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.

The next couple of posts are 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.

The letters and sounds of Marshallese

Old SpellingNew SpellingPronunciationPractice Words
aaWhat 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 cotak but, or 
ta what 
pako shark
ā or eāWhat it really is: halfway between pet and pat Good enough: pronounce it petāne island 
mā breadfruit
bbWhat 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 elseba say, tell 
baba dad 
jaab no
dr or rdWhat 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
jidika little
adour
eeWhat 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 petetal go
men thing
ne foot, leg
i or yiWhat 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 wordin of
ni coconut
iọkwe hello, love
jjWhat 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 elsejaṃbo take a walk
jijet sit down 
ṃōjfinished
kkWhat 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 cotki key
kiki sleep
ekfish
llWhat it really is: like lull, but NOT like lull; the tip of the tongue touches the ridge behind the teeth Good enough: like English llosee
iloin, at
al sing, song
lWhat 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 lḷaddik boy
taḷa dollar
aḷsun
mmWhat it really is: like an English m Good enough: same as abovemaroñ can
imand
mWhat 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 mṃaṃa mom
eṃṃan good
eṃhouse
nnWhat it really is: like an English n Good enough: same as abovenana bad
ioonon
ññWhat 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 aboveña me
ṃōñā eat
jañcry
nWhat 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 nṇo wave
kōṇaan want, like
eṇthat
ooWhat 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 toneko run away
kajoorstrong
ō or eōWhat 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 bookwōnturtle
wōnwho
ṃōṇōṇōhappy
oWhat 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 boatlọjet ocean
ennọtasty
bpWhat 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 elsepepedecide
iiepbasket
rrWhat 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
iarlagoon
ttWhat 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 tti tea
itok come
aetyes
uuWhat it really is: like English tune, with the lips rounded Good enough: same as abovetutu wet, take a shower, go swimming
i or uūWhat it really is: halfway between beat and boot Good enough: like bookūl fin
wūtflower
wwWhat it really is: like English w Good enough: same as abovewa boat, vehicle
awa hour, time

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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