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High frequency word lists

High frequency words are very important words for the learners of any language. In Māori, as in other languages, there is a relatively small group of words that occur very often, and a much larger group of words that occur less often. The small group of words that occur often is known as the high frequency vocabulary.

The high frequency words in Māori make up the larger proportion of the words that learners will meet as they are listening to, and reading, texts in Māori. In Māori, the 360 or so most frequent words are particularly important because they make up a large proportion of anything that you hear or read in Māori.

Added to these high frequency words are the specific topic words for any particular text. These are words that occur quite often in text because of what it is about, but may not be as generally common in the language.

Learners need to thoroughly know the high frequency words and their high frequency meanings to be able to easily understand the texts they hear and read. It is worthwhile the teacher spending time in class on these high frequency items as the learners will get a good return for any effort spent in learning them. (See Nation, 2001, for comprehensive information on the learning and teaching of vocabulary.)

The high frequency vocabulary is presented here in two ways as reference material for teachers:

1. A list in alphabetical order of 1000 high frequency words. Use this list if you want to find out the more frequent meanings of these words, and whether or not a particular word is amongst the 1000 most frequent words of Māori. Some of these 1000 words are also marked with an asterisk (*). These are very frequent words, words that each occur 200 times or more in the Corpus of Māori Texts for Children.

2. A list in frequency order of those same 1000 words, in descending order of frequency, with the most frequent word (te) at the top of the list. Use this list if you want to find out approximately how frequent a word is within the 1000 words, and therefore how important it is for your learners to know that word and its frequent meanings. The nearer the top of the list, the more frequently the word is used.

The 360 or so most frequent words – those that occur more than 200 times each in the corpus – are particularly important for learners of Māori, but all of these 1000 words occur relatively frequently.

The lists are corpus-based

These lists are based on two Māori corpora (or collections of spoken or written texts in Māori): the Corpus of Māori Texts for Children (MTC), compiled by Huia Publishers; and the Māori Broadcast Corpus (MBC), a one million word representative corpus of broadcast material, recorded off-air in the mid 1990s, compiled by Mary Boyce.

For detailed information on MBC see Boyce (2006) in the list of references.

To identify the words for inclusion in the 1000 list, the high frequency words from each corpus were first identified, and then the two lists were compared to yield a list of high frequency words that were common to both corpora.

Proper nouns such as the names of people, places, names of the days of the week and months of the year were then removed from the list. Next, the words that were in the MTC high frequency list but not in the MBC list were examined one by one to see if there was a good reason to include them in the final list.

Each word on the list was then examined using the information on their use in MTC. This identified the higher frequency meanings that were to be added to the list that is given here in alphabetical order. Some words are more common in MTC because they are useful in the education context. One example of this is the word ‘ine’ (to measure) which is not common in the MBC, but comparatively frequent in MTC. It is therefore included in the list.

The alphabetical list

This list presents the 1000 most frequent words of Māori as identified by MTC and MBC. The list refers to Harlow’s A Māori Reference Grammar for each of the function words, and lists the more frequent meanings of the content words.

Function words

Some of the most frequent words in Māori, as in other languages, are function or grammar words; these include words like: te, i, ki, a, mā, ō. Rather than necessarily carrying a specific meaning, they may indicate the relationships between the phrases and clauses in sentences. It can be difficult to provide a simple meaning in English for these function words. Sometimes there is no equivalent English word.

For each of the function words in the alphabetical list, a short description is given of their function, and a reference has been given to Harlow (2001), where more detailed information can be found. Harlow’s book covers the main aspects of Māori grammar and is a good tool for Māori language teachers who will have occasion to explain aspects of the structure of te reo Māori to their learners in the ‘focus on form’ part of their programmes, that is, when they focus on grammar. (See the list of references for other descriptions of Māori grammar; see Nation, 1996: 36–37 for the four main strands of a language course.)

You will find descriptions of the key uses of function words in various places in Harlow (2001), so it is useful to look both in the Table of Contents and at the Index to ensure you locate all the relevant information.

Another source of information on function words is Huia’s Te Kete Kupu: 300 Essential Words in Māori. This book provides examples of the major uses of 300 very frequent words of Māori, including function words. These examples are in the form of sentences taken from Māori texts written for young children to read. The examples are all in Māori, with no English.

Content words

Content words are those which carry the main meaning in an utterance or sentence. Some examples of content words in Māori are: aroha, whare, waiata, haere, mahi, kōrero, pango, iti, riri, whakaaro, marae.

In the alphabetical list the more frequent meanings of the content words are given. The less frequent meanings are not listed, but can be found in dictionaries (for example, Williams’s A Dictionary of the Māori Language). The less frequent meanings can be learned at a later time once the frequent meanings are well established.

If you want to find definitions of words written in Māori, use Huia’s Tirohia Kimihia. This will help you explain the meanings of words in Māori to your learners, rather than always translating everything into English.

In the alphabetical list there are some words that are spelled the same, but have more than one meaning. The word is listed separately for each of those meanings. Only the more frequent meanings are included here.

Word formation

It is useful for your learners to know the common word formation or word building strategies of te reo Māori. See Harlow (2001), Chapter 4 for an outline of the common word formation strategies of Māori.

There are a number of common, regular affixes (or word parts) that can be added to the stem form of words in Māori to make other forms of the word. Affixes that are added to the beginning of the word are called prefixes. Two common prefixes in Māori are whaka- and kai-. Affixes that are added to the end of the word are called suffixes. Two common suffixes in Māori are the passive suffix and the nominal suffix.

The passive suffix and the nominal suffix in Māori can each take several forms. Here are just some examples of different forms. Harlow (2001: 127,129) gives a full list of passive suffixes:

Stem form

with passive suffix

with nominal suffix

wehe wehea wehenga
kōrero kōrerotia kōrerotanga
tau tauria tauranga
tiro tirohia tirohanga

Prefixes and suffixes add elements of meaning to a word.

If you know the common meanings of the stem form, and the effect on the meaning of the word when you add a particular affix, you can usually work out the meanings of the new word quite easily.

As an example, let us take the frequent word mahi, and add prefixes and suffixes to it:

Word part



stem mahi to work (also: to do, to make)
kai- prefix kaimahi a worker
whaka- prefix whakamahi to put someone to work, to operate something
passive suffix -a mahia to be working
nominal suffix -nga mahinga an instance of work, an exercise

The words mahi, kaimahi, whakamahi and mahia all appear in the 500 most frequent words in the lists here. Mahinga is less frequent, and does not occur within the 1000 most frequent words; it does however occur within the 1500 most frequent words in both of the corpora, MTC and MBC.

Here are some words with the prefix kai- from the 1000 word list:

kaiako kaikōrero kaimahi kaipūtaiao
kaitākaro kaitiaki kaituhi kaiwhakahaere

Here are some words with the prefix whaka- from the 1000 word list:

whakaae whakaahua whakaaro whakahaere
whakahoki whakamahi whakamārama whakamau
whakamuri whakapae whakapai whakaora
whakapakari whakaputa whakatakoto whakatūpato

If your learners know the common affixes and the effect they have on the meaning when they are added to a word they already know, they are able to understand and use a wider range of words quite quickly.

For other languages, wordlists are often presented in word families (see Nation, 2001: 8, 47, and 266 Table 8.3 for word families in English). Word family work has yet to be completed for Māori, but early work is underway.


  • Bauer, W. (with W. Parker, T. K. Evans, and T. A. N. Teepa).(1997). The Reed Reference Grammar of Māori. Auckland: Reed.
  • Biggs, B. (1969). Let’s Learn Māori: a Guide to the Study of the Māori Language. Wellington: A. W. and A. H. Reed.
  • Boyce, M. T. (2006). A corpus of modern spoken Māori. Unpublished PhD thesis available in the library at Victoria University of Wellington.
  • Harlow, R. (2001). A Māori Reference Grammar. Auckland: Longman.
  • Head, L. (1989). Making Māori Sentences. Auckland: Longman Paul.
  • Huia. (2006). Tirohia Kimihia: A Māori Learner Dictionary. Wellington: Huia Publishers.
  • Huia. (2006). Te Kete Kupu: 300 Essential Words in Māori. Wellington: Huia Publishers.
  • Nation, I. S. P. (2001). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Nation, I. S. P. (1996). Language Curriculum Design. Wellington: English Language Institute Occasional Publication No. 16. School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, Victoria University of Wellington.
  • Williams, H. W. (1975). A Dictionary of the Māori Language. Wellington: Government Printer.

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