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No. 51 (June 1965)
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The writer believes that Maori and other Polynesian languages have developed from Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language.

Most of the languages spoken in Europe are closely related, and are derived from a common source. The ancient language from which they are descended was either Sanskrit, or more probably a language which was closely related to Sanskrit, and is now lost. The people who spoke this ancient Indo-European language later became widely separated, sections of them migrating to new lands.

Changes in Pronunciation

As time went on they acquired new words from the new places where they were living, and they lost some old words. Furthermore, they came to pronounce some of the sounds in their language in a new way. These changes in pronunciation followed regular patterns which are known as ‘sound shifts’. Sound shifts occurred mostly in the case of consonants; though the vowels (that is to say, the sounds a, e, i, o, u and their combinations) also changed, these vowel changes did not follow such a clear pattern.

Because the changes in the pronunciation of consonants did follow a clear pattern, it is possible to trace their history and thereby to show the hidden relationships which exist between these related languages. Here is an example.

English : three
Sanskrit : tri
Latin : tres
French : trois
German : drei

The same regular pattern of sound changes can be traced in the case of some other related consonants.

As is well known, Polynesian languages

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also belong to a single ‘family’, and show a similar relationship. Here are two examples:

Maori : toru
Hawaiian : kolu
Samoan : tolu
Maori : aroha
Hawaiian : aloha
Samoan : alofa

In an article ‘The Oral Literature of the Polynesians’ which appeared in issue no. 49 of ‘Te Ao Hou’, Professor Bruce Biggs traces the different branches of the Polynesian ‘family’ back to a common source, saying that ‘By the beginning of the Christian era a language called Proto-Polynesian was spoken, most probably in Tonga or Samoa’. This language, he tells us, was the mother-tongue from which the various Polynesian languages—Maori, Hawaiian, Samoan, Rarotongan, and so on—were derived.

While this explains the position within Polynesia, there remains the further question: from where did Proto-Polynesian come?

Work by Early Writers

In the nineteenth century a good few writers explored the relationships which exist between the languages and cultures of India and South-East Asia and those of Polynesia. Many of these writers argued that the original home of the Polynesian people was India, and many of them considered that there was a clear relationship between the Polynesian language and Sanskrit, one of the ancient languages of India (as mentioned above, Sanskrit is one of the oldest branches of the Indo-European family of languages, to which most European languages—English, French, Greek, and so on—belong).

Among the early writers who discussed the relationship between Polynesian and Sanskrit were the Germans Franz Bopp and Max MüUller. In 1855 Richard Taylor, in his book ‘Te Ika a Maui’, p.384 ff., discussed the question mainly with reference to the Maori language. However the most important contribution to this subject was made by Edward Tregear, who in 1891 published his ‘Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary’. This Maori dictionary quotes parallel words to be found in other Polynesian languages, and sometimes also quotes parallel words to be found in Asian languages such as Malayan and Sanskrit. Tregear believed that the Maori language was mainly derived from Sanskrit, and that Maori was therefore an Indo-European language, a distant branch of the same family to which most European languages belong. He discusses this theory in his book ‘The Aryan Maori’, published in 1885, and in an article in the ‘Transactions of the New Zealand Institute’, vol. 20, p. 400 ff.

I believe that Tregears' arguments are, in the main, correct. Those who attempt to follow him in this field must be greatly indebted to his important pioneering work. Like most pioneers however, Tregear in many respects worked under difficult circumstances; in particular, he did not have access to a Sanskrit dictionary, but used instead a Hindustani one. Hindustani is a contemporary Indian language derived from Sanskrit; it is as different from Sanskrit as is modern English from Anglo-Saxon.

Also, Tregear was frequently too imaginative and unsystematic in his approach, and did not adequately test the reliability of his conclusions. Because of this he was severely criticised by such contemporary writers as A. S. Atkinson, and his theories have been neglected by later writers.

Tregear recognised the existence of certain ‘sound shifts’ which have occurred between Sanskrit and Maori, but he did not examine these very systematically.

There are many more sound shifts than Tregear recognised, and they are of a more complex nature. Furthermore the development of the Polynesian languages involved the following additional, far-reaching changes:

Changes from Sanskrit to Polynesian


Whereas Sanskrit words often have several consonants together (i.e. ‘consonant clusters’), in Polynesian words each consonant sound is always followed by a vowel (of course the letters ng and wh represent single sounds). This means that every syllable ends in a vowel.


A great many sounds which occur in Sanskrit were dropped altogether from the Polynesian family of languages. Sanskrit has 35 consonants and four half-consonants (i.e. sounds involving both a consonant and a vowel). In Polynesian languages the number of consonants is very much smaller: for example, Maori has only 10 consonants, Samoan has nine and Hawaiian seven.


Many initial and final syllables of Sanskrit words are not present in the Polynesian words derived from them.

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Of a group of Sanskrit consonants, any one may be retained (i.e. sometimes in varied form) [ unclear: ] and any one lost.

Sound Shifts from Sanskrit to Maori

Sanskrit Maori
P, PH, B, BH become P, W, WH, H
K, KH, G, GH, C, CH become K, N, Ng, H
D become T, R
TH, DH become T, H
J, JH, Y become H, I
V become P, W, WH, H, U
N become N, Ng, K, M
L become R
S, SH become H

The sounds H, M, R and T remain as in Sanskrit.

Several of these sound changes are identical with changes occurring when English words are adopted into the Maori language.

Most Sanskrit vowels are quite unstable in the transition to Maori, though they often retain a similarity of sound.

A Few Examples

Here are a few examples of the derivation of Maori words from Sanskrit. Comparatively easy examples have been chosen here.

Meaning Maori Sanskrit
I, me ahau, au aháAm
stone whatu vadháA
outside waho bahis
woman wahine bhaginīM
water-monster taniwha danaváA
to dig ko khan
to look titiro didrikshate
tree rakau ruksha
to see kite cit
to cover over uwhi, whi ubh
throat korokoro gala
to swallow horo gal
to run away tawhiti dhavate
the artisan of the gods, who made the thunderbolt for Indra. TváAshtri
a goddess, the personification of thunder. Whatiri

The Sanskrit words and their definitions given here and in the accompanying article are taken from ‘A Sanskrit-English Dictionary’ by Sir Monier Monier-Williams, published by the Oxford University Press (revised edition of 1951).

A brief sketch of this kind is, of course, quite inadequate for a discussion of such a complicated issue. I hope to be able to publish a fuller treatment of the subject later, but am very conscious of the fact that one person can barely begin to survey such a field. The present article is put forward in the hope that other researchers may examine the matter further.

Mrs Adele Schafer, who lives in Wellington, has for a long time been interested in Maori language and culture. She has not previously published a discussion of her theory as to the origin of the Maori language.

Mrs Schafer has also written a play. ‘The Spiral Tattoo’, which is based on the Mataora myth and is to be broadcast by the N.Z.B.C.