China China



← West Malayo-Polynesia as far as
Madagascar Madagascar
→ Central & East Malayo-Polynesia & Oceania
as far north as Madagascar Hawaii

Stages 1 & 2: Taiwan - Philippines - SulawesiStages_1+2

Stage 3: Halmahera - New Guinea - SolomonsStages_1+2

Stages 4 - 8: Solomons - Vanuatu - Fiji - West PolynesiaStages_1+2

Stages 9 - 12: West Polynesia - Tahiti - AotearoaStages_1+2

Other Countries Settled by Austronesian Speakers on the way to Aotearoa

PapuaNG Papua New Guinea

Solomon IsSolomon Islands

Vanuatu Vanuatu

Fiji Fiji

Tonga Tonga



French Polynesia French Polynesia

Cook Is Cook Islands

United Tribes of NZ Aotearoa
[United Tribes flag, 1835]


A Genealogy of Names

On this page:

Stages in the history of Polynesian languages
How words have been modified


The “Austronesians” are a people who migrated from southern China over 5,000 years ago, settling first in Taiwan. From there they moved through the Philippines, and then some ventured further west, settling what is now Indonesia and Malaysia, then across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar, while others sailed east along the northern coast of New Guinea, and then further, first into the western Pacific, and then into Micronesia and Polynesia, becoming over a period of four thousand years or so after they left the Asian mainland the most geographically widespread linguistic group of the pre-industrial world. When they first arrived in Taiwan they spoke a single language, which over the succeeding millennia gave rise to the hundreds of Austronesian and Malayo-Polynesian languages, from Malagasy to Māori, spoken today.

Words from previous stages of these languages, reconstructed by scholars, are preceded by an asterisk when written to indicate that they are educated guesses – we have no records to confirm unequivocally that this is exactly what the older word sounded like, but by carefully comparing words in the languages now spoken, and excluding those adopted from other languages, we can make reasonable assumptions about how the modern forms originated from their original sources. There is a brief outline of how this is done in relation to Austronesian languages, with references for further reading, in a paper I wrote in 2007, Te Mātāpunenga as a Compendium of the History of Ideas (especially pp. 1-4), which you can read or download by clicking on the link. For further information see the references in the bibliography, especially to works by Andrew Pawley, Robert Blust, Paul Geraghty and Jeff Marck on language, also Janet Wilmshurst and associates and Timothy Rieth and associates on the archaeological evidence for the settlement of Polynesia. There is also a good brief overview of the Austronesian language family, with links to further information and quite a comprehensive ordered list of the individual languages, on the "Sorosoro" website, except that while it does mention New Zealand in the introduction, it omits Maori from the list of the Central Pacific group of Austronesian languages: click here to view it. An excellent detailed map of Oceania, which also includes the Philippines and Taiwan, is on the Escape Artist site (the maps in the side-panel on the left have been taken from it) - click here to see the full, large-scale map.

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Stages in the history of Polynesian languages

On these pages, the source words for contemporary Maori plant names are identified according to which of 12 major stages in the history of the Maori language they can be traced back to (to prevent the list becoming too long and complicated, some probable intermediate stages have been lumped together). These are:

[1] Proto-Austronesian. This is the oldest stage of the language, at least 5,000 years ago, spoken before the Austronesian explorers set out from Taiwan to the Philippines. (1 Maori plant name comes from this stage)

[2] Proto-Malayo-Polynesian. This is the language first spoken by Austronesian speakers in the Philippines as they lost contact with those in Taiwan. Many new words were created, and some old ones lost. Of course some of the words we can place at this level may be older, but if there is no trace of them in languages descended from those that the rest of the language family lost contact with after the earlier stage, then we have to assume that they were new ones. So the guesses about the age of words are conservative ones. (13 new plant names made it to Aotearoa.)

[3] Proto-Oceanic. This is the first move east, along the northern coast of New Guinea and thence into the island Pacific (13 plant names), resulting successively in [4] Proto Eastern-Oceanic (4 plant names) and [5] Proto-Central Pacific (a common language which gave rise to the Rotuman, Fijian, and Polynesian languages -- 3 plant names) as the ancestors of the Maori ventured further east and south through the Solomons and Vanuatu into the previously uninhabited islands in the Fiji region.

[6] Proto-Western Fijiic / Polynesian. Sixteen Maori plant names can be traced to a common language which gave rise to the Western Fijian and Polynesian languages, spoken somewhere in the Fijian archipelago including probably the vanished island of Pulotu from where the Polynesian ancestors migrated first to Tonga and very soon after to Samoa. (13 new plant names.) Eastern and Western Fijian languages later recombined as a group of languages with more in common with each other than with Polynesian languages, as interaction between those areas increased and close contact with Western Polynesia was reduced.

[7] Proto-Polynesian. This is the point where Polynesians become a separate ethnic and linguistic group, spending several hundred years in what is now Tonga, Samoa, and Tuvalu, developing a language distinct from those evolving in the Fiji area which they had left. (34 Maori plant names can be traced to this stage.)

[8] Proto-Nuclear Polynesian. After several centuries of diminishing contact, the language spoken by Polynesian settlers in the Samoan area, stretching out into what is now Tuvalu and other Polynesian settlements further west took on its own characteristics. Eight Maori plant names come from this stage, which itself may have had two phases,first the split of Nuclear Polynesian into four groups, three relatively small: Pukapukan, Futunic, East Uvean, and one much larger and widely dispersed: "Ellicean". As contacts within the Ellicean group diminshed, separate languages developed centered on Tuvalu, Samoa, and the final frontier of Eastern Polynesia.

[9] Proto-Eastern Polynesian. This is the mother-language of or developed by the migrants involved in the great push into Eastern Polynesia from Samoa, which seems to have taken place during the eleventh century AD, initially into the Society Islands (Tahiti and vicinity) and then very rapidly over the next two centuries to Rapanui (Easter Island), the Marquesas, Hawaii, and Aotearoa. Three Maori plant names originated before the isolation of the group who eventually settled Rapanui, after which [10] Proto-Central Eastern Polynesian developed separately in the Tahiti / Marquesas / Gambier island groups, resulting in those languages most closely related to Maori - Marquesan, Hawaiian, Tuamotuan, Rarotongan and most of the other Polynesian languages of Eastern Polynesia, and giving rise to 30 of the plant names carried to Aotearoa.

[11] The final stage is effectively Proto-Tahitic, from the language which developed in Tahiti and the Tuamotus after the Marquesan language (to which Hawaiian was also closely affiliated in its early history) developed its own distinct characteristics. Seven Maori plant names can be traced to this stage. However another eight are shared with Rarotongan, but not with Tahitic or other Eastern Polynesian languages. Rarotonga was also settled from Tahiti and seems to have been a staging post for the settlement of Aotearoa, and since there are words common only to Rarotongan and Maori, eight of which are plant names, this can be counted as a supplmentary final stage [12] Proto-Rarotongan-Maori.

All in all, there are about 236 plant names that we know of that New Zealand Maori could have inherited from other Polynesian sources (those identified within Polynesian languages as a group from stages 7-12 outlined above), and just over half (122) have survived here. That's a pretty substantial number, especially as many of the names have survived tremendous changes of environment along the way, and those still known here have survived almost a thousand years of separation from the nearest other Polynesian linguistic source. Not surprisingly, some of the oldest names refer to plants that the Austronesians carried with them through their epic journeys -- words for taro, yam, turmeric, coconut and banana, for example (look up the entries for *talo, *qufi, *renga, *niu and *futi to see how they fared on their way here), or that were important for a variety of economic, cultural or practical uses. And of course 700 or more new plant names seem to have been created after Aotearoa became separated from the rest of Polynesia when migration ceased. Some plants have a foot in each camp. For example, in parts of New Zealand the puriri tree (a locally produced name) is called kauere, a name shared with Rarotongan.

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How words have been modified

Languages change constantly, sometimes imperceptably, at other times with astonishing rapidity. Sound change is usually quite slow, and when it does occur, fairly systematic, so that, in any one language, most words with the same sounds change in the same way. If that were not so, it would be impossible for us to make even remotely reasonable guesses as to what the original form of an inherited word might have been. In Polynesian languages, for example, the "*l" and "*r" sounds inherited from their earlier Austronesian source have been combined into a single sound, "l" in some languages, "r" in others, and a glottal stop in Marquesan. Words that were distinguished by these sounds in earlier times now sound the same. Similarly, only Tongan and Rapanui (Easter Island) have kept the Proto-Polynesian glottal stop, and the Proto-Oceanic semivowel "*y" disappeared from the language spoken at the Proto-Polynesian stage. So the Proto-Oceanic word *laya "sail" had become *laa (*lā) in Proto-Polynesian, and is now in Tongan and Hawaiian, ā in Marquesan, and in Māori, while the Proto-Polynesian word *laqaa "sun" is now la'ā in Tongan, ra'ā in Rapanui, in Hawaiian, in Marquesan, and in Māori. Note that the "long" vowel sounds in Polynesian languages originated from the dropping of an intermediate consonnant or semivowel along the way, as in all the examples above. That is why some linguists, like the late Professor Biggs, campaigned strongly to retain a visual link with the past by writing them as a sequence of two vowel symbols, rather than a single one with a mark (like the macron) above it. However, in the end, most authorities and publishers in Polynesia, including Aotearoa, opted for the macron (or no mark at all). [For some examples of the evolution of our oldest Austronesian plant names, click here.]

Even when the words have remained the same (apart from the sound changes), meanings have shifted, sometimes quite radically, or received different emphases and interpretations as people themselves have shifted to new places -- there is plenty of information about that in the pages devoted to the proto-words for the plant names. I have two ideas about apparent changes of meaning which have occurred to me in the course of researching these plant names, which I have written about in a recently (2010) published article. The first of these is that even words which seem to convey a single, concrete meaning consistently over time and among varied languages may in fact have contain within them a bundle of rarely articulated but equally durable associations and ideas which only become apparent in a new setting where the object or whatever it was that symbolized them is absent -- but they are essentially part of the "meaning of the word" even where they are not so explicit. An example is the way the Proto Oceanic word *milo evolved in parts of remote Polynesia, where the attributes of red durable wood for carving and inherent gracefulness were transferred from the now-absent Thespesia populnea to other trees with the same inner qualities. The second observation, related to the first, is that retention of words is often to be explained not by their frequency of use or some inherent "basic" quality (as encapsulated in the Swadish and other "Basic Word Lists" often used by linguists to comare languages and work out relationships among them). Rather, I think that for various groups of people, some words will for many different reasons be too important to lose. Many place names and personal names come into this category. If these words express ideas, like tapu and noa in many Polynesian languages, for example, or Proto Austronesian *sala (Maori hara) throughout much of Greater Austronesia, the core meaning will also persist through many changes of time and place; if they are linked to concrete objects, the words will be applied almost arbitrarily if need be, just to keep them alive in a new setting, although usually some link between the new and the old will be discernable on further investigation -- an example is the superficially strange commemoration of the Proto Oceanic tree name *kalaka in the Maori word karakariki. These persistent cognates may be just as important for discerning the relationships among languages as any a priori standard list.

Another important change, which is quite evident in many of the plant names, is modifying the form of the words, to indicate that the plant so named has something in common with the original, but may not be exactly the same -- it might be a special variety or closely related species (from a botanical point of view), or quite a different plant which none the less reminded someone of its earlier namesake. This process is a very well-established one in Austronesian languages, so many of the inherited words have also come into Māori in a modified form, while others have been modified or further modified in Aotearoa.

For example, part or all of the original base word may be repeated, a process linguists call "reduplication". Thus, for example, we have wharawhara, rengarenga, and toatoa, where the whole word has been reduplicated, and pōpōhue (from pōhue, itself a modified form of the original hue [*fue]), māikaika (from maika), and kahikakika (from kahika) where part of the word has been reduplicated. Alternatively, or additionally, the base word may be modified by affixation, that is, an element indicating likeness or difference may be added to the beginning or the end of the original form, so we have, for example, pōhue (pō- + hue), tauhinu (tau- + hinu), kōkihi (kō- + kihi), nonokia (nono + -kia). The original term may also be qualified, for example by combining it with another plant name (e.g. whēkīponga [whēkī + ponga "a kind of whēkī that has something in common with a ponga"]; akapuka [aka + puka "a kind of aka that has similar qualities to a puka"]), or by adding a descriptive adjective, e.g. kahikatea (kahika + tea, "white kahika"), kōwhaikura (kōwhai + kura "red kōwhai"), wharariki (whara + riki "small whara"). Sometimes, several of these processes may be combined, as in the example of the name pōpōhue, noted above, where an affixed form has then been partly reduplicated, and, for example, the affixed reduplicated forms pūwharawhara and kōwharawhara. You can read more about this and the history of Māori plant names in general in Bruce Biggs' article "A linguist revisits the New Zealand bush", listed in the references to sources of information.

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For modern Polynesian languages, the official or generally accepted conventions for writing are observed in the entries, so that for example the "velar nasal" sound is represented in Tongan, Māori and many other languages by the "digraph" ng, but in Samoan this is written g. "Long" vowels are written as a single vowel symbol marked by a macron, in accordance with the conventions adopted by most Ministries of Education or Language Commissions, and the Polynesian Languages Forum (this "macron" will appear on your screen as an umlaut [two little dots over the vowel character] if you are not using one of the "Maori" truetype fonts).

In the reconstructions, I have mostly used the material in "Pollex" and other sources as it appears in the orginal, but have written "ng" rather than "g" and marked "double" (or "geminate") vowels with a macron, writing "ō" rather than "oo". However I have kept the symbol "q" for the glottal stop, and where there is disagreement or doubt as to the shape of a word, I have generally adopted the most easily recognizable option in relation to the word's contemporary reflexes, rather than present a list of alternatives. Each reconstructed word is preceded by an asterisk, e.g. *fara.

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Te Mära Reo, c/o Benton Family Trust, "Tumanako", RD 1, Taupiri, Waikato 3791, Aotearoa / New Zealand. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License