Whanganui – Naming and Claiming Pt 2

Land Information Minister Maurice Williamson never thought a letter of the alphabet could cause him such a headache.  In September 2009 the New Zealand Geographic Board responded to nearly 900 submissions by ruling that Wanganui should officially be known as Whanganui – but the Minister held final decision rights over whether the Board’s ruling would stand.

Michael Laws responded to the Board’s decision by calling it “a direct attack on our city” – making it clear that naming a place was much more than an abstract notion, rather it is intrinsically tied to the physical space.  Conversely leaving the “h” out of the spelling was seen as removing any sense of place by local Maori, who therefore welcomed the Board’s decision.

A happier Laws

Minister Williamson’s solution was very postmodern.  Neither way of spelling was taken as official and instead people are welcome to adopt whichever spelling they want (apart from government agencies, who have to use the “h”).  Perhaps this is the most democratic of decisions – everyday usage where all are free to choose the spelling they want, and eventually the most popular form will be revealed.

But popular isn’t correct.  Removing the “h” makes it brutally clear who took control of the place, erasing previous meanings and identities and over more than 150 years forging ones that suit the new owners.  In not restoring the correct spelling the Crown is not kicking the issue to touch as some commentators have noted (see here), but is instead continuing the approach of the first surveyors and cartographers who arrived in what was then Whanganui.

Also see Whanganui – Naming is Claiming Pt 1


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