Aroha mai, aroha atu

This blog, and this post, is a little bit of a rant. So if I get ranty – you’ve been warned.

There are nuances of difference between the English word ‘sorry’ and how it is expressed in te reo. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on just ‘aroha mai’, and ‘aroha atu’. There are other ways to express ‘sorry’ and to seek ‘forgiveness’ but that is beyond what I want to write about today.


The above image is from a post made on Facebook recently and while the sentiment is great, the use of aroha mai isn’t.

See, the phrase ‘aroha mai’ doesn’t translate to ‘sorry’. It actually means ‘have compassion on me’. Breaking it down the two words mean:

Aroha ‘to have compassion’.

Mai ‘towards me, the speaker’.

‘Aroha mai’ is often used to mean ‘I’m sorry’. And in most contexts, when it is the speaker seeking forgiveness or compassion for themselves it makes 100% sense.

However, the sentence ‘Aroha mai to the whānau’ actually means ‘Give me compassion, to the whānau’. Doesn’t make sense, does it?

The appropriate phrase in this situation is ‘aroha atu’. The word ‘atu’ means ‘away from me, the speaker’.

So if you ever want to express ‘I’m sorry’ but you’re not seeking compassion or forgiveness for yourself, but for someone else, ‘aroha atu’ is your best bet. The person on Facebook should have used ‘Aroha atu to the whānau’, or even better, ‘Aroha atu ki te whānau’.


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