September 2012 Māori Law Review

The Legal Māori Dictionary – treading a careful path…

In early 2013, LexisNexis will publish a new Māori language dictionary. Māori language dictionaries are nothing new, however this dictionary will be the first comprehensive bilingual dictionary conveying Western legal concepts in Māori.


In early 2013, LexisNexis will publish a new Māori language dictionary. Māori language dictionaries are nothing new, however this dictionary will be the first comprehensive bilingual dictionary conveying Western legal concepts in Māori. Certainly this dictionary focuses on the communication of Western legal ideas, but, without doubt, customary Māori legal ideas are also important to the creation of this new work, and the dictionary treads a careful path in order both to reflect and to facilitate the exchange of legal ideas between two very different worldviews.


Legal dictionaries using indigenous languages

This Legal Māori Dictionary will therefore be in select company. There are, as yet, few legal dictionaries derived from indigenous languages.

There are some fascinating indigenous legal language projects, such as the rich searchable collection of native Hawaiian legal documents available through the Ka Huli Ao Digital Archives under the auspices of the Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawai`ian Law.

An extensive Irish Language Legal Terminology derived from the bilingual Acts of the Irish parliament has also been made publicly available.

In Australia, some exciting work has been done with identifying legal glossaries in a number of aboriginal languages including Yolngu Matha and Murrinh-Patha from the Northern Territory.

Not infrequently, such glossaries and terminologies are the result of dedicated workshops, often government funded, set up in order to create a functional lexicon for use in the state legal system by speakers of the target indigenous language, as in the case of the English-Inuktitut-French Legal Glossary released in 1997 by the Nunavut Translator/Interpreter program at Nunavut Arctic College.

An earlier but similar project for the Navajo language was published in 1989 by the US District Court for the District of New Mexico, and is still made publicly available by the Judicial Branch of the Navajo Nation.

A more recent example is the extensive Sámi legal terminology that has been worked up over recent years and made available online by translators and interpreters working on the translation of state legal documents into Sámi for Sámi-speaking populations of Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden.

The Legal Māori Project

Back on these shores, the Legal Māori Project (LMP) was established in 2008 within the Law Faculty of Victoria University of Wellington with the view of achieving two primary goals:

  • Ultimately, the project team members want to see te reo Māori as a normal language of civic engagement; within the legal, political and governmental system of New Zealand. It was once, albeit briefly, comparatively normal for te reo Māori to be used in this sphere. In our view, te reo Māori ought to at least this recover this status. Other revitalisation initiatives are rightly focused on the home environment; but we consider that the civic sphere must not be neglected.
  • In the short term we seek to provide the Legal Māori Dictionary as a bilingual resource so Māori speakers can choose to use te reo within those systems.  Creating ease of choice is crucial for effective language revitalisation.

The LMP has received four years of public funding for its research from New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (previously the Ministry of Science and Innovation). In that time we have created a number of critical outcomes on the way to the final goal;  the Legal Maori Dictionary. These outcomes have included:

  • the collation of a corpus of Māori legal texts;
  • the establishment of a publicly available Legal Māori Archive;
  • a lexicon of legal terms that forms the backbone of the dictionary itself; and
  • a publicly available database to enable anyone to carry out their own search of the texts that make up the Legal Māori Corpus.

The Legal Māori Corpus

The corpus was completed by June 2011, in partnership with the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre (NZETC).  The corpus comprises, so far as we know, the largest digitised, purpose-built and structured corpus of Māori language texts from the past 180 years.  The corpus comprises approximately 8 million tokens of running text. It is made up of 6 kinds of texts. Each category captures ways in which te reo Māori has been used in different legal, and quasi-legal contexts:

Many of these historical texts are now publicly available by way of the Legal Māori Archive at, and all the pre-1910 texts are available for download as text files.

As mentioned above, the LMP’s purpose has always been to create a dictionary of Māori language terms to express Western legal concepts. With the invaluable design by Dave Moskovitz of Think Tank Ltd, of an open-source, easy-to-use web-based text browser and dictionary writing system called ‘Freelex’, the LMP team has been able to browse the corpus and examine the texts to identify, test and validate words and phrases that convey Western legal ideas and develop a lexicon of possible Māori legal terms.

This database will be publicly available in weeks; and it will be accessible from Its value as a research tool and its potential benefits to future projects is immeasurable.

Paying attention to Māori legal thinking …

Since 2008, in the process of creating the corpus and other related outputs, project team members began to see how important Māori customary legal thinking has been to the development of Māori legal terminology. We also knew that the process of creating a dictionary of Māori legal terms dealing with Western legal ideas would likely be dominated by English glosses and English ideas.  As such we decided to emphasise how Māori customary legal terms have appeared in the corpus texts, and how those terms have changed over 180 years.

To help us identify a collection of such base terms we turned to‘Te Mātāpunenga’, a compendium of customary Māori terms, created by the Te Mātāhauāriki Institute, based at Waikato University. This compendium has been a key resource for the Legal Māori Project team, and it is expected that Te Mātāpunenga will be made publicly available early in 2013.   Te Mātāpunenga terms have guided the formation of the dictionary, even as we have discovered the new, and sometimes startling, ways in which those terms have been used in the texts of the corpus itself.

Between 2010 and 2012  the research team identified more than 5000 Māori terms that could well comprise legal Māori terminology. The presence of all of these terms in the Legal Māori Corpus has been tested and analysed. Currently over 1,400 terms and phrases have been completed and are going through the LMP’s quality assurance process.  It is projected that approximately 2,444 entries, which will comprise a total of 1,624 terms and phrases, with 820 additional senses for these terms will make up the final Legal Māori Dictionary.

Making the research available

As with any large research project, the success of the entire venture relies on its effective dissemination. The manuscript will be submitted for print publication by early December, and plans are now underway to create a freely accessible online version that should be available by the end of 2013. It is hoped that the LMP’s journey, and the successful design and production of its outputs, might assist the designers of other specialist dictionaries or lexicons of indigenous languages to assist those projects to give appropriate regard to the customary concepts of those languages.

Above all, the LMP hopes that the production of the Legal Māori Dictionary will assist te reo Māori speakers to choose to use te reo in our civic domains. When this happens, a Māori-speaking Crown, as envisaged by the Waitangi Tribunal in its report Ko Aotearoa Tēnei (A Report into Claims Concerning New Zealand Law and Policy Affecting Māori Culture and Identity) (Wai 262, 2011), will not seem so difficult after all.