Expressing Possession and Relationships in Te Reo Māori (a and o categories)

Expressing Possession and Relationships in Te Reo Māori

When it comes to words in te reo Māori that express possession, whether that’s owning something (my book, his car, their table) or being part of a relationship (my mother, his father, their children), the choice of word comes down to whether your relationship to the thing or the person is ‘active’ (a category) or ‘passive’ (o category).

Sometimes that’s easy to decide – you actively rear your children and they’re here because of you so they would fall into the ‘a’ category.  A mountain doesn’t exists due to any action on your part and neither can you pick it up or move it, it’s not in the least affected by your existence so it would fall into the ‘o’ category.   Sometimes it’s a little more difficult to understand – husbands and wives fall into the ‘a’ category whereas siblings and friends fall into the ‘o’ category.  I guess only a wife can make a husband and a husband a wife and each one should be active in the marriage (a category) but someone can act as a friend to you whether you reciprocate or not, and siblings don’t exist due to any action on your part (o category).   Food needs to be actively gathered, cleaned or prepared (a category) but water can just be swallowed as it comes (o category).

It’s really only by practice that you get the hang of it, listen to fluent speakers and you’ll soon see what they put in the ‘a’ category and what the put in the ‘o’ category and then imitate them, read as much as you can in te reo Māori as this will help too. 

A tip to get started is to put people or things that you have some authority over, that you control or influence in some way into the ‘a’ category.  This includes most small portable things that we actively use and our actions themselves. 

But if someone or something has authority, influence or control over you they will belong in the ‘o’ category.  Eg.  A house, car, tractor, bus, clothes etc have influence over us in that we either go into them or put them on us and we passively receive some form of protection from them.  And then it just pays to learn and remember that parts of things, feelings, thoughts and qualities are also placed into the ‘o’ category.

Now, on to the words we use to express possession and relationships.

Let’s start with ‘a’ and ‘o’ seeing as those are our two categories and it’s the easiest place to start. 

These words both mean ‘of’ so let’s put them into sentences.

Te pukapuka a Hēmi.   The book of James.  James’ book.  (small portable objects = a category)

Te matua o Maria.    The father of Maria.   Maria’s father.  (parents =  o category)

Ngā tamariki o Hoani rāua ko Mere.    Hoani and Mere’s children.  (children = o category)

Ngā kakahu o ngā tamariki.   The children’s clothes.   (clothes = o category)

Tēnei taha o te hangatanga.    This side of the building.  (parts of things are in the o category)

NB:  ‘a’ and ‘o’ are both pronounced as long vowel sounds when followed by a word that starts with a long vowel in its first syllable.

We don’t always want to use people’s names when we describe possession or relationships so let’s learn the pronouns such as his, her, our, their. Their will be four choices, ‘a’ and ‘o’ category, single and plural.



  Person One thing possessed Several things possessed One thing possessed Several things possessed
‘a’ category ‘o’ category ‘a’ category ‘o’ category
1 person my tāku tōku  āku ōku 
  your tāu tōu āu ōu
  his/her tāna tōna āna ōna
2 people our (us 2, including you) tā tāua tō tāua ā tāua ō tāua
our (us 2, excluding you) tā māua tō māua ā māua ō māua
your tā kōrua tō kōrua ā kōrua ō kōrua
their tā rāua tō rāua ā rāua ō rāua
3 + people our (us 3 including you) tā tātou tō tātou ā tātou ō tātou
our (us 3 excluding you) tā mātou tō mātou ā mātou ō mātou
your tā koutou tō kouto ā koutou ō koutou
their   tā rātou tō rātou  ā rātou  ō rātou 



NB  There is also a small set of neutral possessives that can be used to cover both ‘a’ and ‘o’ categories but only for the singular (one person) possessive pronouns, my, your, he/she so you will still need to know how to use the ‘a’ and ‘o’ categories.  They are as follows:  taku/aku (my), tō/ō (your), tana/ana (his/her).


Place the pronoun before the noun:   

He pene tāku.   My pen.

Tōku waka.   My car.  (boat etc)

Ōna mātua.   His parents.

He kaupapa āna?   Does she have some things she’s doing?

Ā māua hama.   Our (2 people) hammers.

Tō koutou whare.  Your (3+ people) house.

He pukapuka tāu?   Do you have a book?

He tuahine tōu?   Do you have a sister?

I pānui ā tāua tamariki i ā rāua mahi kāinga.   Our (2) children read their homework (more than one set of homework).

I haere ā tāua tamariki ki tō rātou kura.   Our children went to their school (one school).

He pātai āu?   Do you (1 person) have any questions?

He mātauranga pai tōu.   You have good understanding/knowledge.

He pātai mā mātou?  Do you (a group of people) have any questions?

He moni tāu?   Do you have any money?

Tokohia ō tuākana?  How many older siblings do you have?   (neutral category)

Tokorima aku tamariki.   I have 5 childrren.   (neutral category)

He taringa nui ōku.   I have big ears.   (parts of anything = ‘o’ category)

He iramutu tāu?   Do you have any nieces or nephews?

He whakaaro ōu?   Do you have any ideas?