The Contrast Between Top-Down Language Planning and Bottom-Up Natural Language Growth: A Case Study of Maori

Lauren A. Glover, Dartmouth College


This study compares the top-down process of language planning and the bottom-up process of natural language growth in Maori, the indigenous language of New Zealand. The work of the Maori Language Commission (MLC) is contrasted with the natural, communication-facilitated introduction of slang and other informal varieties, both within Maori as well as in English slang borrowings. Using sociolinguistic fieldwork with a native speaker consultant and a second-generation speaker, this study determines that both the top-down and bottom-up language process of language development are necessary for the best growth trajectory of the Maori language.

              The top-down process in question is the Maori Language Commission (MLC) and their particular effort to develop the Maori language by redefining archaic words with new meanings to keep Maori alive and active in the modern world. In conjunction with the revitalization efforts of Maori children’s immersion programs (Kohanga Reo), the MLC was created in hopes of bringing the younger generations of Maori back into contact with their native-speaker elders, thereby closing the generational gap and helping them reclaim their culture, identity, and language affiliations within an European-dominated environment.

              Due to the long-term impact of colonization, the natural growth and change of the Maori language has been deeply affected by European and American languages, including 1) loss of domains of Maori language use 2) language contact, resulting in several shared characteristics between Maori and non-Malayo-Polynesian languages, and 3) language borrowing to adapt to new concepts necessary for global communication as well as slang from English and other languages.

              The MLC’s top-down, deliberate handing out of language planning needs to measured against the effects of natural linguistic growth, change and contact. The present study is based on a field collection of linguistic and personal interviews in Auckland, New Zealand with a Maori native speaker and a second-generation speaker, as well as research into the Maori Language Commission’s of archaic words.

              The results of the study suggest that the best approach for Maori language development is the simultaneous application of that both language planning and natural language growth. It seems that language planning, including deliberate introductions of new words, is best applied in children’s language immersion programs where children easily acquire the new words to further extend their vocabulary and grammar knowledge. The slang borrowings from American and European languages, which are naturally grasped by the younger generations through foreign music, politics, media and other broadcasting tools, can be understood by native and first-generation speakers by the sheer amount of usage. According to both of the language consultants, it is necessary for the children to lean both the redefined form for better global communication as well as the earlier form to ensure that contact and communication is not lost with the older generations. By following a balanced process of both top-down language planning and bottom-up natural growth and change, the Maori people can make certain that their language is a shared, vibrant and growing part of their heritage and future.

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