New Zealand |  Road signs Ara Wātea *

New Zealand | Road signs Ara Wātea *

In New Zealand, a project to translate traffic lights into the Maori language has sparked a lively political debate on the Indigenous issue.

The project…

New Zealand’s traffic lights may soon be changing their face. The government launched a public consultation in early June on a project for bilingual signage in English and Māori te reu, which relates to highways, destinations and public transport.

This initiative is part of a context of re-evaluation of the indigenous language in the land of the Kiwi, as it had been set aside for centuries in favor of English.

Transport agency Waka Kotahi said it was an “opportunity to give visibility” to Te Ryo Māori, and that its “presence in the daily lives of New Zealanders works in the interest of social and cultural cohesion”.

“Perhaps this proposal reflects the growing desire of the average New Zealander to embrace our bilingual future,” adds Awanui Te Hoya, a Maori expert at Victoria University of Wellington. It is also an acknowledgment of the importance of te reo as a vital part of our cultural landscape. Seeing our language in public gives a sense of inclusion to Māori speakers, including a growing number of young people…”


The project, even before its adoption, aroused heated debate in the political arena, and was decimated by the right-wing opposition, making it a hobby a few months before the elections scheduled for October 14th.

At the launch of the consultation at the end of May, National Party transport spokesman Simeon Brown said introducing Māori to traffic lights would create confusion, and potentially be unsafe. “We all speak English [les panneaux] It should all be in English,” adding that the government should instead “spend its money on drilling.”

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David Seymour, leader of the ACT Libertarian party and potential partner in coalition with PN, said the purpose of the road signs was “to communicate information in a language motorists understand and not to social engineering”.

Words that offended the leader of the Maori Party, Debbie Ngariwa Packer. According to her, these statements bear witness to an “alarming obscurantism”, considering that New Zealand’s population is 20% Maori.

When a large party tries to ignore 20% of the population, what attitude can we expect from its representatives regarding the diversity of languages ​​and cultures?

Debbie Ngariwa Packer, leader of the Maori Party

But the position of the National Liberation Party does not surprise Te Hoya utensils, given the political context. “Before elections, we constantly see right-wing parties exploiting issues at the expense of Indigenous people in favor of their own agenda,” she says.

And in Quebec?

In Quebec, 90% of road signs are pictograms, according to the Department of Transportation. The rest is mostly Francophone, except near the US border, where there is some signage in both English and French.

On the other hand, Aboriginal languages ​​are not represented on provincial banners. But in some reserves there are “stop signs” in the local dialect. “Nakai” among the Innu, “Testan” among the Mohawks, “Seten” among the Huron-Wendats, “ᓄᖅᑲᕆᑦ” among the Inuit….

Interesting fact: In 2017, a Kahnawake resident had about two dozen signs at Kanien’kéha noting that the Mohawk language was not very much present on the reservation signs.

  • The paintings are in Kanien'kéha, the Mohawk language

    Photo provided by Calle Carihuishta Montour

    The paintings are in Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language

  • The paintings are in Kanien'kéha, the Mohawk language


    The paintings are in Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language

  • Painting in Kanien'kéha, the Mohawk language


    Painting in Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language

  • The paintings are in Kanien'kéha, the Mohawk language


    The paintings are in Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language

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This personal initiative, funded by the band’s council, did not go unnoticed in K-Town.

“I learned French by looking at the signs, so I thought it could help my community,” explains the instigator of the project, Callie Karihwiióstha Montour. There are only 300 people who speak the language remaining in the reserve. This project helps inspire hope and pride. People like our language to be visible. It’s a way to activate it. If there is no law forbidding it, why would you deprive yourself of it? »

working model

If the project is adopted, New Zealand will not be the only country with traffic lights in both languages. This practice is common all over the world, depending on the specific needs of each person.

In Europe, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom all have signs reflecting bilingualism in certain regions. Like in China, where there are signs in Chinese/Tibetan, Chinese/Mongolian, or Chinese/Uyghur. In India, Sri Lanka and Israel, road signs are sometimes in three languages.

Models to follow According to the New Zealand government: “We set international precedents,” said a spokeswoman for Waka Kotahi. Research shows that bilingual signs did not lead to an increase in the number of people killed or seriously injured. »

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Public consultation ends June 30. With elections approaching – and the prospect of an FLN victory – the project may be put on hold. The latest polls show the National Party and the Labor Party neck and neck, with 35% of the vote each.

*Ara Wātea means “common area” in real language

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