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.

I ate, you ate (The past tense)

In the last lesson you learned that you can put the marker ‘j’ onto subject pronouns to make the present tense for verbs and nouns.  In this lesson you will learn another marker that you can put onto the subject pronouns, this one for the past tense.  This marker is ‘ar.’  When you put it on the subject pronouns, it comes out as follows:

i + ar =iaar =I-PAST TENSE            
kwō +  ar =kwaar =you(singular)-PAST TENSE
e + ar =eaar = (usually pronounced ‘aar’)he,she,it-PAST TENSE    
je + ar =jaar =we(inclusive)-PAST TENSE
kōm + ar =kōmar =we(exclusive)-PAST TENSE
koṃ + ar =koṃar =you(plural)-PAST TENSE
re + ar =raar  =they-PAST TENSE

(Note that a few changes take place when you add the ‘ar’ marker; for instance re + ar ends up as ‘raar,’ not ‘rear’)

After these you can put any adjective, verb, or noun.  For example:

Iaar ṃōṇōṇō        = I-PAST/happy                  = I was happy
Kwaar ṃōñā        = you(singular)-PAST/eat        = You were eating or You ate
Eaar jaje              = he,she,it-PAST/don’t know  = He, She, or It didn’t know
Jaar rijikuuḷ          = we(inclusive)-PAST/student = We were students
Kōmar rūkaki       = we(exclusive)-PAST/teacher = We were teachers
Koṃar būroṃōj   = you(plural)-PAST/sad = You guys were sad
Raar maroñ         = they-PAST/can             = They could

There are a few things to notice:

1. Marshallese makes no distinction between ‘I ate’ vs. ‘I was eating,’ ‘You ate’ vs. ‘You were eating,’ etc.

2. Just like with ‘am’, ‘is’, or ‘are,’ you don’t need any extra word for ‘was’ and ‘were.’

3. Unlike in the present tense, there is no distinction between adjectives and verbs.  Any adjective and any verb (even those few verbs mentioned in Lesson 6 that work like adjectives) can go after the past tense form of the pronoun.

– Like in the previous lessons, if you have a subject that is not a pronoun (for instance ‘Bobson was drinking’ or ‘Roselinta and Jania were happy’) then you use ‘eaar’ if the subject is singular and ‘raar’ if it is plural.  For example:

Bobson eaar idaak       = Bobson/he,she,it-PAST/drink                             = Bobson was drinking
Roselinta im Jania        = raar ṃōṇōṇō                Roselinta/and/Jania/they-PAST/happy = Roselinta and Jania were happy

– There is another way to make the past tense which has the same meaning.  It is rarely heard in the Western atolls (the Ralik chain) of the Marshall Islands, but more common in the Eastern atolls (the Ratak chain).  This is one of many small differences between these two major dialects of Marshallese.  In this way of forming the past tense, the marker ‘kar’ is added to the pronoun instead of ‘ar’:

i        +  kar   = ikar          = I-PAST TENSE            
kwō  +  kar   = kwōkar    = you(singular)-PAST TENSE
e       +  kar   = ekar         = he,she,it-PAST TENSE        
je      +  kar   = jekar        = we(inclusive)-PAST TENSE  
kōm  +  kar   = kōmikar   = we(exclusive)-PAST TENSE
koṃ  +  kar   = koṃikar   = you(plural)-PAST TENSE      
re      + kar   = rekar        = they-PAST TENSE                 


iukkure (E: kukure) to play, game
ilo in, at
in of
ioon on, on top of
aebōj drinking water
āne island, islet, land
iar lagoon, at the lagoon, lagoon beach, at the lagoon beach
lik ocean side of an island, at the ocean side of an island, beach on the ocean side, at the beach on the ocean side
bwebwenato talk, have a conversation, chat
bōk take, get, receive, minus (in arithmetic)

Pronunciation Practice

Extra vowels

You may have already noticed that some words seem to have an extra vowel sound that the spelling doesn’t show.  For instance, ‘ajri’ (‘child’) is pronounced ‘ajōri,’ ‘jerbal’ (‘work’) is pronounced ‘jerōbal,’ and ‘lemñoul’ (‘fifty’) is pronounced ‘lemōñoul.’  As you can see from these examples, an extra ‘ō’ (pronounced like the ‘oo’ in ‘book’) is inserted between two adjacent consonants, which breaks it up and makes it easier to pronounce.  This happens between any two adjacent consonants, even if they are between words; for instance ‘etal ñan’ (‘go to’) is pronounced ‘etalōñan.’  The only time this doesn’t happen is when the two adjacent consonants are the same consonant or very similar to each other.  For instance, you do not put an extra vowel between the two ṃ’s in ‘eṃṃan’ because they are the same letter.  You also don’t put an extra vowel between nt, ṃb, mp, ñk, bw, ṃw, kw (and a few others) because the two sounds are pronounced in the same part of the mouth and thus are easy to pronounce together.

Here are some words with vowels inserted.  Have a Marshallese person say them and notice where the extra vowels are:

Amedka ‘America’ kōnke ‘because’ roñjake ‘listen’ tipñōl ‘canoe’
armej ‘person’ ḷōmṇak ‘think’ ṃokta ‘before’ etke ‘why?’
bōktok ‘bring’ oktak ‘different’ kōrkōr ‘canoe’ karjin ‘kerosene’

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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