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 am running, you are running (The present tense)

You learned in the last lesson that the subject pronouns can be used with adjectives and a few verbs.  In this section you will learn to use the subject pronouns with all kinds of verbs, and also with nouns.

In order to do this, you need to put a little marker on the end of the pronoun.  This marker is ‘j’ (on a few pronouns it comes out as ‘ij’) and it means ‘present tense.’  When you add this to the subject pronouns, it comes out as follows:

i        +  j   = ij           = I-PRESENT TENSE            
kwō  +  j    = kwōj     = you(singular)-PRESENT TENSE
e       +  j   = ej          = he,she,it-PRESENT TENSE        
je      +  j   = jej         = we(inclusive)-PRESENT TENSE  
kōm  +  j   = kōmij   = we(exclusive)-PRESENT TENSE
koṃ  +  j   = koṃij    = you(plural)-PRESENT TENSE      
re      +  j   = rej        = they-PRESENT TENSE                 

After these you can put any verb (except the ones listed in the last lesson, which work like adjectives) or any noun.  Unlike Spanish or French, you do not conjugate the verb.  For example:

Ij ṃōñā             = I-PRESENT/eat                         = I am eating or I eat
Kwōj idaak        = you(singular)-PRESENT/drink = You are drinking or You dirnk
Ej ṃōñā            = he,she,it-PRESENT/eat             = He, She, or It is eating or He, She, or It eats
Jej idaak           = we(inclusive)-PRESENT/drink  = We are drinking or We drink
Kōmij riṃajeḷ     = we(exclusive)-PRESENT/ Marshallese person                    = We are Marshallese people
Koṃij rūkaki      = you(plural)-PRESENT/teacher  = You guys are teachers
Rej rijikuuḷ         = they-PRESENT/student              = They are students

There are a few things to notice here:

1. Marshallese makes no distinction between ‘I eat’ vs. ‘I am eating,’ ‘You eat’ vs. ‘You are eating.’  For both you use the subject pronoun with the present tense marker.

2. Just like with adjectives in the last lesson, you don’t need any word for ‘am’, ‘is’, or ‘are.’

– Like with adjectives, if you have a subject that is not a pronoun (for instance ‘Jolina is eating’ or ‘Ronald and Junior are students’) then you use ‘ej’ if the subject is singular and ‘rej’ if it is plural.

Jolina ej ṃōñā       = Jolina/he,she,it-PRESENT/eat                                    = Jolina is eating
Ronald im Junior   = rej rijikuuḷ            Ronald/and/Junior/they-PRESENT/students = Ronald and Junior are students

There is only one important exception to this.  If the subject of the sentence is the word for ‘name,’ then you use the word ‘in’ (which usually means ‘of’) instead of ‘ej’:

Correct:    Eta in Alfred = name-my/of/Alfred = My name is Alfred

Incorrect:  Eta ej Alfred


ṃōj finished, done Ex. Eṃōj = It’s finished
ba say, tell
kōṃṃan do, make, fix
ewōr or elōñ there is, there are
ejjeḷọk there is none, there are none, there is no ___, there are no ___, none, nothing, nobody
jikuuḷ (from English) school, go to school (either as a student or a teacher), attend class
ṃōn jikuuḷ school building          
breadfruit, breadfruit tree
ni coconut, coconut tree
men thing

Language Tip

More tips on how to use the Marshallese-English Dictionary

– Looking up Marshallese words can be difficult

When you hear a word and want to look it up in the dictionary, it may be very hard to find because it is so difficult to hear all of the sounds correctly.  If you don’t find the word on your first try, try looking it up with ḷ’s instead of l’s, ṃ’s instead of m’s, ṇ’s instead of n’s, b’s instead of p’s, d’s instead of r’s, ū’s instead of ō’s, and so forth.  If that doesn’t work, try doubling some of the letters (for instance, look up ‘jōōt’ instead of ‘jōt’).  Also, if there is a double consonant near the beginning of the word, look it up starting with the double consonant (for instance, look up ‘eṃṃan’ as ‘ṃṃan’).  If you want to know why these words are listed this way, and what is really going on with them, look at Lesson 82.

– You can safely ignore the phonetic transcription of Marshallese words

Next to each Marshallese word you will see a phonetic transcription.  (For instance, ‘iọkwe’ is transcribed as ‘yi’yaqey.’)  This shows the real underlying sounds of the word.  However, it is extremely difficult to pronounce a word based on the phonetic transcription, and much easier to just use the normal spelling, which looks very close to how it is pronounced.  So unless you happen to have an advanced degree in linguistics, it’s best to just ignore the phonetic transcription.

– Some words are never used by themselves

You will notice that some Marshallese words are listed with a ‘–’ at the end.  This indicates that the word is not complete by itself, but rather is a stem that needs some other word attached to the end of it.  If the dictionary says ‘with directionals,’ then attach one of the words listed in Lesson 41 to mean ‘to me,’ ‘to you,’ etc.  If the dictionary shows the ‘–’ but doesn’t say ‘with directionals,’ then attach the endings listed in Lessons 66-71 to mean ‘my,’ ‘your’, etc.

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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