Diphthong schmithong

Kia ora all,

I thought I’d write a post 🙂 Someone asked for a post on past perfect and I promise – IT IS COMING.

Now today I want to cover something that came up in the Te Reo Ora o Poihākena group on Facebook. It’s a neat fledgling little group for Sydney-based learners of te reo to get together online and just talk about or in te reo. So if you live in Sydney or you know someone in Sydney who is on that te reo buzz here’s the link – https://www.facebook.com/groups/1193338790782902/?fref=ts

There’s good folks in that group and the more the merrier!

Now I’ve got that shout out of the way, back to what I wanted to write about. Diphthongs. Now I’m not going to go too deeply into the mechanics of diphthongs. No, this post is a bit nuanced. It’s about the word we use for diphthong in te reo.

But first, what’s a diphthong?

A diphthong is two vowel sounds together e.g. ai, au, ao and ua. Diphthongs are two vowel sounds in length i.e. ea is just as long as ai and au because they all contain two vowels.

When two vowel sounds are the same, for example, aa, ee and oo, we call it a monophthong. 

So what’s the te reo word for diphthong?

Well surprisingly, despite the fact that the concept of talking about diphthongs is recent, we actually have a dog’s breakfast of translated words. Some of them are clearly calques, others are a bit random, nearly all of the translations obscure.

So in that group I just gave a hearty promotion to one of the admin for the last couple of days has been using the term oropūrua and it turns out he was apparently wrong to use that term. I being a translator and speaker of the language actually never noticed because to me oropūrua means ‘double sound’ (oro – sound, pūrua – double). Apparently it should only be used to mean ‘double vowel’ and with my description of diphthong earlier in the post diphthongs are ‘double vowels’ in that you have two vowels coming together and it doesn’t matter if it’s the same vowel twice or two different vowels because a diphthong is always two vowel sounds in length.

But to give you an idea of the train wreck we have when it comes to te reo words for one concept here’s a list of words I could find for diphthong, with a nice little break down in the whakapapa (etymology) of each word.

Word Etymology
ororua oro – sound, rua – two
orotahi pūrua oro – sound, tahi – single, individual, pūrua – double
pūrua pūrua – double
orokē oro – sound, kē – different
oropuare pūrua oro – sound, puare – open, oropuare – vowel, pūrua – double
oropūrua* oro – sound, pūrua – double

Most of the words in the table above are fairly straight forward and say what they mean. Orokē  and pūrua are probably the most vague – and I think orokē  was put in for the lulz because it sounds very similar to a swear phrase in te reo ‘fudge cake you’ 😉

So many words! Which one should I use?

Well, I would urge you all not to use orokē  (see above) and pūrua (on its lonesome) because they are very vague. Orotahi pūrua is ok, I guess, but that involves a lot of thinking on the part of the listener because you have to decode every part of the word and then put it back together to arrive at diphthong. But here’s the rub, orotahi pūrua could also be technically used to mean monophthong! So I’d probably park that one to the side as well. Also, when I did a Google search for it, I only found one document online that used the phrase. That document can be found here.

That just leaves ororua, oropuare pūrua and oropūrua. Ororua is probably the easiest to say of the three, and you pick up the meaning almost straight away – it literally is two sounds put together. However, ororua is vague as to whether it’s two separate sounds or two sounds that are the same. Oropuare pūrua is probably the most technically correct of the three and is the one you’ll find on Pae Kupu which is a handy dictionary of modern te reo terminology. However both oropuare pūrua  and oropūrua like ororua, are vague as to whether or not it is two different vowel sounds or the same vowel sound.

But I still need a word!

So my advice would be to go with oropuare pūrua. I think part of the problem with why there are so many words for diphthong is because no one thought to translate the term monophthong first and use that as a base to create diphthong.

However, I think the powers that be need to reconsider what our words for diphthong and monophthong are. I’ll kick start the suggestions;

Oro taurite pūrua and oro rerekē takirua. Yep, they’re a little wordy, but they communicate what a monophthong (same sound doubled) and diphthong (pair of different sounds) are. And hey, following the template we even have a word for triphthong – oro rerekē takitoru (triplet of different sounds)!

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