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.

Not yet and never

– Marshallese has a word ‘jañin’ (or ‘jāñin’) that means ‘not yet.’  It goes before the verb or adjective:

Eṃōj              = it-finished = It is finished
Ejañin ṃōj      = it-not yet/finished = It isn’t finished yet
Ij eọñōd          = I-PRES/fish = I am fishing
Ij jañin eọñōd = I-PRES/not yet/fish = I haven’t fished yet

– This leads to a very common phrase meaning ‘It hasn’t been decided yet,’ ‘We’re not sure yet,’ ‘I’m not sure yet’:

Ejañin alikkar  = it-not yet/clear = It hasn’t been decided yet or I’m/we’re not sure yet

For instance, if someone asks you when you are going back to America, and you have decided yet, say ‘ejañin alikkar.’

– ‘Jañin’ can also mean ‘never,’ but only in certain circumstances.  To see how to use ‘jañin’ as ‘never,’ and other ways to say ‘never,’ look at the following examples:

Iaar jañin eọñōd         = I-PAST/not yet/fish = I hadn’t fished yet or I never fished
Ij jañin eọñōd             = I-PRES/not yet/fish = I haven’t fished yet or I have never fished
Iban eọñōd                 = I-will not/fish = I will not fish or I will never fish
Aolep iien ij jab eọñōd = all/time/I-PRES/not/fish = Always I don’t fish = I never fish

–  With adjectives, you can also use ‘jaje’ or ‘ñak’ (‘don’t know’) to mean ‘never’:

Ijaje mijak = I-don’t know/afraid = I don’t know how to be afraid = I am never afraid
Eñak ṃōk = She-don’t know/tired = She doesn’t know how to be tired = She is never tired

As you can see, there is no general word for ‘never,’ but with the phrases above you can express ‘never’ in many ways.


pinana (from English) banana
kain rot or kain rōt (E: kain tor) what kind?
tonaaj (from English) donut
jañ to cry, make a noise, be played on the radio
kōrkōr small outrigger canoe, paddled or with a sail
tipñōl larger outrigger canoe, with a sail
luuj (from English) lose
wiin (from English) win
māj eye, face, mask, snorkeling mask, glasses
tūrak (from English) truck, car

Pronunciation Practice

The two e’s

The letter ‘e’ in Marshallese actually stands for two different sounds.  To hear the difference between these sounds, have a Marshallese person say these words:

ne ‘leg’ āne ‘island’

Notice that the first ‘e’ sounds like the ‘ai’ in English ‘bait,’ but the ‘e’ in ‘āne’ sounds halfway in between ‘ai’ in English ‘bait’ and ‘ea’ in English ‘beat.’  In the Marshallese-English Dictionary, the second kind of ‘e’ is indicated in the phonetic transcription of a word by an ‘e’ with a hook under it, and the first kind of ‘e’ is indicated by an ‘e’ with no hook.

If you want to perfectly pronounce the kind of ‘e’ that is in ‘āne,’ start by pronouncing the ‘ai’ in English ‘bait,’ and then slowly turn it into the ‘ea’ in English ‘beat.’  If you stop halfway in between, you have the Marshallese ‘e’ in ‘āne.’  (Sometimes it is halfway between ‘bet’ and ‘bit’ instead.)  However, this sound is very close to the ‘ea’ in ‘beat’ or the ‘i’ in ‘bit’ so you can pronounce it that way as well.

Here are some common words with ‘e’ sorted by which sound it stands for:

Bait or Bet   Bait/Beat or Bet/Bit   Bait or Bet   Bait/Beat or Bet/Bit  
ne ‘leg’ āne ‘island’ meḷeḷe ‘understand’ pen ‘hard’
etal ‘go’ ek ‘fish’ jete ‘how many’ jokwe ‘live’
etke ‘why’ eṃ ‘house’ bwebwe ‘tuna’ bwebwe ‘stupid’
lale ‘look’ armej ‘person’     jaje ‘don’t know
men ‘thing’ mejki ‘sleepy’     eddeb ‘to husk’
jeḷā ‘know’ mej ‘dead’    

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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