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.

Where are you?  Where is it? (More about wh-questions)

This lesson introduces a few more ways to ask wh-questions in Marshallese.

– If you want to ask where something or someone is, remember that you must use ‘pād’ which means ‘to be located.’  For instance:

Kwōpād ia?         = you-located/where?            = Where are you?
Susan epād ia?   = Susan/she-located/where? = Where is Susan?

– There is another way to ask where something is other than with ‘ia.’  You can use the following words, which always go at the beginning of the sentence:

More Question Words

ewi where is it/she/he?   or     where is ______?
erri where are they?       or     where are______?

For example:

Ewi?                = Where is it?  or  Where is she?  or  Where is he?
Ewi Ronald?   = Where is Ronald?
Erri?                = Where are they?
Erri ni?            = Where are the coconuts?

– If you want to say ‘who is NAME?’ or ‘what is NOUN?’, you can say the following:

Even More Question Words

ta in _____? what is ____?
wōn in _____? who is ____?

For example:

Ta in ‘bwiro’?                      = What’s ‘bwiro’?
Wōn in Kessai Note?         = Who’s Kessai Note?
Ijeḷā ta in bwiro                   = I know what bwiro is
Ijaje wōn in Kessai Note     = I don’t know who Kessai Note is

This is one of a few strange cases where ‘in’ can mean ‘is.’


ṃokta before (when by itself, not before a noun or verb), first Ex. Iaar ba ṃokta = I said before
Anij God
bao bird, chicken
bao in mejatoto bird (specifically)
bao in laḷ chicken (specifically)
bwebwe crazy, stupid
iññā or iiūñ yes (alternate forms of ‘aet’)
jijet sit, sit down
ki key
ḷak lock, to lock, locked

Language Tip

What did you say?

When you don’t understand what someone said or couldn’t hear, you can say ‘ta?’ (‘what?’) with a rising, questioning intonation, just like in English.  However, you can also say ‘e!’ with a falling, non-questioning intonation.  If you just listen to its intonation, this phrase sounds like it would mean ‘Yes, I understand,’ but it really means ‘What did you say?  Could you repeat that?’

Pronunciation Practice

‘o’ and ‘u’

‘o’ and ‘u’ are similar to the ‘o’ in English ‘tone’ and the ‘u’ in English ‘tune.’  However, they are a little different and it is worthwhile to try to pronounce them more accurately.  If you speak Spanish with a good accent, then use Spanish ‘o’ and ‘u’ for these sounds, and you will be much closer to the correct Marshallese pronunciation than English ‘tone’ and ‘tune.’

If you don’t speak Spanish, try the following: say English ‘tone’ over and over and pay attention to how you are saying the ‘o’ sound.  Notice how you start out saying one vowel sound and then turn it into another, and also how your lips start out normal and then start to pucker.  Now say English ‘tune’ over and over and pay attention to the ‘u.’  Again, you are starting out with one sound and moving to another, and the lips are puckered for only some of that time.

In Marshallese ‘o’ and ‘u’ are not this complicated.  Hold the position for ‘o’ (in ‘tone’) and ‘u’ (in ‘tune’), without moving your tongue around.  Find a steady, pure tone, and keep your lips puckered (rounded) the whole time.  (This lip rounding is exactly like the lip rounding of ‘ọ.’)  These are the ‘o’ and ‘u’ of Marshallese.

Practice on these words:

lo           ‘see’ lukkuun ‘very’
ioon          ‘on’ tutu ‘wet’
to                ‘long time’ kuuj ‘cat’
boñ             ‘night’ ruuṃ ‘room’
ok ‘net’ juuj ‘shoe’

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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