Friday, September 18, 2009

The orthographical h bomb

The Geographic Board has created a furore by recommending that the city of Wanganui be re-spelled Whanganui. There have been many places with Maori names that have been re-spelled over the years (an editor's nightmare!) but all have been small; this is the first city or sizeable town that has come up for re-spelling. The issue has already been put to local citizens by referendum and resulted in an 80% rejection, but that carries no weight with the Geographic Board.

Maori has only existed as a written language since European settlement and for some obscure reason the orthographers of the time decided to render the "f" sound as "wh" even though in other Polynesian languages "f" is used in spelling. In English, of course, an "h" after a "w" makes no difference to pronunciation. The issue is complicated by the fact that Wanganui is correctly pronounced in the local dialect like it is written now, and not with a "f" sound.

For most people who don't live in Wanganui the issue may be a storm in a teacup - but, what will be next? Using both Maori and European names has been the compromise often used, e.g. Somes Island and Matiu, Mt Cook and Aoraki, but the issue is certainly divided along racial lines and is not going to go away.

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