The letters and sounds of Marshallese

This page is about the Marshallese alphabet and how to pronounce all of its sounds. But before starting, there are a few things you should know:

Marshallese has two different spelling systems

When missionaries first came to the Marshall Islands, they developed a spelling system for the language. Although this spelling system was not very consistent or accurate, it has been the only system until recently. You will still see it in newspapers, signs, and many other places. Recently a new spelling system has been developed which is much more consistent and much more closely represents the sounds of the language. It is also the system used by the Marshallese-English Dictionary by Abo et al, which is the only complete Marshallese dictionary available. (The Naan Dictionary by Nik Willson includes both the new system and other variations.) Because of these advantages, we recommend learning the new system. However, so that you can learn both systems, they are presented side-by-side. The old system is in the ‘Old Spelling’ column, and the new system is in the ‘New Spelling’ column.

Don’t worry about pronouncing all of the sounds perfectly from day one

Marshallese has many sounds that are difficult for English speakers to pronounce. For this reason I have split the pronunciation into two sections. ‘What it really is’ is the way the letter is really pronounced by Marshallese people. ‘Good enough’ is an easier way to pronounce the letter that Marshallese people will usually understand, even though it’s not quite right. In this lesson, focus on learning the ‘Good enough’ pronunciations. Later you can learn to pronounce them more accurately. In future lessons there will be more pronunciation practice to help you do this.

Letters can be pronounced differently in different contexts

When letters are at the beginning of a word, the end of a word, sandwiched between two vowels, or in other contexts, they may be pronounced differently. For now, it is most important to learn the basic sound, and eventually you will get the feel of how the sound changes in different contexts.

Old Spelling New Spelling Pronunciation Practice Words
a a What it really is: this letter actually stands for two different sounds; in some words it is like the ‘o’ in cot, and in other words it is halfway between the ‘o’ in cot and the ‘a’ in cat Good enough: always pronounce it cot
ak
but
or
ta
what
pako
shark
ā or e ā What it really is: halfway between pet and pat Good enough: pronounce it pet
āne
island
breadfruit
b b What it really is: at the end of words, or when there are two b’s in a row, pronounce it like an English p, but with the lips slightly rounded and the tongue pulled back and raised at the back of the mouth, giving it a ‘darker’ sound; everywhere else, like English b but with the lips and tongue as described above Good enough: like English p at the end of words, but b everywhere else
ba
say
tell
baba
dad
jaab
no
dr or r d What it really is: like a Spanish trilled (rolled) r, but the tongue is right behind the teeth instead of further back Good enough: like a Spanish untrilled (not rolled) r, or the light t in English ‘gotta’
dik
small
young
jidik
a little
ad
our
e e What it really is: this letter actually stands for two different sounds; in some words it is like pet, and in other words it is halfway between pet and pit Good enough: always pronounce it pet
etal
go
men
thing
ne
foot
leg
i or y i What it really is: like beat at the end of words or when there are two i’s in a row; like yet at the beginning of words if it is followed by a vowel; like bit everywhere else Good enough: pronounce it beat, bit, or yet based on how it sounds in the word
in
of
ni
coconut
iọkwe
hello
love
j j What it really is: halfway between pats and patch (or mass and mash) at the beginning or end of a word, or if there are two j’s in a row; everywhere else, halfway between maze and the second ‘g’ in garage Good enough: pronounce like English s, sh, or ch at the beginning and end of words; pronounce it as in garage everywhere else
jaṃbo
take a walk
jijet
sit down
ṃōj
finished
k k What it really is: at the beginning or end of a word, or when there are two k’s in a row, like cot, but with the tongue a little further back; everywhere else, like got, again with the tongue a little further back Good enough: when between to vowels, pronounce it like got; otherwise pronounce it like cot
ki
key
kiki
sleep
ek
fish
l l What it really is: like lull, but NOT like lull; the tip of the tongue touches the ridge behind the teeth Good enough: like English l
lo
see
ilo
in, at
al
sing
song
l What it really is: like lull, but NOT like lull; the tip of the tongue touches the ridge behind the teeth, and the back of the tongue is pulled back and raised at the back of the mouth, giving it a ‘darker’ sound Good enough: like English l
ḷaddik
boy
taḷa
dollar
aḷ
sun
m m What it really is: like an English m Good enough: same as above
maroñ
can
im
and
m What it really is: like an English m, but with the lips rounded and the tongue pulled back and raised at the back of the mouth, giving it a ‘darker’ sound Good enough: like an English m
ṃaṃa
mom
eṃṃan
good
eṃ
house
n n What it really is: like an English n Good enough: same as above
nana
bad
ioon
on
ñ ñ What it really is: like sing (the only difference in Marshallese is that it can be put at the beginning of a syllable, not just at the end) Good enough: same as above
ña
me
ṃōñā
eat
jañ
cry
n What it really is: like English n, but with the tongue pulled back and raised at the back of the mouth, giving it a ‘darker’ sound Good enough: like English n
ṇo
wave
kōṇaan
want
like
eṇ
that
o o What it really is: this letter actually stands for two sounds; in some words it is tone, with the lips rounded, and in others it is halfway between tone and tune, with the lips rounded Good enough: always pronounce it like tone
ko
run away
kajoor
strong
ō or e ō What it really is: this letter actually stands for two different sounds; in some words it is halfway between beat and boot, with the tongue a little lower, and in other words it is halfway between bet and boat Good enough: in some words it is like buck, in other words it is like book
wōn
turtle
wōn
who
ṃōṇōṇō
happy
o What it really is: like pot, but with the lips rounded (the stereotypical way that people on the East Coast pronounce August or awful) Good enough: pronounce it like pot or boat
lọjet
ocean
ennọ
tasty
b p What it really is: at the end of a word or when there are two p’s in a row, pronounce it like English p; everywhere else pronounce it like b Good enough: like English p at the end of words, or b everywhere else
pepe
decide
iiep
basket
r r What it really is: like a Spanish trilled (rolled) r Good enough: like a Spanish untrilled (not rolled) r, or the light t in English ‘gotta’
ripālle
American
ire
fight
iar
lagoon
t t What it really is: at the beginning or end of a word, or when there are two t’s in a row, like English t, but with the tongue pulled back and raised at the back of the mouth, giving it a ‘darker’ sound; everywhere else, like d but with the tongue as described above Good enough: when between two vowels pronounce it like English d; otherwise pronounce it like English t
ti
tea
itok
come
aet
yes
u u What it really is: like English tune, with the lips rounded Good enough: same as above
tutu
wet
take a shower
go swimming
i or u ū What it really is: halfway between beat and boot Good enough: like book
ūl
fin
wūt
flower
w w What it really is: like English w Good enough: same as above
wa
boat
vehicle
awa
hour
time

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