News | 19 December 2022

Pōneke place names in te reo app Mahau

Now buried, a stream used to flow through Parliament Grounds. Waipiro (‘stinking water’) was named so by locals because its slow-flowing waters could get a bit smelly. We caught up with Ross Calman, one of the translators who worked on Mahau, the reo Māori language app for Wellington, to learn about uncovering the names and knowledge that reflect our city’s multi-layered history.

Three women listening to a tablet.
Staff listening to audio files in Mahau.

The place names in Mahau are hard to track down anywhere else. How were they collected?
The place names are not that well-known around Wellington. There aren't many accessible sources. There are maps and various writings by Elsdon Best [Pākehā ethnographer] that're some of the main sources. You can also look back at old Land Court records. There are blocks of land where the names have been documented. 

The names come from different layers of Māori occupation. Some date from earlier peoples such as Ngāti Ira, and Ngāi Tara. Others are from more recent people such as Ngāti Tama and Te Ātiawa and Ngāti Toa. It adds to the fabric of the city. 

One area where names are coming back and are more known is the streams that run down into the harbour. A lot of those were put underground and lost their public visibility. There are projects to make them more visible or commemorate them in other ways, like the art installation about the Kumutoto Stream that runs down into Woodward St.

Where you can listen to it – the sound of running water. Beautiful! What other streams are there?
They're not all on the app, but for example Waipiro was the name of the stream that came down Bowen St. It means ‘stinking water’, because it didn’t have a great flow and sometimes could be a bit smelly. Wellington is strange because you've got all that reclaimed land.

Lambton Quay used to be the edge of the harbour. And where Bowen Street meets Lambton Quay is where that stream came down. Then there's Kaiwharawhara, which a lot of people probably know because it’s the name of the suburb, but it’s the name of the stream that runs from Zealandia down through Wilton and Wadestown.

Map from The Land of Tara, by Elsdon Best, 1919.
Map from The Land of Tara, by Elsdon Best, 1919. Image from Wellington City Libraries.

What does Kaiwharawhara mean?
I don’t know. I have seen the name being given various meanings, but you’ve got to be really careful about giving a meaning to place names. Because place names are often handed down from centuries ago, the meanings are often either lost in the mists of time, or place names are transplanted. The origin of a name might not actually come from that location. It might have come from a previous location — the people who migrated to Pōneke might have brought the name with them and given it to a stream that reminded them of a place that they came from.

Wellington City has a goal to be bilingual by 2040. What does that look like to you? 
Well, there are obvious things like signage. And not just buildings, but street signs. And bringing back a lot of knowledge and local names. A lot of the current names date back to the New Zealand Company.

They used their own names! Wakefield, Lambton, Lyall, Marjoribanks…
Yeah (laughs). So many of the English names come from people who had some role in the New Zealand Company in the early days. It would be really great to bring back the original names and not glorify those New Zealand Company people quite so much. I think people are just so used to names. A lot of the time we don't even think where they came from.

Mahau is a free, simple, interactive app, developed alongside Mana Whenua, designed to help more people speak te reo Māori in Wellington.  It offers everyday words and phrases in Mana Whenua dialects (Ngāti Toa, Taranaki Whānui) with audio clips for pronunciation, alongside other features such as a pepeha and mihimihi builder. Download the app at all the usual app platforms.