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Kupu and Te Aka: a legacy of generosity and dedication to te reo

Kupu and Te Aka: a legacy of generosity and dedication to te reo

The smartphone app that won the 2018 Supreme Māori Language Award from Te Taura Whiri i Te Reo Māori – The Māori Language Commission has an extraordinary story of generosity behind it.

Kupu, which lets users find the Māori word for an object by pointing a smartphone at it, has been used more than two million times since its launch at Māori Language Week in September 2018. It was gifted to New Zealand thanks to a collaboration between Spark, Google and AUT’s Te Aka Māori Dictionary research team from Te Ipukarea.

The recent recognition received for Kupu is tempered by sadness for the team of four academics because the dictionary’s author, much loved team member Professor John Moorfield, passed away in May 2018.


“He saw himself as an ordinary man who was privileged to have a series of mentors who took him under their wing, so this is his gift back. ”

The late professor’s legacy of impact on te reo Māori is hard to measure. It can be found in print and digital resources dating back to the 1970s that charter the future of the spoken language and can also be traced to a financial decision he made in the 1980s.

That decision was to direct royalties from the sale of two of his popular resources into a charitable fund that could be further used to make accurately spoken te reo teaching tools widely available. The Te Whanake Fund is administered by the AUT Foundation and continues to provide sustenance for Te Ipukarea National Māori Language Research Institute and its groundbreaking work.

As well as maintaining and building Te Aka with its 22,800 headwords and many encyclopaedic entries, explanations of concepts and grammatical items, idioms and colloquialisms, photographs and audio recordings, the Te Ipukarea team produces a vast range of widely-used digital learning and teaching tools and is in the process of revising many of the Te Whanake resources.

Professor Tania Ka’ai explains that while the fund hasn’t been the sole – or even the main – source of research and development income for the institute, it has given the team wiggle room, as it continues to develop language teaching tools and other related Māori language projects. “I want to call it a lifeline,” she says. “It’s a lovely fund to be there – it’s not to be exploited, it’s only there to support a te reo initiative that we can’t fund through our core business.”

Like any philanthropic fund with a specific purpose, its value can’t be underestimated. It is accessed sparingly, always with due diligence applied by the trustees at the AUT Foundation, to enable the team to push boundaries to innovate to revitalise te reo. It is particularly useful on occasions when funding opportunities and capacity don’t keep pace with what the team wants to achieve, says Tania.

John - a Pākehā who developed a love of te reo at St Stephen’s School as a child – made the decision to channel the proceeds of his work into Te Whanake out of gratitude to those who guided him and fostered his love for and capability in the language, Tania explains.

“He saw himself as an ordinary man who was privileged to have a series of mentors who took him under their wing, so this is his gift back.

“John was committed to seeing the Māori language flourish,” says Tania. “His greatest love of all the resources was his dictionary and without a word of a lie, he worked on this every day of his life since it was first conceived.”

She says there is now a bank of projects they had discussed before he passed, for which she has his full support. “When John was alive, we’d talk about them. We’d say ‘we can use the fund for this and for that’. But we also wanted to keep the fund healthy.”

The collaboration for Kupu pleased John in his final days, Tania says, with its potential to broaden everyday access to correct usage of te reo.


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