Dr Hona Black on te reo, humour and the future

Tuesday 19 March 2024

When Dr Hona Black is not lecturing, his research is focused on the evolution of the Māori language.

Dr Hona Black, Tūhoe, Te Whānau a Apanui, Ngāti Tūwharetoa.

Last updated: Tuesday 19 March 2024

Dr Hona Black, Tūhoe, Te Whānau a Apanui, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, is a Senior Lecturer in Māori knowledge at Te Pūtahi a Toi School of Māori Knowledge and has come full circle in the world of kura kaupapa. He first started as a pupil and now lectures on teaching for Māori medium schools. Between then and now, he attended Hato Pāora College and later returned as a teacher and Head of te reo Māori there before returning to Massey to complete his PhD.

When he’s not lecturing, his research is focused on the evolution of the Māori language. His first book He Iti te Kupu: Māori Metaphors and Similes was followed by a second bilingual book Te Reo Kapekape, which literally translates to “the language of poking fun” - something Dr Black says is becoming somewhat of a lost art.

“Growing up, humour was always used to ease tension, to uplift sadness and to bring a little bit of laughter to gloomy situations. Humour wasn’t reserved just for celebrations and happy occasions; it was woven into all aspects of everyday life.

“Today, we are so caught up in life that we forget to see the humour all around us. Growing up in my family, if you were too serious all the time, you would be labelled a “tou maroke” (a dry arse). These words are not insulting, but reflect Māori humour,” he wrote in an opinion piece for the New Zealand Herald ahead of Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori last year.

At the end of 2023, Dr Black received a Fast-Start Grant from Te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden, the Marsden Fund for his research project: Kua kī taku puku, ko te waha o raro kei te hiakai tonu: The de-sexualisation of te reo Māori domains.

He says English influence over the years has slowly eroded sexual language and humour because it was deemed rude, but it is completely different.

Using interdisciplinary methodologies, founded on tikanga Māori and kaupapa Māori, Dr Black’s research will identify how sexuality was traditionally expressed and defined by examining extant literature, compositions and corpora such as harihari kai, pao, haka, pūrākau, ngeri and idiomatic expressions.

He will examine how sexuality is conveyed in more contemporary modes, performances and compositions such as those performed at Te Matatini, as well as interview te reo Māori experts to explore their perspectives on expressing Māori sexuality in both traditional and contemporary contexts.

“I want to contribute to a body of mātauranga on te reo Māori and sexuality by investigating how sexuality, food, identity and socialisation are all part of a complex and interwoven Māori cultural worldview, and re-introduce these forms of te reo Māori, idiomatic expressions, and viewpoints back into everyday language.

“The language of sexuality in te reo Māori is currently dormant, so I hope to bring together these dynamic modes of mātauranga as valuable tools of expression of sexuality for current and future speakers and learners of te reo Māori.”

Dr Black completed his PhD in te reo, which was an important distinction for him.

“Writing in English wasn’t really a choice. Growing up only speaking te reo Māori, I appreciate the lack of resources for Māori to read things in te reo, and most of the audience I write for is Māori.

“I find it easier to write in te reo because it’s my first language. Quite often it’s more intensive writing Māori things in English because you’re not just translating a language, it’s a worldview. Sometimes English can’t capture everything we want to say.”

A key finding from his PhD was the difference in the te reo taught today, compared to how it used to be spoken.

“When my nan was young, te reo came from the gut. The language and our emotions originate in the gut and come up through the mouth. Today’s language comes from the head, so our kids do not know how to give tongue and cheek.”

Dr Hona Black says he enjoys his mahi at Massey working alongside a great team.

Whānau affiliation to Massey

Dr Black’s father, Taiarahia Black, became a Professor at Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University and was the first person to ever publish a thesis in te reo Māori. His aunt, Dr Charlotte Severne, was a former Assistant Vice-Chancellor Māori and Pasifika for the university.

Dr Black says he enjoys his mahi.

“I love my job. We’ve got a great team in Māori studies, and we have a really supportive boss Professor Hemi Whaanga, so it’s a great work environment and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”

Dr Black only speaks te reo to his young son, as does his partner who is non-Māori and has spent the past few years learning the language.

“My hope is that my boy grows up in a world where te reo Māori is spoken everywhere. As a kid I always remember people would look at you funny if they heard you walking around the supermarket speaking Māori, and they would stare. Today, it’s becoming much better, but I hope when my son grows up it is spoken more. I hope our ceiling becomes his generation’s floor.”