Lesson 2: Beginning Marshallese Phrases

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.

This lesson introduces some common phrases in Marshallese. They are not only useful for conversation, but also for practicing reading and pronouncing Marshallese. Practice pronouncing these phrases with a Marshallese person if you can.

Between each phrase and its English meaning, you will see a literal translation. This is an intermediate translation step between the Marshallese and the English. It tells you what each word in the Marshallese phrase means. A ‘/’ shows the break between two words. For instance, in ‘iọkwe aolep’ (‘hello everyone’), ‘iọkwe’ means ‘love’ and ‘aolep’ means ‘all,’ so the literal translation says ‘love/all’ to tell you what each word means. A ‘-’ indicates the break between two parts of a word. For instance, in ‘elukkuun eṃṃan’ (‘I’m doing great’), the ‘elukkuun’ is made up of ‘e’ (‘it’) plus ‘lukkuun’ (‘really’), so the small print says ‘it-really’ to tell you what each part of ‘elukkuun’ means.

Hello and goodbye

Iọkwe love Hello or Goodbye
Iọkwe iọkwe love/love Hello
Iọkwe eok[ love/you(singular) Hello or Goodbye (to one person only)
Iọkwe koṃ love/you(plural) Hello or Goodbye (to more than one person)
Iọkwe aolep love/all Hello everyone or Goodbye everyone
Bar lo eok again/see/you(singular) See you later (to one person only)
Bar lo koṃ again/see/you(plural) See you later (to more than one person)

(Note that there is no phrase in Marshallese for ‘Nice to meet you’)

Good morning, afternoon, evening, and night

Morning! (from English) Good morning
Iọkwe in raelep love/of/afternoon Good afternoon
Iọkwe in jota love/of/evening Good evening
Good night! (from English) Good night

How are you?

Eṃṃan mour? good/life How are you?
Ej et mour? it-PRESENT/do what?/life How are you?
Eṃṃan it-good I’m fine
Elukkuun eṃṃan it-really/good I’m doing great
Eṃṃantata it-good-est It is the best. 
I’m doing fantastic!
Ebwe it-okay I’m so-so
Enana it-bad I’m not doing so well
Elukkuun nana it-really/bad I’m doing horribly
Ak kwe? what about/you How about you?

What’s your name?

Etaṃ? name-your What’s your name?
Eta in ____ name-my/of/____ My name is _____

Thank you and you’re welcome

Koṃṃool you-thanked Thank you
Koṃṃooltata you-thanked-est Thank you very much
Kōn jouj about/kindness You’re welcome
Jouj kindness You’re welcome

No thank you

Koṃṃool ak ij jab you-thanked/but/I-PRESENT/not No thank you
Koṃṃool ak ij jab kijōr you-thanked/but/I-PRESENT/not/take offer No thank you

I’m sorry

Joḷọk bōd throw away/mistake I’m sorry or Excuse me
Joḷọk aō bōd throw away/my/mistake I’m sorry or Excuse me
Ejoḷọk it-thrown away You’re forgiven
Ejoḷọk aṃ bōd it-thrown away/your/mistake You’re forgiven
Ej eṃṃan wōt it-PRESENT/good/still That’s okay
Jab inepata not/worry Don’t worry about it
Ejjeḷọk jorrāān there is no/problem No problem
Ejjeḷọk problem there is no/problem No problem

Dialogue

A: Iọkwe eok. A: Hello.
B. Iọkwe.  Eṃṃan mour? B: Hi.  How’s it going?
A: Eṃṃan.  Ak kwe? A: Good.  How about you?
B: Ebwe.  Etaṃ? B: So-so.  What’s your name?
A: Eta in Essa. Ak kwe? A: My name is Essa.  What about you?
B: Eta in Lisson.  Bar lo eok. B: My name is Lisson. See you later.
A: Bar lo eok. A: See you later.

Vocabulary

Note: There are two main dialects of Marshallese, the Western (Rālik)dialect spoken on the western chain of atolls, and the Eastern (Ratak)dialect spoken on the eastern chain of atolls. In the urban centers of Majuro and Ebeye, there are speakers of both dialects.  The two dialects are very similar to each other, but some words are different.  Since the Western dialect is considered more standard, all the vocabulary in this book is listed first in the Western dialect, and an ‘E:’ indicates the form in the Eastern dialect when it is different.

aet yes
jaab no
iọkwe hello, goodbye, love
aolep all, every, everything, everybody
lo see, find
eṃṃan (E: sometimes ṃōṃan) good
nana bad, inedible
ennọ (E: sometimes nenọ) tasty, tastes good, delicious, edible
lukkuun very, really, absolutely, totally Ex. Elukkuun eṃṃan  = It is really good

Practical Marshallese

Lesson 1: The letters and sounds of Marshallese

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

Practical Marshallese

Practical Marshallese by Peter Rudiak-Gould introduces Marshallese to the beginner. It is organized into 102 two-page lessons, each with a main grammar point and a vocabulary section. There are also Marshallese dialogues, general tips, and pronunciation practice in many of the lessons. Each lesson is designed to be a manageable chunk of new material that could be learned in one sitting.

The book is organized in order of usefulness, with the early lessons being crucial for speaking Marshallese and the later ones merely helping you express yourself better. Since the most useful lessons are at the beginning, you can go through as many as you like, stopping when you feel that your level of Marshallese is adequate to your needs. For instance, if you go through the first 25 lessons, you will know basic Marshallese grammar and about 250 words, which is enough to get by in many situations. If you go through the first 50 lessons, then you will know more grammar and about 500 words, which is enough to have decent conversations. If you go through all 102 lessons, then you will know all of the useful grammar of the language and about 1500 words, which is enough to have intelligent conversations on a wide variety of topics.

The lessons are organized sequentially, with each lesson building on the previous ones. For this reason you should go through the book in order, especially in the earlier lessons. It is not essential to completely master each word or construction before moving on, but you should at least be able to understand it when it comes up in conversation. Even if you can’t produce it yourself, if you can recognize it in conversation then it will quickly become part of your working knowledge of the language.

Practical Marshallese also contains a glossary of about 1500 Marshallese words and their English definitions listed in order of usefulness. It gathers in one place all of the words introduced in the lessons. This glossary is not intended to be used for looking up words either in Marshallese or English; for that purpose, you should use the Marshallese-English Dictionary by Abo, Bender, Capelle, and deBrum, since it is extremely thorough and lists words alphabetically in both Marshallese and English. But for building your vocabulary, the glossary at the end of Practical Marshallese is best because it lists only common and useful words, with the most useful words at the beginning and less useful words at the end.

There are also a small number of books published in Marshallese, and some published bilingually in Marshallese and English. These are mostly elementary school books with Marshallese legends and other stories. Although the Marshallese tends to be very advanced, these books are useful learning resources, and it would be worthwhile to get access to them.

Of course, the best way of all to learn Marshallese is to jump in and speak it with native speakers, no matter how little of the language you know. Practical Marshallese is only a supplement to that much more important resource.

Practical Marshallese

Naan Dictionary

The Naan dictionary is an easy to use Marshallese dictionary meant to function as a tool for speakers and learners of Marshallese of all levels. It was created by Nik Willson, of the College of the Marshall Islands and is available online at no cost.

Naan Dictionary image
The word lookup table of the Naan dictionary includes a column for Rālik, Ratak, other, scriptures, and casual spellings along with an English gloss.

For many who have become frustrated at the seeming lack of standardized spellings in the Marshallese language, the Naan dictionary will be a breath of fresh air. For one, it includes a list of alternative (or casual) spellings and their standardized versions. In this sense, the Naan dictionary can serve as a companion to the famous Marshallese-English Dictionary or the Marshallese-English Online Dictionary, that has proven very useful for those who know how to use it but very difficult for those who don’t. (The Marshallese-English Dictionary is the canonical Marshallese dictionary that Marshallese spelling is based on.)

Naan can also be a standalone tool. The first section (shown in the image above) is a word lookup table that includes different columns for Rālik, Ratak, scriptures, and casual spellings as well as a gloss. It is meant to be used on a computer where a nonstandard spelling can be searched in order to find a short definition or a standard spelling.

The second half of the dictionary is in alphabetical order and it includes a head word, pronunciation guide in IPA, part of speech information, definitions, and sometimes further information about usage, etymology, and related words. The last section of Naan includes learning aids such as pronunciation and spelling guides, graphics that show suffix patterns, and a short explanation of grammar principles.

The entry for 'ṃweo' in the Naan dictionary.
The word ‘ṃweo’ defined in the Naan dictionary.

Naan comes in the form of a Word document with more than two thousand pages, which makes it somewhat slow. However, it is set up in a very simple and easy to use layout.

Using the Naan Dictionary

The best way to use Naan is to open it as a Word document and to search for words by pressing Ctr + F on the keyboard and typing a word.

Find and Replace

The search box will take you to the first match, which may be a partial match. Then you click Find Next until you hit a complete match. At that point you’ll see various spellings of the word along with a short definition. You can use the standard definition (which appears in darker blue) to search for the word in the English-Marshallese Dictionary.

The lookup table in the Naan dictionary.
The head word of the lookup table of the Naan dictionary can be Ctr + Clicked to follow the link to the word’s entry.

You can also use Ctr + Click on the dark blue word to go to the entry for that word in the second part of the dictionary, where you can see more information on the word.

The Naan dictionary is a useful tool for all those who find it difficult to convert casual spellings into standard spellings that can be looked up in the Marshallese-English Dictionary. It is also useful for those looking for a simpler alternative that is searchable both by Marshallese spelling variations as by English words.

This resource was rated using a general rubric for reviewing Marshallese resources.

Reviewing Marshallese Resources

The purpose of the reviews of resources found in Marshallese.org is to provide the Marshallese community with a single repository of resources and an idea of their use and availability. This is meant to increase traffic to those resources and facilitate their use.

Rubric

The following is the rubric used to review the resources and assign a rating.

  • Purpose
    • Does the resource have a clear audience?
    • Does the resource meet its stated purpose?
    • Does it demonstrate understanding/usefulness?
  • Design
    • Does the resource have a well thought-out design and layout?
    • Is the resource easy to navigate?
    • Is the font and the writing easy to read?
  • Accessibility
    • Is the resource easily accessible? Is it easy to find? Is the website fast?
    • Is the resource free? Is it affordable?
    • Is the format of the resource accessible?
  • Language
    • Does the resource use standard Marshallese spelling?
    • Is the resource completely Marshallese or bilingual?

Do you think these are valid points by which to judge Marshallese resources? What would you add? What would you take away? Let us know in the comments below.