Bruce Biggs

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Bruce Grandison Biggs CBE (4 September 1921 – 18 October 2000) was an influential figure in the academic field of Māori studies in New Zealand. The first academic appointed (1950) to teach the Māori language at a New Zealand university, he taught and trained a whole generation of Māori academics.

Early life[edit]

Born in Auckland of Ngāti Maniapoto descent, Biggs attended New Lynn Primary School and Mt Albert Grammar School – the contemporary of Rob Muldoon and of lifelong friend the future historian Keith Sinclair. He qualified as a teacher at Auckland Teachers College and served during World War II in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Fiji, where he became fluent in Fijian and collected word lists, grammar notes and folklore. After the war he married Joy Te Ruai Hetet and they had four children. They taught in Te Kao and Wairongomai, near Ruatoria. During these rural postings Biggs began to learn the Māori language.

University career[edit]

In 1950 he won appointment to the first position in a New Zealand university dedicated to the teaching of the Māori language. The idea for this position came from Ralph Piddington, then head of the Anthropology Department at the University of Auckland. From 1951 to 1955 Biggs taught Stage 1 Māori language while completing his BA studies in education and anthropology. Proposals to advance Māori language study above Stage I level initially received much condemnation from academics in other disciplines: they expressed (unfounded) concerns about the lack of a sufficient body of written material on which to base a syllabus. After completing his MA, Biggs took leave to study structural linguistics at Bloomington, Indiana, where in 1957 he completed a PhD thesis entitled The Structure of New Zealand Maaori.


In 1958 Biggs and Jim Hollyman founded the Linguistics Society of New Zealand and its journal Te Reo[1] and soon after Biggs began teaching linguistics courses in the Auckland University anthropology programme. Within ten years Auckland had become the centre of Polynesian linguistics, and Biggs taught for two years at the University of Hawaii in 1967–1968 before returning to New Zealand in 1969, where he remained until he retired in 1983.

Orthography for Māori[edit]

Biggs was a major proponent of the double vowel orthography for Māori, in which long vowels are marked by a doubling of the vowel (e.g. Maaori). This approach has the advantage that it can readily be used using existing technology. However the Māori Language Commission, the official body overseeing the language set up by Māori Language Act 1987, choose to standardise on the use of macrons to represent long vowels (e.g. Māori), which have the advantages of retaining the familiar appearance of words, and of not disturbing alphabetical order.


Biggs taught a number of people who went on to become well known academics in Māori studies, including Pat Hohepa, Hirini Mead, Ranginui Walker, Sir Robert Mahuta, Koro Dewes, Roger Oppenheim, Richard Benton, Wharehuia Milroy, Bernie Kernot, Merimeri Penfold, Tamati Reedy, Dame Anne Salmond, David Simmons, David Walsh, Peter Ranby, Pita Sharples, Parehuia Hopa, Margaret Orbell, Bill Tawhai, Bill Nepia and Margaret Mutu.[2]

Biggs was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1969. He served as President of the Polynesian Society from 1979 to 1993, and in 1985 received the Society's Elsdon Best Memorial Medal.

In the 1986 New Year Honours, Biggs was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, for services to Māori studies and linguistics.[3] He was promoted to Commander of the Order of the British Empire, for services to education and the Māori people, in the 1996 New Year Honours.[4]

Selected bibliography[edit]

Biggs published over 100 books and articles on Māori language and culture, Polynesian comparative linguistics, Polynesian languages and literature as well the Fijian and Rotuman languages. His most well-known books include:

  • Maori Marriage (1960)
  • The Complete English-Maori Dictionary (1966)
  • Let's Learn Maori (1969) (revised editions 1973, 1998)
  • Jones, Pei Te Hurinui (1995). Nga iwi o Tainui: the traditional history of the Tainui people: nga koorero tuku iho a nga tupuna. edited and annotated by Bruce Biggs. Auckland: Auckland University Press. p. 402. ISBN 1-86940-119-0. Retrieved 10 June 2010.


  1. ^ [1] Archived 23 June 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ "Bruce Grandison Biggs " Obituaries " 2000 " Academy Annual Reports and Yearbooks " Reports " Publications " Royal Society of New Zealand". Retrieved 10 August 2015.
  3. ^ "No. 50362". The London Gazette (2nd supplement). 31 December 1985. p. 30.
  4. ^ "No. 54256". The London Gazette (2nd supplement). 30 December 1995. p. 33.

External links[edit]

  • Pawley, Andrew. (2001). Bruce Biggs, 1921-2000: A Tribute. Oceanic Linguistics, (40)1: 1–19.