First ever dictionary of legal Māori terms

Lecturers, senior students and graduates from the Faculty of Law are compiling the first ever dictionary of legal Māori terms which will be published in 2013.

Māmari Stephens (standing) with, from left to right, Dr Mary Boyce from the University of Hawai’i and Tai Ahu and Dulce Piacentini from the Faculty of Law.
Māmari Stephens (standing) with, from left to right, Dr Mary Boyce from the University of Hawai’i and Tai Ahu and Dulce Piacentini from the Faculty of Law.

Assisted by Māori-speaking lawyers from the Crown Law Office and private practice, the group is preparing a dictionary of more than 1,500 terms that will make technical legal language more accessible in te reo Māori.

“The dictionary will assist Māori speakers to practise law, draft agreements or write, teach and talk about law,” says project co-leader senior lecturer Māmari Stephens.

“Māori is quite a polysemic language, meaning that one word can hold a number of meanings depending on the context in which it’s used. So the words rangatira, or mana or utu, for example, are very frequent with thousands of usages revealing many subtly different senses in both customary and Western law contexts.”

To tease out these different meanings and to find how Māori have dealt with Western legal ideas, Ms Stephens and her team are drawing on a corpus of legal Māori texts comprising more than eight million words dating from 1828 up to the present day.

The dictionary will be unique among Māori dictionaries in that it will allow users to track the use of a term over time.

“There used to be a lot of transliteration of English words into the Māori sound system, such as apitireihana for arbitration.

These words may well be replaced by newly coined words or by extending the meaning of an existing word such as whakataunga in the case of arbitration. Dictionary users will be able to find out if a word appears in corpus texts in the historical or contemporary era or if it’s a word that’s been used across those periods and therefore has a really good, long history to it.”

The dictionary is one of four outputs Ms Stephens’ team has been working on, with funding from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (now the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment) and Victoria’s Research Fund. The corpus, a legal Māori archive and a legal Māori lexicon with a glossary of more than 2,000 words and phrases, can all be accessed via the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre or the Law Faculty website.