Monday, August 31, 2009

The 'the'

Reading the letters of Constantine Dillon, an aristocratic
young English colonist who lived in New Zealand from
1842 until his death by drowning in 1853, I’m struck
afresh by the use of the definite article in connection
with various regions of New Zealand. For early British
settlers it was always ‘the’ Waimea, ‘the’ Wairarapa, ‘the’
Rangitikei,’ ‘the’ Manawatu. Note that the article was
invariably attached to Maori names, not English ones.
No one talked of ‘the’ Nelson or ‘the’ Canterbury. (The
only exceptions that come to mind are the Hutt—an
abbreviation of the Hutt Valley—and the Coromandel.)
Overall, it's hard to escape the conclusion that prefixing
‘the’ to the names of Maori regions was a way of
reinforcing British ownership of, or claims to, those
places. It somehow domesticated them, while also, no
doubt, ameliorating the awkwardness of pronouncing
Maori names straight out—without a social introduction,
as it were. The ‘the’— could we say?—helped to make
orderly the wilderness and straight the path of colonial
annexation. Thus even the humblest part of speech was
pressed into service on the side of the imperialist project.

I may be mistaken but I detect a trend now, in the early
21st century, towards dispensing with the 'the' in these
cases; more and more we hear just 'Waikato' or
'Manawatu,' though the article still seems to cling to my
own place of birth, 'the' Wairarapa, perhaps because the
Maori presence was historically less influential there.

I note also that Dillon—though hardly exceptionable in
this—makes reductive references to Jewishness, as in this
comment on Auckland in 1848: ‘This is such a horrid
place, always raining, up to one’s knees in mud and dust,
everything dirty and shabby, the people almost all Jews or
people from N.S.Wales.’ A few pages further on, a man
described as a blackguard, a scamp and a liar is also called
'a regular Jew.’ You can't help but wonder to what extent
this kind of casual, almost perfunctory antisemitism helped
to lay the ground—helped to ease attitudes into action—for
what came a century later.


Tim Selwyn said...

Interesting post Denis, I have put my thoughts up here:
... but I and am still rather confused about what the conventions are.

Gosman said...

Tim raises some very good points about how the use of 'The' before geographic locations is not unusual in the English language.

Would you say that using 'The' in front of Coromandal or West Coast has some hidden colonial connotations? These are not Maori terms after all.

On top of this it isn't just confined to geographic locations outside the British Isles either. You just have to look at places like The Cottswolds or The Black Country or The Lake District to see that England has many places where the use of 'The' is prevalent.