mahi i te kāinga, engari nā te whakakorenga o te ipurangi e kore e TAEA.
It was approved that you could work from home but it’s not possible because the internet was cut off.

The big problem we have is that in modern English the word MAY is slowly but surely being replaced by the word CAN (FYI: there is an entire field of research dedicated to the popularity of words and phrases over time; check out the Google Ngram viewer to see a graph) so there are lots of people today who use CAN instead of MAY when they’re talking about being permitted to do something and then use TAEA instead of ĀHEI in translation. Oh-oh, for folks like my Nana this is the end of civilisation. But is it a problem?

Actually, not at all. I’ve read material by native speakers that use TAEA where you – ahem – ‘should’ use ĀHEI, and I also discovered that – for all the academic nit-picking – the word ĀHEI only appears a half-dozen times in the entire Williams dictionary, whereas the word TAEA appears almost 300 times! It’s possibly just a weird aberration, but I suspect that te reo Māori underwent it’s own change in word popularity some time ago and TAEA has come out as the clear favourite.

Still, it’s always good practice to mind your manners – especially if you’re talking to my Nana.


4 thoughts on “May I? or Can I?

  1. Wetiweti e hoa! He aneane te toki!/Good reading, got me hooked!

    Rawe ō whakaari hei waka kawe e whakangahau ai e whakapakepake ai te tangata i a ia e pānui ana! Me whakairi ēnei momo kōrero ki tō mātou pātū whakatairanga i te reo i tō mātou kura – “Ko te reo kia tika!”

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