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 going? What are you doing? (Wh-questions)

The last lesson dealt with yes-no questions.  In this lesson you will learn how to say questions with question words like ‘who,’ ‘what,’ and ‘where.’  These are called wh-questions because they have a question word that usually starts with ‘wh.’

– Wh-questions work differently in Marshallese than in English.  In English we normally put the question word at the beginning of the sentence.  For instance, we say ‘What are you eating?’ but we don’t usually say ‘You are eating what?’  But in Marshallese the opposite is true.  Question words usually go somewhere other than the beginning of the sentence.  For example:

How you say it in English How you would say it in Marshallese
What are you eating? You are eating what?
Who is she talking to? She is talking to who?
When are you going to Majuro? You are going when to Majuro? or You are going to Majuro when?
Where are they going? They are going to where?

Here are the most common question words:

Basic Question Words

ta what? or do what?
et do what?
ia where?
ñāāt when?
wōn who?
etke why?
jete how many?

(‘How’ and ‘how much’ work a little differently.  See Lesson 38)

All of these words normally go somewhere other than the beginning of the sentence, except for ‘etke’ (‘why’) which always goes at the beginning like in English.  Here are some examples:

Kwōj ṃōñā ta?                = you-PRES/eat/what?           = What are you eating?
Kwōj ta?                          = you-PRES/do what?            = What are you doing?
Kwōj et?                          = they-PRES/do what?           = What are you doing?
Kwōj etal ñan ia?            = you-PRES/go/to/where?      = Where are you going?
Rōnaaj eọñōd ñāāt?       = they-FUTURE/fish/when?  = When are they going to fish?
Raar jokwe ippān wōn?  = they-PAST/live/with/who?  = Who did they live with?
Kwaar idaak jete ni?       = you-PAST/drink            /how many/coconuts = How many coconuts did you drink?
Etke ebūroṃōj?              = why?/she-sad                       = Why is she sad?

Notice that in order to say ‘What are you doing?’ you use the word ‘et’ (‘do what?’) or ‘ta’ (‘what?’ or ‘do what?’).  You say ‘Kwōj et?’ or ‘Kwōj ta?’ (‘You do what?’ = ‘What are you doing?’).


A: Kwōj itok jān ia? A: Where are you from?
B: Ij itok jān Amedka. B: I’m from the United States.
A: Kwe ke PeaceCorps? A: Are you a PeaceCorps volunteer?
B: Jaab, ej jab ña PeaceCorps. B: No, I’m not a PeaceCorps vounteer
A: Ak? A: What then?
B: Ña WorldTeach.  Kwōjeḷā ke kajjien WorldTeach? B: I’m a WorldTeach volunteer.  Do you know what WorldTeach is?
A: Iñak. A: I don’t know.
B: Ekwe, WorldTeach ej āinwōt PeaceCorps, ak WorldTeach rej jerbal iuṃwin juon wōt iiō. B: Well, WorldTeach is like PeaceCorps, but WorldTeach volunteers work for only one year.
A: O.  Kwōnaaj et ilo Ṃajeḷ? A: Oh.  What are you going to do in the Marshall Islands?
B: Inaaj jerbal ilo Aelōñḷapḷap.  Inaaj rūkaki in kajin pālle. B: I’m going to work on Ailinglaplap.  I’m going to be an English teacher.
A: Kwōnaaj jokwe ippān wōn? A: Who are you going to live with?
B: Inaaj jokwe ippān juon baamḷe in ṃajeḷ. B: I’m going to live with a Marshallese family.
A: Kwōj etal ñāāt? A: When are you going?
B: Juje. B: Tuesday.
A: Wow!  Jeraaṃṃan ñan kwe. A: Wow!  Good luck to you.


jaṃbo take a walk, stroll around, wander around aimlessly, go on a trip, trip, travel, voyage, journey
ṃool true, sure, tell the truth Ex. Eṃool = It is true Ex. Kwōj ṃool ke? = Are you sure?/Really? Ex. Ña ij ṃool = I’m sure/I’m telling the truth Ex. Kwōj ṃool = You’re telling the truth/You’re right (Note: to say ‘I’m not sure’ say ‘Ijab lukkuun jeḷā,’ not ‘Ijab ṃool’)
riab false, lie Ex. Eriab = It is false Ex. Ej riab = He is lying Ex. Ña ij riab = I’m lying/Just kidding Ex. Ña ij jab riab = I’m not lying/I’m not kidding/I’m serious
nōṃba (from English) number
piik (from English) pig
tiṃa (from English ‘steamer’) ship (noun)
tọọl (from English) towel
taḷa (from English) dollar
wōt rain, to rain Ex. Ewōt = It is raining
rọọl to leave (in the sense of ‘go away’, not in the sense of ‘leave something somewhere’) Ex. Raar rọọl inne = They left yesterday

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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