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.

Are you eating?  Are you happy? (Yes/No questions)

In the previous lessons you learned how to make statements in the present, past, future tenses.  Now you will learn how to make questions like ‘Are you a teacher?’ ‘Did you eat?’ and so forth.  We call these ‘Yes-No’ questions because they can be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ unlike questions such as ‘Where are you going?’  In Lesson 19 you will learn about the latter type of question (with question words like ‘who,’ what,’ and ‘where’) but in this lesson we will focus on yes-no question.

– To make a yes-no question, you add a special word ‘ke’ to the sentence.  The placement of this word is somewhat variable.  Here are some examples:

Statement Meaning Yes-No Question Meaning
Kwōj ṃōñā You are eating. Kwōj ke ṃōñā? or Kwōj ṃōñā ke? Are you eating?
Kwaar ṃōñā You ate. Kwaar ke ṃōñā? or Kwaar ṃōñā ke? Did you eat?
Kwaar kwōle You were hungry Kwaar ke kwōle? or Kwaar kwōle ke? Were you hungry?
Kwōnaaj ṃōñā You will eat Kwōnaaj ke ṃōñā? or Kwōnaaj ṃōñā ke? Will you eat?
Kwōnaaj kwōle You will be hungry Kwōnaaj ke kwōle? or Kwōnaaj kwōle ke? Will you be hungry?
Kwōmaro You are thirsty Kwōmaro ke? Are you thirsty?
Kwōjeḷā You know Kwōjeḷā ke? Do you know?
Kwe rūkaki You are a teacher Kwe ke rūkaki? or Kwe rūkaki ke? Are you a teacher?

As you can see, you can put ‘ke’ before or after the verb, adjective, or noun.  The only time you can’t put ‘ke’ before the verb or adjective is if it is fused to the subject pronoun.  For instance you can’t put ‘ke’ before ‘jeḷā’ in ‘kwōjeḷā’ or before ‘maro’ in ‘kwōmaro’ because these words are fused onto the pronouns.  The important thing to know for now is that you add ‘ke’ to make yes-no questions; as you listen to the language you will get a better feel for where it is usually placed in the sentence.

– If you put ‘ke’ at the end of a sentence, with a rising, ‘questioning’ intonation, it means ‘right?’ or ‘isn’t that true?’  For example:

            Rej eọñōd ke? =  Are they fishing?


            Rej eọñōd, ke? = They are fishing, right? or They are fishing, aren’t they?

Also, if you put ‘ke’ between two nouns or adjectives or verbs, it means ‘or’ (‘ak’ is also used to mean ‘or’):

            Eṃṃaan ke kōrā? = Man or woman?

            Jerbal ke kiki?       = Working or sleeping?


A: Iọkwe in jota.  Ej et mour? A: Good evening.  How are you doing?
B: Elukkuun nana. B: Really bad.
A: Kobūroṃōj ke? A: Are you sad?
B: Ijab. B: No, I’m not.
A: Ak? A: What then?
B: Ilukkuun nañinmej B: I’m really sick.
A: Kwaar ke taktō? A: Did you see a doctor?
B: Iaar jab.  B: No, I didn’t
A: Kwōtōn taktō kiiō ke? A: Are you going to see a doctor now?
B: Ij ḷōmṇak in etal ilju. B: I’m planning to go tomorrow
A: Kwōj aikuj in koṃṃane rainin.  Ñe kwōj jab, koban maroñ kiki. A: You should do it today.  If you don’t, you won’t be able to sleep.
B: Ekwe.  Ña itōn etal kiiō. B: Okay.  I’m going to go now.


naan word
oktak (jān) different (from), unusual
roñ hear, understand what somebody says Ex. Ij jab roñ = I can’t hear/I don’t understand what you’re saying
roñjake listen, listen to
wia buy
wia kake sell
kōjerbal use, employ
aebōj laḷ well (in the ground for drinking water)
aebōj jimeeṇ cistern (for catching and storing rain water for drinking)
baantuun water catchment (for catching and storing rain water for drinking)
ippān with

Language Tip

Question intonation

Marshallese people use different intonation when asking questions than English speakers.  When asking a question with ‘ke,’ often the tone of voice gets lower before the ‘ke,’ and then goes up at the ‘ke.’  When the person asking the question is pretty sure that the answer is yes, often the ‘ke’ is left out, and the tone of voice starts high and falls down.  Listening for and imitating these intonations will help you sound more Marshallese.

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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