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In 2010, an interesting observation was made about the linguistic identity of the New Zealand state. The observer was the Waitangi Tribunal of New Zealand, a permanently appointed commission of inquiry tasked with investigating claims of Crown breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi that may have caused prejudice to Māori. Of course the Treaty itself was signed by two distinct parties in 1840: the British Crown, and the representatives of Māori tribal groupings. In 1840 the linguistic, ethnic, and cultural identity of each grouping was simply not in doubt. But over the years the British Crown has devolved or morphed into the Crown in right of New Zealand, British settlers became Pākehā New Zealanders, and the Māori themselves have also changed irrevocably. So the Tribunal’s observationwas interesting:

Fundamentally, there is a need for a mindset shift away from the pervasive assumption that the Crown is Pākehā, English-speaking, and distinct from Māori rather than representative of them.   Increasingly, in the twenty-first century, the Crown is also Māori. If the nation is to move forward, this reality must be grasped.

In short, the Crown, in right of New Zealand, is not only Māori, but must also be Māori speaking. In view of New Zealand’s bicultural (and bilingual) legal history, this is not as merely ‘aspirational’ as might be presumed.

In early 2013, a new dictionary will be published in New Zealand. This dictionary will be a bilingual Māori-English language dictionary. Nothing unusual about that; there are quite a few Māori dictionaries about. Nor is the fact that this particular dictionary is a legal dictionary particularly strange; the world is well served with those, even in regards to New Zealand legal English. The Legal Māori Dictionary is relatively unusual, however, for combining these two characteristics. There are, as yet, not many indigenous language legal dictionaries, or indigenous legal language projects around the world. Of course, there are some fascinating indigenous legal language projects, such as the rich searchable collection of native Hawaiian legal documents available through the Ka Huli Ao Digital Archives under the auspices of the Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawai`ian Law. An extensive Irish Language Legal Terminology derived from the bilingual Acts of the Irish parliament has also been made publicly available. In Australia, some exciting work has been done with identifying legal glossaries in a number of aboriginal languages including Yolngu Matha and Murrinh-Patha from the Northern Territory. Not infrequently, such glossaries and terminologies are the result of dedicated workshops, often government funded, set up in order to create a functional lexicon for use in the state legal system by speakers of the target indigenous language, as in the case of the English-Inuktitut-French Legal Glossary released in 1997 by the Nunavut Translator/Interpreter program at Nunavut Arctic College. An earlier but similar project for the Navajo language was published in 1989 by the US District Court for the District of New Mexico, and is still made publicly available by the Judicial Branch of the Navajo Nation. A more recent example is the extensive Sámi legal terminology that has been worked up over recent years and made available online by translators and interpreters working on the translation of state legal documents into Sámi for Sámi-speaking populations of Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden.

So, we at the Legal Māori Project, and our Legal Māori Dictionary, are in good, if select, company. But every legal lexicography project has a unique whakapapa (genealogy) and characteristics that somehow reflect the lived histories of the people who belong to each language.

To briefly outline our whakapapa then. The Legal Māori Project, as established in 2008 in the Law Faculty of Victoria University of Wellington, seeks to achieve two primary aims: • A long-term goal of normalizing the use of the Māori language within the New Zealand legal system; and ultimately, the public, civic sphere of New Zealand society. Māori must claim its place as an ordinary language of the enactment of state law, of government, administration, politics and the economy; • A shorter-term aim of providing bilingual Māori speakers with a resource that can help such speakers can effectively and feasibly choose to use Māori rather than English in that legal system. Such ease of choice is critically important for effective language revitalisation.

The Legal Māori has received four years of public funding for our research from New Zealand’s Ministry of Science and Innovation. Rather than create a legal terminology from scratch, however, we thought it absolutely necessary to carry out a kind of textual excavation of the rich, but mainly hidden Māori-language documents of New Zealand’s bilingual and bicultural legal history. We were aware that there are several thousand pages of publicly available, printed, Māori language documents discussing, applying, translating, critiquing and interpreting Western legal concepts. These documents are available, but sequestered in public repositories such as the Alexander Turnbull Library. In the face of such a rich treasure trove of texts, we considered our best approach was to be a corpus-based one. We would build a body of digitized Māori language texts that we could analyse to identify the kinds of words and phrases that Māori speakers and writers of the past 180 years had been using in those texts. By June 2011, the texts we found and, in crucial partnership with the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre, digitized, totaled 8 million word tokens; the largest purpose-built and structured corpus of Māori language texts known. The pre-1910 texts of the Legal Māori Corpus are publicly available for Maori social security actdownload, with the remainder of the texts to be made available by the end of this year. The Legal Māori Corpus contains printed texts of the following kinds of historical documents, most of which are also available online in the land title system. Some documents might be more accurately described strategic documents issued by government departments in Māori, such as Māori language versions of statements of intent.

These documents taken as a whole provide an incredible opportunity to examine the evolution of an endangered language as it wrestles with the lexicon and conceptual world of the dominant language and that language’s culture. Therefore, the collated texts from the Corpus were examined to find how various words and phrases have been used to express Western legal ideas. Over the past two years we have been identifying those words and phrases; first, to come up with a useful lexicon of possible legal Māori terms, and then, to test and validate those lexicon terms in order choose the terms that are now to form to the base of the Legal Māori Dictionary itself. With the invaluable design, by Dave Moskovitz of ThinkTank Ltd, of an open-source, easy-to-use web-based text browser and dictionary writing system called Freelex, we are now compiling our dictionary entries.

As mentioned above, our purpose has always been to create a dictionary of Māori language terms to express Western legal concepts. Customary Māori legal language had been explored in-depth in other scholarship. For example, customary Māori legal concepts have been investigated by the FRST funded work undertaken by Te Mātāhauāriki Institute based at Waikato University in developing a compendium of customary Māori legal terms: Te Mātāpunenga. Choosing to focus on the expression of Western legal ideas in Māori, however, exposed us to the considerable risk that English meanings and concepts would drive the content of our dictionary. Indeed we expected such English conceptual dominance. However, the pilot stages and subsequent corpus-based work showed that Māori customary legal vocabulary had a far stronger presence in the terms we were identifying than had been expected. In fact, many of the words in te reo Māori (the Māori language) that have been used to describe traditional Māori legal concepts are also terms within legal Māori terminology, communicating Western legal ideas. (Some examples are mana, roughly glossed as ‘authority’; tikanga, or the ‘correct way of doing things’; and rangatiratanga which can be equated to ‘chieftainship’.) The Legal Māori Project then must reflect two very important aspects of legal Māori vocabulary: customary legal meaning and Western legal meaning. A core set of customary legal terms that had acquired further Western legal senses over the past 180 years could in fact be identified within the lexicon of legal terms that were being derived from the corpus itself. In view of this insight, we decided that the idea of identifying a finite set of core customary legal terms could form part of a methodology that would enable Māori ideas and Māori legal thinking, alongside Western legal thinking, to take centre stage in our dictionary generation and formatting. The methodology used by the Legal Māori Project team is one that therefore pays careful attention to both the Western and customary law aspects of a significant, identifiable core of traditional Māori law terms. The team identified that if customary legal and western legal aspects of core terms are accounted for in the selection, formatting, and organisation of the dictionary entries, English glosses and English ideas are less likely to subvert Māori ideas and the Māori language basis of the dictionary as a whole. To provide a practical example of how we attempted to incorporate such prioritization in the design of the Legal Māori Dictionary, the following draft entry for taonga might be useful. It comes from the sample dictionary released in June 2010.

  The customary usage of taonga
refers to property or anything
highly prized. The giving and
receiving of taonga was an
important part of recording and
maintaining reciprocal
relationships between groups.
@TM Taonga
  1n <cust> valued property [K]i te
kitea kua kore te tangata e utu i
ngā moni reti, e whai ture ana ki
te hamene i a ia ki te muru i ōna
2n goods Kua kitea te nui haere o
ngā mahi o te koroni i runga i te
maha o ngā taonga e utautaina
ana ki tāwahi[.]
@S241891 ☼
Usually used in the context of
personal property, but sometimes
also used to refer to real property
or goods traded on a commercial


Many typical dictionary elements have been used in this draft entry. For example, distinct verb senses have been identified and numbered. The grammatical function of each sense is identified, and the primary usage (here referring to taonga being primarily a customary term) identified. It also includes a one-word English gloss for each sense and some further explanation in English of how the term is used in a technical way (preceded by ☼). Finally, the entry includes a usage example for each term and short code references for each example, which will enable the user to find the original text. The opening sentence at the top of the entry will be shaded in its final printed form, and will thereby be a new addition to the formatting of our dictionary articles. We have labeled this feature the whakamaramatanga (‘clarification’) field, where a very brief explanation is given of the all-important customary context for the term with a reference to further reading for those readers wanting to find out more about the concept. The reference is to the Matapunenga compendium (to be published at roughly at the same time as the Legal Māori Dictionary). These small additions to the traditional dictionary entry, must be taken in conjunction with all the work carried out by the Legal Māori Project to date. Ultimately we hope that our experience in designing and producing our outputs, including the dictionary, might assist the designers of other specialist dictionaries or lexicons of indigenous languages to pay appropriate deference to the customary concepts of those languages, where possible and practicable.

And, above all, just maybe our work will help Māori speakers to choose to use their own language in precisely those domains where they are simply not expected to, or in the view of some, supposed to. And when that happens, a Māori-speaking Crown doesn’t seem so difficult after all.

Thanks to Mā for the Māori images used here.

After some years working in the New Zealand Department of Corrections and Māori broadcasting, Māmari completed an MA (Distinction) in Classical Studies, BA (Hons), and an LLB (Hons) at Victoria University. She then spent three and a half years at New Zealand’s largest law firm, Russell McVeagh, in Wellington, working in the Māori legal team in the Corporate Advisory Group. Māmari has been with the School of Law since January 2006 and, with Assistant Professor Mary Boyce of the University of Hawai’i, runs the Legal Māori Project. Her primary research interests are law and language, Māori and the New Zealand legal system, and social security law. Māmari is married to Maynard Gilgen and has two sons, Te Rangihuia (9) Havelund (5) and a daughter, Jessica-Lee Ngātaiotehauauru, born in November 2009.



VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed. The information above should not be considered legal advice. If you require legal representation, please consult a lawyer.

One Response to “Making a legal dictionary for an indigenous language: the Legal Maori Dictionary”

  1. […] where it is defined as “treasure” or “anything highly prized.” A definition is also included in a dictionary of Māori legal terms published in 2013. Examples of its use in […]

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