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.

Can you?, Yes I can, No I can’t

The word for ‘can’ or ‘be able’ in Marshallese is ‘maroñ.’  It goes right after the subject pronoun, like a few other verbs:

Imaroñ      (not Ij maroñ)    = I-can = I can
Remaroñ  (not Rej maroñ)  = they-can = They can

–  To say ‘cannot’ you can say ‘jab maroñ,’ ‘maroñ jab,’ or ‘ban.’  For example:

ijab maroñ = imaroñ jab = iban = I cannot

Notice that this ‘ban’ is the same as the ‘ban’ that means ‘will not.’  Thus, a sentence like ‘iban’ is ambiguous: it could mean either ‘I cannot’ or ‘I will not.’  If you want to make sure that it is understood as ‘cannot,’ then use ‘jab maroñ’ or ‘maroñ jab’ instead of ‘ban’

– ‘Maroñ’ can also mean ‘possible,’ and ‘ban’ can mean ‘impossible.’  This leads to two common phrases (the first is especially common):

Emaroñ = it-possible = It’s possible or Maybe
Eban     = it-impossible = It’s impossible or No way!

(‘Bōlen’ is also used to mean ‘maybe’)

– If you want to make a question like ‘Can you ___?,’ ‘Can I ___?’, just add ‘ke’ after ‘maroñ’:

Kwōmaroñ ke jerbal?  = you-can/?/work = Can you work?
Imaroñ ke iukkure?     = I-can/?/play = Can I play?

– ‘Maroñ’ can also mean ‘may, might.’  For instance:

Imaroñ rọọl ilju             = I-may/leave/tomorrow = I might leave tomorrow
Remaroñ eọñōd rainin = they-may/fish/today = They may go fishing today

– If you mean ‘can’ in the sense of ‘know how to,’ or ‘cannot’ in the sense of ‘don’t know how to,’ then using ‘jeḷā’ or ‘jaje/ñak’ is better than ‘maroñ’ and ‘ban’ (remember the previous lesson):

Kwōjeḷā ke aō?  = you-know/?/swim = Can you swim?
Ijeḷā aō               = I-know/swim = I can swim
Ijaje aō               = I-don’t know/swim = I can’t swim

– Sometimes ‘jeḷā’ is used for ‘can’ and ‘jaje/ñak’ is used for ‘cannot’ in ways that we would never use ‘know’ and ‘don’t know’ in English:

Iaar jaje kiki   = I-PAST/don’t know/sleep = I couldn’t sleep


al sing, song Ex. Al juon al = Sing a song
keroro be noisy, chatter, talk noisily Ex. Jab keroro! = Be quiet!
likūt put
mat full (of food after eating) Ex. Kwomat ke? = Are you full?
oṇān or wōṇān price, price of, salary, salary of Ex. Jete wōṇān? = How much does it cost? Ex. Jete wōṇān rūkaki? = How much do teachers get paid?
peba paper, card
wa boat, canoe, any vehicle
wōt only, just, still Ex. Juon wōt = Only one Ex. Rej ṃōñā wōt = They are still eating
ekwe okay then, well then, well, then
ibwij high tide Ex. Eibwij = It is high tide
pāāt low tide, shallow Ex. Epāāt = It is low tide

Language Tip


‘Ekwe’ is a very useful word which is close to ‘well then,’ ‘okay,’ or ‘okay then’ in English.  If someone tells you to do something, and you want to indicate that you will do it, say ‘ekwe’ (‘okay’).  If you are about to go away, and want to indicate that the conversation is coming to a close, say ‘ekwe’ (‘well then’).  Often Marshallese people will leave after just saying ‘ekwe,’ without saying ‘goodbye’ or ‘see you later.’  If you are indicating that something has been agreed upon, decided, and understood, you can say ‘ekwe eṃṃan’ (‘all right then’).

Practical Marshallese

Published by Marco Mora-Huizar

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

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