The A/O Categories
There are two categories which you must consider with possessives in Māori. If we take ‘t-‘ possessive pronouns for example there are two separate forms (as with all possessives):
||tāku / tōku
||tāu / tōu
||tāna / tōna
||his or her
The difference between the two possessive pronoun forms above is the ‘a’ category and the ‘o’ category. The choice is determined by the relationship between the possessor and the thing that is being possessed.
The ‘A’ category
You use the ‘a’ category when the thing that is possessed is any of the following:
1. People you have responsibility/superiority over, and things you have control of, e.g.,
- wife/husband (wahine/tāne);
- technology and machinery not used for transport e.g., computers, bull-dozers, cranes etc;
2. Man made things (but not clothing), e.g.,
- pens, paper;
- cups, knives.
4. Food and drink (but not drinking water).
The ‘O’ category
You use the ‘o’ category when the thing that is possessed is any of the following:
- parents, siblings
- partners (but not wife/husband, see above)
- feelings, thoughts, qualities
- large immovable man-made things
- pure drinking water and medicine
- parts of the body
The neutral category
There is a neutral category which is used with singular possessive pronouns, e.g., instead of tōku ingoa
you can say taku ingoa
. The following are the ‘neutral’ possessives:
||taku / aku
||Kei hea aku pene?
Where are my pens?
||Ko wai tō ingoa?
What's your name?
||his or her
||Homai tana ngeru!
Give me her cat!
Neutral possessives are not used with plural pronouns such as kōrua.
NOTE: There are always exceptions to the a/o categories, for example, a horse can be kept as a pet, or it can be used solely as transport. If it is a pet, it belongs in the ‘a’ category; if it is used as a mode of transport, it belongs in the ‘o’ category. Use your discretion in these cases.
The best way to learn is to memorise the ‘a’ category (as this is the shortest list of the two), and whatever is not in the ‘a’ category will be in the ‘o’ category.