• Sun, 1, Nov, 2020 - 5:00:AM

Whakataukī: a door into aroha and the cognitive universe of te reo

For some, it may be a little too early for talk of Kirihemete. But every year, there is a book that I love so much that I want to buy a hundred copies and place it under the trees of every family member and friend. Last year, it was Sally Rooney’s Normal People. The year before that, it was Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. This year, I’ve already gifted one copy before November even came round, and it’s of Aroha: Māori Wisdom for a Contented Life Lived in Harmony with Our Planet by psychiatrist Dr. Hinemoa Elder MNZM.

Aroha is a collection of fifty-two whakataukī (traditional Māori proverbs) – one for each week of the year. Dr. Elder describes these as “nuggets of wisdom that provide life lessons, guidance, notes of caution, sometimes a source of comfort. They stem from the great story-telling traditions of Māori culture. They remind us of the potency of Māori values and how and why to put them into action.”

Each whakataukī comes with a short reflection about the proverb’s relevance to Dr. Elder’s life – achingly specific yet universal musings that deepen the reader’s ability to see our world a little differently. No matter what stage of life you are navigating, no matter what your current circumstances, this book is a taonga whose pages you can turn to time and time again to find something that can help.

Though the whakataukī are accompanied by English translations and a modern interpretation to make them accessible to all readers, they are first printed in te reo. So, reading each proverb feels like a quiet celebration and a small act of conservation. While talking about the endangered Tokelauan language on RNZ, University of Auckland researcher John Middleton likened different languages to different species of animals. “Languages are incredibly diverse and incredibly unique. So you’ll get major differences between languages which you don’t really understand unless you do this research on them. If a language dies out, we are basically losing a species of language. And it’s the same with animals – it’s just tragic to see that diversity loss.”

The beauty of whakataukī in particular are that they are exquisite distillations of complex human thought. Specifically, of uniquely Māori thought. In a 2018 TED talk about how languages shape the way humans think, cognitive scientist and Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, San Diego Lera Boroditsky discussed how “…language can profoundly shape the way we think, and it does so in a variety of ways.” Boroditsky gave examples of how a language’s construction “gives you a stepping stone into a whole cognitive realm.” She described each language as giving the speaker entry into a different “cognitive universe”.

In Aroha, Dr. Elder walks us gently through part of the Māori cognitive universe, showing readers the nuances of the Māori world view. “This is the power of whakatuakī,” she writes. “They open up new thinking, they open up the heart, and a myriad of possibilities, manifestations of aroha that are deeply personal.”


  • Whakataukī /
  • Te Reo /
  • Te Reo Maori /
  • Language /
  • Aroha /
  • Hinemoa Elder /
  • Book /
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