Kāi Tahu Reo At Ōtākou with the quick introduction of Christianity by the missionaries our ancestors quickly took up writing with gusto and between whānau and archives we have an extensive library of manuscripts, waiata, whakapapa and other information in te reo Māori.

However we haven't had the intergenerational transmission of language in the home for 3-4 generations or more. Our last native speaker who was raised at Ōtākou was Tarewai Wesley and he died in 1969.

We have been fortunate that in more recent times some of our people have made huge efforts to try and learn te reo Māori and have varying levels of fluency. Our matriarchs such as Aunt Magdalene Walscott and Aunt Mori Pickering (nee Ellison) and other kaumatua such as Aunt Jean Duff (nee Bragg), Tatane Wesley, George Ellison, Boyd Russell and the list goes on couldn't speak Māori. Although they may have had exposure to many native speakers as children and rakatahi through to the 1960's they were not able to pass te reo on to their children as a first language. Some of the following generation have spent time learning te reo Māori, Khyla Russell and Raewyn Harris (nee Russell) attended Te Ātaarangi in Poneke in the 70's, Edward Ellison has attended many wānaka since the early 80's and others likes of Kuao Langsbury picked up some ceremonial te reo and this has all been in a time when events like the exhibition of Te Māori forced our people to learn and also the Ngāi Tahu claim was also at its concluding peak. This generation have possibly had the least exposure and the most difficult road to walk in learning te reo Māori.

The following generations have had more opportunities to learn and some of our people have gone through the kohanga reo and kura kaupapa, others have attended university to learn and many have entered varying wānaka around the country. Tahu Potiki has dedicated years to learning te reo and researching Kāi Tahu reo (please visit http://www.otakourep.co.nz if you would like specific Kāi Tahu reo information from Tahu's papers and research)

There are now younger whānau attempting to raise their children in te reo by speaking Māori to their children in an effort to recreate language as a normal language within the home. Please contact Paulette Tamati-Elliffe at paulette@ngaitahu.iwi.nz<../../index.htmla> if you would like to know more about the Ngāi Tahu language initiative called Kotahi Mano Kāika.

Learning te reo Māori isn't something all of our people have taken on. Within our local Ōtākou community and on the marae, whānau have committed to areas that they value and live by like mahika kai, going to the titi islands, protecting our tuaki, digging our graves, looking after our kāuta and the list goes on. However there are those whānau who have had the fortune and time and hunger to learn te reo and commit to it as a spoken and living language.

To conclude it is important for you to know that Ōtākou supports the dialectual "K" and the revitalisation of our kīwaha, whakataukī, kupu ake etc... There is copious evidence in our manuscripts, waiata, placenames and so forth that we also had a distinct dialect and idioms and words that were quite unique to Kāi Tahu, Kāti Mamoe and Waitaha. Please see Tahu Potiki's site for information on dialect and history around the language – http://www.otakourep.co.nz

It is important to note however that our language is not so unusual as to not be understood at all by other iwi throughout New Zealand. Fortunately our close links to Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Porou have provided us with an opportunity to examine the language similarities in genre, style, grammar, idiom, proverbial sayings and text. Our languages are strikingly similar because of our genealogical links and this is evident in manuscripts, waiata and mōteatea, parliamentary letters and particularly in the scores of past Māori Newspapers.

If you have questions about Kāi Tahu dialect or Māori language please contact Te Runaka o Ōtākou and you will be forwarded to the right sources for information and or explanation.


This is an example of a letter written by H.K.Taiaroa in 1852. This is really a model example of our Kāi Tahu reo of that time. There are some distinct features that are identifiably Kāi Tahu. Here is a list of some of the features in the letter :

Māruaroa – this is our word for the month March
Kā – the 'K' instead of the 'Ng'
Kurapa mai – a word unique to our iwi that can be translated as – 'make haste'/ 'quick'
Tou – this is the same as tonu and is also a feature in te reo o Ngāti Porou
Kauraka – this is the same as 'Kaua'
Mātau – this is the same as 'mātou'

otakou 2.jpg

Te 1 o kā rā o Māruaroa 1852

E hoa e te Makarini.

Kāore anō tō pukapuka kia tae mai ki ahau, ka oti pea te tahae e kā kaitiaki pukapuka. Kurapa mai tētahi pukapuka i a koe, kia kurehu tou mai, kia roko au i tā kōrua kōrero ko te Wahapiro.

E tama, e Wani, nā taua takata nā, nā te Wahapiro ki a koe.

Kauraka hoki a roa atu, kia wawe te roko atu mātau.

Ka mutu

Nā tōu hoa aroha

Nā Taiaroa

Notes from Tahu

Below is a note list put together by Tahu Pōtiki on some historical background, whakapapa and features of Kāi Tahu reo that may be helpful if you would like to do your own research and learn more about Kāi Tahu reo and its origins.


Kāi Tahu Reo

1. The origins of te reo Māori – Proto Polynesian Family of te reo aligning Māori language with Tahitian, Rarotongan, Tuamotuan languages.

2. There are definitely tribal differences. Within the study of reo, dialects of a particular language are generally considered to have 81% to 100% shared cognancy. Anything outside this would be considered close but a separate language (Harlow 1979:130)

3. We see that Kāi Tahu language differs but there is significant correlation to the East Coast of the North Island.

4. Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Porou share a similar reo because of the whakapapa links with Kāi Tahu. Cross iwi words such as:

  • Hākui/Hākoro
  • Huanui
  • Pohatu
  • Kai/hai
  • Tātau/Mātau

However the Kāī Tahu reo is evidently different. Therefore the reo of the South Island originated before the Tai Rāwhiti migration.

5. The written record of Kāi Tahu reo is extensive and extends back as far as Cook's early visits to the South Island.

6. Reverend James Watkins who was a Missionary at Waikouaiti wrote a Ngāi Tahu word list His word list – had no "ng" 

He was the first missionary in the South Is having lived in Tonga and studied Māori in the Nth Is, probably at Kororāreka where there was a missionary school. He arrived at Karitane which was originally known as Waikouaiiti in Feb 1840. Believing he had been condemned to a hell on earth that was to live amoung the Māoris. At his 1st sermon they did not understand a word of his te reo Māori!

He wrote "I soon found out that the dialect spoken here differs materially form that of the North Island"

The Kāi Tahu people at Karitane told him as he tried to preach to them from the North Island te reo Māori publications - "Kāhore e matau" (we do not understand)

7. John Boultbee was a fascinating character. From Cornwell he went to Tasmania and then to N.Z. He was an oddity. He lived in Colac Bay around 1820. He recorded an absolutely unique dialect. He married a Kāi Tahu for a couple of years. His diary was found in an attic in New South Wales (1960). 2 books have been written on him "The Journey of a Rambler" and the "Diary of John Boultbee"

8. Reverend J.Wohlers, resident missionary on Ruapuke Island from 1844 to 1885, collected and published many Southern traditions. He commented on the nature of the Southern Dialect and the close proximity between the l and r and the p and b.

9. Edward Shortland, Protector of Aborigines, walked from Karitane to Akaroa and also travelled as far South as Ruapuke Island by boat conducting a Native Census. He kept a diary that formed the basis of the book called "The Southern Districts of New Zealand"

He also published his on vocabulary of the "Kāi Tahu Dialect" Shortland was a fluent speaker of Māori when he moved South. His word lists are excellent.

10. Many Kāi Tahu could read and write Māori and English early on

Matiaha Tiramorehu (a noted tohunga from Moeraki) in 1849 wrote a kōrero all about his wifes suicide in distinctly Kāi Tahu reo. Writers like Tiramorehu spoke with "K" s but were taught the written language with "Ng's". Tiramorehu was a student of Watkins and Watkins successor was Rev Creed. He taught Tiramorehu how to write and he wrote a great deal.

His reo confusion : you find in his writings kangau for kakau – ngakau (North Island dialect)

11. Timoti Karetai the son of Karetai who signed the Treaty of Waitangi wrote a letter in 1854 with his native Kāi Tahu language. A letter pleading with the government to give back Pukekura(Taiaroa Heads)

12. Those who did not write or have an understanding of the written language signed papers etc with their Moko e.g Karetai signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Pukekura with his moko.

13. The waiata tangi "E kimi ana" was recalled and written down by Moses Woods. This waiata is relatively well known amongst many Kāi Tahu today. A second generation recalled this waiata and by this time Māori were completely literate.

14. In 1906 Taare Wetere Te Kaahu of Ōtākou published an account of the Kāi Tahu wars against Te Rauparaha in the Journal of the Polynesian Society. This was entirely in Kāi Tahu Dialect.

15. Herries Beatties did some comparison work on the dialects within Kāi Tahu. From this it is evident that dialects were certainly different even within our own iwi.