Board's analysis of objection and support

This is one section of the the New Zealand Geographic Board Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa proposal to alter 'Wanganui' to 'Whanganui': Summary of Submissions and the Board's Decision. See the full list of sections. A pdf version of this report is also available.

12 October 2009 Report to the Minister for Land Information on the ‘Wanganui’ to ‘Whanganui’ name change proposal (PDF 192 KB)

Other information

In addition to the submissions, the Board took account of the research completed by Bruce Stirling (submitted with proposal), Diana Beaglehole (historian commissioned by the Wanganui District Council) and Dr Phil Parkinson (Librarian, Alexander Turnbull Library), and other historical records and references. Refer to Attachment 10.

The Board considered every submission and item of correspondence received since its meeting on 27 March 2009 including, as further information, correspondence received by the Minister which was forwarded to the Board.

The Board noted in particular the submissions from the Wanganui District Council (see Attachment 4) and the Human Rights Commission (see Attachment 7), as well as the outcome of the Council's 2009 referendum.

The Wanganui District Council confirmed that it does not want the spelling of Wanganui changed to 'Whanganui', preferring to preserve the status quo option. The reasons provided in their submission are summarised as:

  • upholding democracy
  • common usage
  • the community's choice
  • pronunciation

The Human Rights Commission stated its preference is that the spelling of 'Whanganui' be adopted as the official name, but identified a range of options for resolving the naming debate:

  • preserve the status quo
  • preserve the status quo but review within a specified time frame, for example five years
  • approve a dual name as Wanganui/Whanganui
  • approve an alternative name, so people can use either 'Wanganui' or 'Whanganui'
  • change the name as part of a future Treaty settlement in the area
  • change the name now.

The 2009 referendum outcome attracted votes from 61% of the registered population (over 19,000 voters) and the results were as follows:

  • 77% preferred that the city and district be spelt as 'Wanganui'
  • 22% preferred the name change to 'Whanganui'
  • 1% informal/blank

History of this naming debate

The following is a time line summary of this naming debate:

Pre 1840three oral histories for Whanganui: Kupe, Haunui, and the modern interpretation of the large river mouth
1837first European settlement, named Wanganui
1840sRev. Richard Taylor: promulgation of Wanganui
1842Governor proclaimed a change to Petre
1844petition to name the town after the river, Wanganui
1854Wanganui Act changed Petre back to Wanganui
Up to 1900Wanganui mostly commonly used, but use of Whanganui also recorded
1902Mayor lobbied for Whanganui, but defeated by the majority of Councillors
1912Rev. Herbert Williams Dictionary: Whanganui
1925Rev. Henry Fletcher Index: Whanganui
1938petition to Council to change to Whanganui (rejected)
1954Bruce Biggs6 commented on dialectical difference

Claims before the Waitangi Tribunal

The following points have been considered by the Board in reference to the claims currently being heard by the Waitangi Tribunal:

  • The submitters also currently have a claim before the Waitangi Tribunal relating to the spelling of 'Whanganui'.
  • The Waitangi Tribunal will be hearing through to next year, and the report will not be available for two years.
  • One of the Board's members is sitting on the Tribunal hearing these claims. This was noted by the Board but not considered by the Chairperson to be a conflict of interest for the Board that this member would be hearing some of the same material as a member of two bodies – and furthermore that if there was any perceived conflict it was sufficiently managed by being declared.

Culture and heritage

Under the purpose section 3(e) of the Act, the Act must provide the means for appropriate recognition to be accorded to cultural and heritage values associated with geographic features.

The correct meaning for the name 'Whanganui' is: the long wait, one meaning of 'whanga' being 'to wait'. This conceptual naming is associated with the Kupe history, when he explored the interior and left a contingent at the estuary.

There is also an oral history account that relates to the Ngāti Apa ancestor, Haunui, again referring to the long wait for the tide to change so that he could cross the river in pursuit of his wife.

A third common but non-'Whanganui' version, which has gained more recent prominence, is the meaning 'big harbour or bay' – referring to the river's large mouth, subject to tidal change and influence.

The word 'Wanganui' has no meaning to the tangata whenua of this place. And the application of the word 'Whanganui' to the area of the river mouth is location-specific, ie it is a name that was first given at the river mouth (whether by Kupe or Haunui) and so was subsequently applied to the whole length of the river.

The Board was mindful of the arguments that the word 'Wanganui', though originally named after the river, had nevertheless taken on its own culture and heritage. It is this heritage relating to the name of the city, as distinct from the name of the river, that many objectors seek to preserve.

After weighing up these cultural and heritage views, the Board noted the fact that the early settlers clearly intended their town to take the Māori name of the river. The historical accounts – by Stirling, Parkinson and Beaglehole – show that at that time, there was considerable debate and doubt about the correct way to spell Māori words. Of the two main options available to them in 1844 – these early settlers in their petition chose the version which most closely reflected the local dialect. This was not a 'mistake' at that time as there was no authority on spelling Māori names. However, it now differs from the spelling of the river as a result of the Minister's determination in 1991 to confirm the decision of the Board to rename the river as 'Whanganui'.

Orthography and pronunciation

Questions of pronunciation of Te Reo Māori, and particularly the pronunciation of the local dialect, is a common cause of discussion. It is not correct to say that the 'h' is silent. The Whanganui River tribes tend to use the soft /f/ variant of [wh] (as in 'fish'), whereas their neighbours of Southern Taranaki tend to the 'pre-aspirated' [h]. The latter is similar to the subtle distinction that some English speakers make between the words 'where' and 'wear'.

The Board's mandate does not run to pronunciation. Its functions are directed to questions of spelling and orthography and the correct application and recording of place names. In following that mandate the Board must rely on a range of authoritative sources and scholarship. In particular, the Board's functions include seeking advice from Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission).

The letter from Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission) of 3 March 2009 was noted, in particular: “The word 'Whanganui' is a compound word made of the words 'whanga' and 'nui'. There is no such word as 'wanga' in the Māori lexicon. The convention is that however a word is said, its standard form is written to convey meaning and it is widely accepted that 'whanga' is written with an 'h'. How people choose to represent it orally is a separate issue.”

Pronunciation is a separate issue and not what the Board rules on. Different individuals will pronounce the name differently and many are likely to continue the current pronunciation regardless of the recommended change in spelling.


Section 32(1) of the Act (which comes into force on 1 November 2009) specifies that official names must be used on official documents. This does not apply to documents already published or reprinted, like maps and brochures, but it will apply to any new or revised editions, or new publications.

However, there is a proviso under section 32(2) of the Act, which permits a non-official name to be used in an official document, provided it is stated that the particular name is not official. This means that 'Wanganui' could continue to be used indefinitely, if that need satisfies a business requirement or principle.

The following are expected to change if the Board's decision is confirmed (noting the proviso in section 32(2) and also the recommended transition period):

  • the name of the city on new publications of maps – most notably those produced by LINZ,
  • addresses of businesses and residences in the city,
  • road signs on highways leading to the city,
  • transport services where the city is a destination, and
  • tourist brochures referring to the city as a destination or as a place where activities and services are located.

The following are not required to change:

  • the name of the Wanganui District council - however, new Council documents that refer to the city as a place will be expected to use the correct name,
  • official documents that are already published – including reprints of these documents,
  • the names of businesses, including those servicing travellers or tourists – however, their addresses will change and re-publications of brochures may need to change,
  • documents produced by businesses not involved with travellers or tourists, and
  • verbal references to the city.

Costs and impacts

Actual total costs are not known. Many submissions made general reference to the potential cost. Most references to cost did not appear to be made by business owners and no submissions provided any detail on what those costs might be.

Addresses within the city will change. Although New Zealand Post will continue delivering mail addressed to 'Wanganui', businesses and government agencies are likely to feel the need to update their stationery and signage. It is intended that the transition period will allow old stocks to be used up.

Highway signs referring to 'Wanganui' as a destination will need to be changed. The transition period is intended to allow this to be done gradually as part of normal maintenance.

Businesses or community groups supporting the tourist industry would be expected to use the official name in re-published tourist brochures – but only when referring to the city itself and only from the end of any transition period. It is intended that the transition period will allow the change to be made during general update and republishing of brochures – thus allowing old stocks to be used and avoiding additional cost.

Businesses could choose whether to adopt the official name in their business name and their publications, or whether to retain the current spelling 'Wanganui'. Even within the tourist industry, there would be no requirement to change the names of any business or company – such as motels and guest houses.

Some businesses are naturally reluctant to change their trading names after many years and also for fear of lost custom if they endorse the 'h'. This decision will be entirely up to them. There is no compliance requirement on them to change. The Board acknowledges that there are a number of towns in the South Island where local businesses have chosen to use historical names, eg Pembroke, the former name of Wanaka, and Molyneux, the former name of Alexandra.

The Wanganui District Council would not be forced to change its territorial authority name – unless the Council itself wants to change its name. Under sections 22 to 23 of the Act, the Council can apply to the Board to change its name, but the Board has no authority to change the name of the Council without the Council's agreement. However, if the name of the city is changed, that will naturally raise questions about the name of the District Council. Examples exist of councils with jurisdiction over places with different names, for example the Hutt City Council has jurisdiction over the city of Lower Hutt. New official Council documents such as maps, websites and other publications including signs will need to adopt the new spelling when referring to the city.

Policies and precedent

The Board strives to accommodate the interests of all New Zealanders, and government requirements, with an understanding of New Zealand history and geography, when assigning, altering, discontinuing and approving geographic names. Decisions must be balanced against the Act and the policies, rules, guidelines, and procedures that define the parameters within which the Board operates. The effect of place naming is felt not only by individuals, local communities, local iwi, visitors and tourists, but often has a wider impact on central and local government organisations (eg signage, addressing, publications, emergency services). The Board collectively has a strong desire to give practical effect to the purpose, functions, and duties of the Act.

The Board's policies for the names of communities do have a tendency to lean towards community views, support from the Territorial Authority, and where there is no strong community support for change, a preference for the status quo. The Board is also aware of other suburb, town and city names that are arguably incorrect – Hataitai, Epuni, Petone, Kaiapoi, Timaru, and many other suburbs and towns.

The question of whether this decision would set a precedent was considered carefully by the Board. However, each case must be treated on its merits. The Board is not aware of any other equivalent to Wanganui – in that it was named after the river but is now spelt differently to the river. The correction to the name of the river was confirmed by the Minister in 1991. Precedents are only created where the circumstances are the same or similar. It cannot be assumed that this decision will necessarily result in changes to other names. Note that in 2000 the Board declined to change the name of the suburb of Hataitai to its correct spelling of Whataitai.

Examples of decisions made by previous Ministers are included under Appendix B.

Inquiry by the Minister

Under section 20(2) of the Act, you may make any inquiry as you wish. Such inquiry is at your discretion.

Transition period

If you confirm the Board's decision, then under section 21(3)(b) your determination will come into force, either on the date of the Gazette notice or on 'a date specified in the Gazette notice which must be as soon as practicable after the date of the Gazette notice'.

The Board recommends that it is reasonable to consider that a period of 12 months be specified between the publication of the Gazette notice and the date that it takes effect. This would allow for the practicability of updating signs and other official documents to reflect the change. You may wish to take further advice on considerations or events which could affect the practicability of the implementation of this determination.

During the transition period recommended by the Board for practicability, the status quo would prevail which would mean that both the current recorded name of 'Wanganui', and the proposed name of 'Whanganui', could be used.

This would also mean that after the date specified in the Gazette notice, only the new spelling of 'Whanganui' would be official and the name of 'Wanganui', if used in an official document (as defined in the Act), would contravene section 32(1) of the Act, unless section 32(2) of the Act were to be applied (a proviso which allows unofficial names to be used if it is stated that they are not official). Compliance can be insisted via section 33 of the Act, which provides for court injunction.

Determination of the Minister to be Gazetted and publicly notified

Section 21 of the Act applies, once the Minister's final determination has been made. This includes the Board publishing the determination in the New Zealand Gazette, in national and local news publications, and on the LINZ website.

The date when the final determination takes effect can be the date of the Gazette notice, or a date specified in the Gazette notice, which must be as soon as practicable after the date of the Gazette notice as noted above.

The Board will include the official geographic name that the Minister determines as final, in the New Zealand Gazetteer of Official Geographic Names.


6. Emeritus professor and leader in linguistics, with notable publications: Structure of New Zealand Māori (1961), English-Māori Dictionary (1966), and Let's Learn Māori (1969).