• Michaela Selway

The Influence of the Linguistic Turn on the Teaching of New Zealand History

Huirapa Marae, Karitane. Image from the University of Otago article, Te Ao Māori / The Māori world.

In many cases, the only gateway historians have to the past is through language. Primary sources - whether diary entries, newspaper articles, chronicle entries, or crumbling manuscripts- allow us to enter a world that is radically different from our own. In the 1960s, however, changes in the field of linguistics and epistemology caused historians to question their supposed “bridge” to the past. Previously, historians reconstructed the past by reading and interpreting a text. They strove for an objective understanding of history in order to preserve, as accurately as possible, the events they were reading about. The linguistic turn, or as Hayden White preferred to call it, the discursive turn, caused historians to question not only their own biases in understanding the words they were reading but the very meaning of the words themselves [1]. This has great importance for the study of New Zealand history, which has traditionally been approached with a very singular, Pākehā, understanding. The principles of the linguistic turn radically altered the study of history - a transformation that is slowly altering the way we study and understand the history of Aotearoa.

The linguistic turn argues that history cannot be accurately reconstructed as the past is not discernible or frozen [2]. The past has been captured within these objects (diaries, books, etc) through words but the conduit itself is flawed. The meaning of words not only changes over time but is dependent on the worldview of the person reading those words. Kaya Yilmaz posits that a historian is ‘considered as the prisoner of the world in which he thinks and his thoughts and perceptions are inevitably conditioned by the categories of the language in which he or she operates’ [2]. In other words, each historian approaches a text with preconceived understandings of the past based on the world they operate in. This worldview is constructed through social and cultural interactions, values instilled in them throughout childhood, and experience. These experiences cause the historian to reconstruct and judge events based on their values, their own understanding of right and wrong, or their expectations for societal behaviour.

On the one hand, this appears problematic as, when unaware of this, the historian can become unintentionally anachronistic or impose certain assumptions or beliefs on past events when those ideas may never have existed in the first place. On the other hand, though, understanding that each historian approaches a text with their own worldview digs into the very argument of the linguistic turn - that there are and will continue to be a plethora of interpretations of the past. G. Iggers states that by ‘stressing the nature of texts as nonreferential and ambiguous in terms of their meanings ... every text can be read in innumerable ways. The author’s intention no longer matters, because it is multilayered and contradictory’ [3]. The past, therefore, is flexible and fluid.

This idea is crucial for any historian to understand and is, in my opinion, something that is introduced too late in history education. Until my first year of postgraduate, we were taught to avoid any arguments related to “bias” because it was “too complicated”; everyone is biased and there are more important ideas that should be focused on in a short 1500-3000 word essay. Yet at the same time, when reading secondary sources, we are taught to research the historian who wrote the text without knowing the true reason why. We question: what ethnicity are they? Are they from the country they are writing about? Did they witness the event? What sources did they use? Are they a native speaker of the language that the text they are reading was originally written in? Each of these questions comes with different implications. For example, if they are a German writing on the Holocaust, they are going to come to very different conclusions to a Jew reading the very same sources. Thus, when reading the secondary sources they produced it is vital to know what worldview they are coming from.

Surely then, if we are to inadvertently learn about the biases of other historians, we should learn about our own - because that is how we learn to be true historians. It is one thing to understand our own worldview and the “biases” we approach history with, but I believe that is even more important to be open to, and even seek, the interpretation of others. The linguistic turn forced historians to recognise that there is no single interpretation of the past. To write good history then, we should not only recognise the influence of experience on our own interpretations, but we should actively seek out the interpretation of others - whether it be to question our own argument, reinforce it, or present another facet that we had not previously considered.

This is particularly important in New Zealand and the understanding of our own history. Traditional histories of New Zealand generally wrote a singular version of the past that negated the Māori narrative, to the point where ‘indigenous have regularly been culturally appropriated, dislocated and misrepresented’ [5]. This not only ignores the other people involved in creating the history of Aotearoa but their understanding of this history too. For example, Te Ao Māori recognises that the world (living and non-living) is connected, particularly the past and the present [6]. Indeed, ‘humans are not seen as superior to the natural order but rather as existing within it’ [7]. In Mātauranga Māori, the past is always relevant because it is connected to the present. Tikanga - cultural norms, traditions, and ways of living - is generated through time and passed down to the next generation. Indeed, without the past, we would have no bearings for our present. These values stand in contrast to the Western worldview, which tends to forget rather than remember, the past. These values cannot be ignored when studying New Zealand history, because how can you truly study the past while ignoring half the story? Especially when the story helps us to understand the cultural, social, and political world we live in.

The changes the linguistic turn forced upon the study of history, and the way that it confronted historians with their own preconceptions, has allowed the study of New Zealand history to move away from the singular narrative it traditionally was - and in many ways, unfortunately, can still be. However, this has been a slow process. Only in 2019 did a review in the teaching of history change the curriculum to include other aspects of New Zealand history beyond just the bare minimum of the Treaty of Waitangi. This new curriculum includes the ‘arrival of Māori to Aotearoa New Zealand’, the New Zealand Wars, and the ‘evolving national identity of Aotearoa New Zealand in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries’ [8]. Hopefully, with this new curriculum. students will not only learn more about the country they live in but also more about Te Ao Māori. This should lead to a greater understanding of New Zealand history and the cultural, social, and political world we live in. It is no longer enough to just “know” the history - this change in the curriculum is vital for New Zealanders to comprehend the various worldviews of the people who created our history.


Michaela Selway is the co-founder and editor of Tāhuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts graduate in History at the University of Auckland, studying how biblical ideas on Origin Myths were projected into Chronicles throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.


  1. Kaya Yilmaz, ‘Introducing the ‘linguistic turn’ to history education’, International Education Journal, 8, 1, 2007, p.272.

  2. Kathleen Canning, ‘Feminist History after the Linguistic Turn: Historicizing Discourse and Experience’, Signs, 19, 2, 1994, p.369.

  3. ibid.

  4. Yilmaz, ‘Introducing the ‘linguistic turn’, p.272; G. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century. From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge, London, 1997.

  5. N. Mahuika, ‘New Zealand history is māori history: Tikanga as the ethical foundation of historical scholarship in Aotearoa New Zealand’, New Zealand Journal of History, 49, 1, 2015, p.5; Examples can be found in William P. Reeves’ ‘Aotearoa: The Long White Cloud’, which like many “general histories” effectively relegates Māori to the past.

  6. Our Land Our Water, Te Ao Māori, accessed 17 September 2020, https://ourlandandwater.nz/about-us/te-ao-maori/#:~:text=The%20M%C4%81ori%20world%20view%20(te,living%20and%20non%2Dliving%20things.

  7. Royal Society, Mātauranga Māori in modern day research, accessed 17 September 2020, https://www.royalsociety.org.nz/news/matauranga-maori-in-modern-day-research/

  8. Jacinda Ardern & Chris Hipkins, ‘NZ history to be taught in all schools’, accessed 19 Septemeber 2020, https://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/nz-history-be-taught-all-schools#:~:text=New%20Zealand%20history%20will%20be,Zealander%2C%E2%80%9D%20Jacinda%20Ardern%20said.

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