This post is based on Practical Marshallese by Peter Rudiak-Gould, a freely distributed, full-length textbook for learning the native language of the Marshall Islands. It has been used since 2004 as the official language manual for all volunteers in the WorldTeach Marshall Islands program, and it has formed the basis of language classes for Americans at Kwajalein Atoll. The 102 short lessons describe the grammar of the language in practical and familiar terms, and a glossary presents 1500 useful words.

One boy, two boys, the boy, the boys (‘a,’ ‘the,’ and plurals)

– In Marshallese the word for ‘a’ or ‘an’ is the same as ‘one’: juon. (Remember that it is usually pronounced ‘juōn,’ although it is not spelled this way.)  Like in English it goes before the noun:

juon ni   = one coconut or a coconut

– Unlike in English, if you have more than one of the noun (a plural noun), the noun stays the same.  You do not add ‘s’ or anything else to make it a plural:

juon ni    = one coconut or a coconut
ruo ni     = two coconuts
jilu ni      = three coconuts
etc.  

– However, with the word for ‘the,’ you must use a different word if the noun is singular than if it is plural (like in Spanish and French).  If the noun is plural, you also must use a different word if the noun refers to a human than if it refers to a non-human.  Also, you must put the word for ‘the’ after the noun.  Here are the three words for ‘the’:

‘The’

eo        the (singular)
ro       the (plural, for humans only)
ko      the (plural, for non-humans only)

For example:

rūkaki eo                      = the teacher
rūkaki ro (not rūkaki ko)  = the teachers
ni eo                             = the coconut
ni ko (not ni ro)               = the coconuts

The words for ‘this,’ ‘that,’ ‘these,’ and ‘those’ also work this way.  You will learn them in Lessons 58-59.

– If you have an adjective with the noun, you must put it after the noun (like Spanish or French) but usually before the word for ‘the’:

juon ni nana  = a bad coconut
ni nana eo     = the bad coconut
ajri nana ro    = the bad children
ni nana ko     = the bad coconuts

– Some adjectives change when they are placed with a noun.  For instance ‘dik’ (‘small’) becomes ‘jidikdik’ for singulars and ‘jiddik’ for plurals, and ‘kilep’ (‘big’) becomes ‘kileplep’ for singulars and ‘killep’ for plurals.  If you want to know about more words that do this, see Lesson 98.

Vocabulary

pinjeḷ pencil
joḷọk throw away, take off (an article of clothing), quit, get rid of, break up with, get divorced from, spend, waste Ex. Joḷọk ek eo = Throw away the fish Ex. Joḷọk iien = Waste time Ex. Joḷọk keroro! = Quit talking/Be quiet!
kappok or pukot look for, search for
jāān (from English) cent, money
mej die, dead
pād wōt stay
taktō (from English) doctor, see a doctor Ex. Iaar taktō inne = I went to the doctor yesterday
peḷḷọk open, unlocked
kapeḷḷọk to open
ti tea
ruṃwij late, slow

Language Tip

Gestures

Marshallese is not all verbal.  Look for and imitate these common Marshallese gestures, which are very different than what English speakers use:

‘Yes’ – eyebrows raised, head may be tilted slightly up

(Not a nod of the head like in English)

‘No’- frown, lips sticking out a bit, sometimes a slight shake of the head

(Not just a shake the head like in English)

‘I don’t know’ – sides of the mouth pulled out and back to form a grimace

(Not a shrug of the shoulders like in English)

‘Come here’ – one hand extended forward with the palm down, then brought down and towards the body quickly

(Not one hand held out palm up, and fingers drawn towards the body, like in English)

‘It was this big’ – right hand is held up, then the side of the left hand is put somewhere along the right hand or arm to indicate how big or long something is, measured from the tip of the right hand fingers to wherever the left hand is.

(Not both hands held up in front of the body, with the distance between them indicating the size, like in English)


[1] The ‘e’ is pronounced here like a ‘y,’ and the ‘ō’ is like the oo in ‘book’

[2] Often spelled ‘yok’ or ‘yuk’ according to the old spelling system

[3] Remember from Lesson 5 that ‘kwō’ (‘you’) is sometimes ‘ko’ instead.  ‘Koban’ is an example of this.

Practical Marshallese

Published by Marco Mora-Huizar

I am a Spanish and Marshallese translator. Iaar katak Kajin Majol ilo Enid, Oklahoma. marcomh.com

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