Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Friday, October 3, 2008

A national treasure

I’m referring to Te Reo Māori, the language of the indigenous people of Aotearoa/New Zealand, and an official language of our country. Even those of us who have no Māori blood should be proud to have a unique language as part of our country’s identity.

Te Reo presents some difficulties to printers and web publishers who assume that it is spelled using the standard Latin alphabet that English uses. It isn’t – Te Reo distinguishes between long and short vowels. A long vowel has the same sound as a short one but it is held for longer. In writing, long vowels are marked with a macron, which is a diacritic appearing as a horizontal bar over a letter. Anyone who learned Latin at school should remember them.

Marking long vowels in Te Reo is not optional if you expect to be understood. A word that has a short vowel becomes a totally different word if it is said or spelled with a long vowel. For instance, keke in English is cake, whereas kēkē is armpit. This is a mistake which could be hilarious, or more likely, rude.

Vowels with macrons don’t appear in ASCII, or even extended ASCII (which contains some European accented letters). But they do appear in Unicode. The correct way to display macrons on the web is to use escaped unicode. Here’s a list of the five vowels with macrons, in upper and lower case:

ā ā
ē ē
ī ī
ō ō
ū ū

People have used other ways besides Unicode to capture macrons. One way that used to be used was patching the fonts on a computer so that umlauted letters appeared as letter with macrons. An umlaut is two dots over a vowel, a diacritic used in German among other languages. It raises a vowel – the difference between “rat” and “rate”. It doesn’t lengthen a vowel. This approach has problems, such as not being able to write German words any more. But the biggest problem is that it is not portable, because when you copy from a system that (mis)uses umlauts to one that correctly uses umlauts, you get this kind of thing:

bad umlaut.jpg

This is a poor example from our state-owned television broadcaster!

posted by colin at 8:49 pm  


  1. […] [Via A national treasure.] […]

    Pingback by Maori macrons - a BBEdit script | KnowIT — 4 October 2008 @ 10:43 am

  2. i thought they were nails :-)

    Comment by Brenda — 10 October 2008 @ 1:05 pm

  3. Hehe.

    Comment by colin — 10 October 2008 @ 2:25 pm

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