We live in Whanganui. Or is it Wanganui? Actually it’s both. The “h” is optional. There are many Maori words that begin with “wh” and this combination is pronounced with a soft /f/ sound. The word “whanga” means harbor, bay or inlet, and naturally on an island nation, there are many cities and towns that start with “whanga”- Whanganui, included. But when this town was first settled, the local Maoris spoke with a dialect that pronounced all “wh” like /w/ and so the word was originally spelled with no “h” to reflect the pronunciation. In 1991 the spelling was officially changed to the correct Maori spelling, but only for the river and national park. This was a contentious matter for the people of the town, and so officially, all businesses can choose the spelling they prefer to use. To the locals, Whanganui with or without the “h” is still pronounced with a /w/ and the rest of the country is still slightly confused.
Peter and I learned this right away from our trusty Lonely Planet guide book, but we’ve encountered other cultural confusions that have surprised us. Being that New Zealand is an English speaking country, heavily influenced by American pop culture, we forget sometimes that it is a different country, with a culture of its own.
One Saturday night we decided to go to a Scottish Social Dance, it was advertised as “fun for the whole family, $7, supper included.” What a deal! We thought, it’s hard to find a meal for under $10. We came hungry and ready to eat, but as we entered the hall we saw no tables set for dinner, and smelled no food cooking. Maybe we had missed the meal? We enjoyed the dancing anyway, nothing was taught, so we just had to follow along. Some dances were easy, others were a bit tricky to follow, but the live band and friendly people made it a fun experience. A bagpipe band would march in intermittently and everyone would stand for their entrance. Then they would play their pipes in the middle of the room as the crowd danced around them. The first song the pipers played was Mari’s Wedding! After the shindig was over, they rolled out carts (trolleys, as they call them) of snacks- mini mince pies, white bread cucumber sandwiches and fruitcakes. It was 10 pm and time for supper. This was how we learned that “supper” here refers to a late night snack. We should have known better since we knew that the evening meal is called “tea”, the hot beverage is a “cuppa” and when asked what kind you want, a good answer is either “white” or “black”- with or without milk. There aren’t usually cupboards full of different Celestial Seasonings like I’m used to, and when I ask for herbal tea, people often offer me green tea.
We are enjoying ourselves, learning new things, and although we are occasionally confused, it’s always nice to hear a familiar tune, blasted by a band of bagpipers. Same language, different dialect.