There are some aspects of the Maori language that seem simple from the perspective of English. For example, Maori verbs do not conjugate for person like their English counterparts, nor do they form complicated constructions for tense. Likewise, Maori nouns need only possess a different definite article to indicate plural and make no distinction of gender. Yet for every easy concept, there's a difficult complementary ones. Welcome to Maori particles, a veritable quagmire of confusion and complexity.

The Nature of the Particle

First, a little work with definitions. Maori particles are short grammatic phonemes used very often to mark nouns in place of the inflection commonly practiced by Indo-European languages. Unlike Japanese, Maori particles always come before the nouns they modify, without exception. Many of their meanings correlate with English prepositions. So why call them particles? Part of the issue is that Maori 'prepositions' are far, far more powerful in the sentence than their English counterparts. They can indicate transitivity/intransitivity, active/passive, intimacy/formality, and change the meaning of verbs. A word at one side of the sentence can profoundly affect which particle will be used at the other side. Always remember that Maori particles provide much of the information that seems to be missing in nouns or verbs from an English perspective. Even though two particles may look the same, do not discount the subtle differences in grammatic usage!

Strong Particles

Before I continue, I have to admit a bit of linguistic fudging with this term. I do not know what the correct definition of the main class of redundant Maori particles is, but I label them strong because of the extra information and overarching structure they impose on a sentence. If you're more familiar with the area (I'm a total amateur) and know of a more appropriate term, please by all means inform me.

As an ergative language, Maori is vitally concerned with Agent-Patient, transitive-intransitive relationships. This is reflected in strong particles. They mostly concern relationships of the genitive, dative, or insturmental.

Possessive Particles
Maori has four possessive particles, o, a, no, and na. The differences between them depend on the dual characteristics of active/inactive and transitive/intransitive possession. The particles no and o both indicate that the object being possessed is not capable of action itself, it is a patient, not an agent. For further details (and some significant parallels) on transitive vs. intransitive objects, please see Maori pronouns, but as a brief guide; people, animals, and instruments are capable of transitive relationships, all other things are not. Subsequently, na and a are used when the object being possessed is transitive, an agent.

Now for the other distinction, active/inactive. A and o are both used exactly like the English preposition 'of', they indicate an inactive possessive relationship. In counterpart, na and no are active particles, they indicate something actively possessed by a possessor. The best translation is 'belonging to'. This distinction is not only present in the particles themselves, it also affects word order. Because Maori places verbs at the beginning of the sentence, and na/no are verb-like particles, they will always introduce a sentence and force the verb out of its position. A/o will follow natural word order. Examples, going by sentence, gloss, and translation:

Homai nga pukapuka a Maru - (pl)the books (trans)of Maru - Give me Maru's books.

Homai te waka o Maru - the canoe (intrans)of Maru - Give me Maru's canoe.

Na Hine nga tamaiti e tiakia ana e ratou. - Hine (pl)the children (pro) pas.guard (pro) by them. - They are guarding the children belonging to Hine.

No Hine te whare e tiakia ana e ratou. - Hine the house (pro) pas.guard (pro) by them. - They are guarding the house belonging to Hine.

Dative Particles
These particles, best translated with the prepostion 'for, are two: ma and mo. The distinction between 'o' and 'a' here is the same as above (it's an extremely common reoccuring pattern in Maori). They are both considered automatically active, and as such will slip to the beginning of the sentence when possible.

Ma Turi enei pononga. - (trans)For Turi (pl)these slaves. - These slaves are for Turi.

Mo Turi enei kakahu. - (intrans)For Turi (pl)these clothes. - These clothes are for Turi.

Insturmental Particles

Indicating a relationship of 'by means of', or 'by way of', these particles are repeated versions of those above: ma and na. It is clear that they're both considered active particles, however I am completely unable to recognize a distinction between the two. Until such time, I will be unable to provide accurate examples of their usage, but I can at least notice that na is more common when used in this context.

Weak Prepositions

These prepositions do not make the distinction between active/inactive and transitive/intransitive. One particle will be used for many meanings that must be derived by context. Organized by particle:

Through, in the direction of

Subject of a passive verb, verbal prefix paired with ana to indicate progressive action.

By, with, by reason of, from (in motion), at the time of, in possession of (isolated from strong possessive particles), in company with, in, at, on, in comparison to

At, in state of

As, like


To (a place), toward, against, according to

Marking the direct object of a sentence (inconsistantly used), at (future time)

Complex Particles

These are basically particles composed of two or more sub-units. They are strong in that they usually possess an indication of the tense of any action they describe, they time period. As usual, the preposition is taking over for the verb in supplying tense.

Ki runga ki
On top of (present)

Ki runga ko
On to the top of (movement)

Kei runga kei
On top of (past)

Hei runga hei
On top of (future)

No runga no
From upon

Mo runga mo
From upon (movement)

Ma runga ma
Over the top of

All complex particles indicating movement or time of action are active and go to the beginning of the sentence, otherwise they fall into natural word order.

Harawira, K. T. Beginner's Maori. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1997.

Much of this was derived from my own interpretation based on a difficult text somewhat lacking in important information. It may contain gross inaccuracies. Please take with a grain of salt, and if you have more in depth knowledge of Maori by all means inform me of any errors. Thank you.

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