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Languages of Kiribati

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Languages of Kiribati

Taetae ni Kiribati
(or te taetae n aomata)
Native to Kiribati, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu
Native speakers unknown (72,000 cited 1987–1999)
Language family
Writing system Latin script (Gilbertese alphabet)
Official status
Official language in  Kiribati
Regulated by Kiribati Language Board
Language codes
ISO 639-2 gil
ISO 639-3 gil
Linguist List
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Gilbertese or Kiribati (or sometimes Kiribatese) is a language from the Austronesian family, part of the Oceanian branch and of the Nuclear Micronesian subbranch. It has a basic verb–object–subject word order.


The word Kiribati is the modern rendition for "Gilberts", so the name is not usually translated into English. "Gilberts" comes from Captain Thomas Gilbert, who, along with Captain John Marshall, was one of the first Europeans to discover the Gilbert Islands in 1788.

The official name of the language is te taetae ni Kiribati, or 'the Kiribati language'.

The first complete description of this language was in Dictionnaire gilbertin–français of Father Ernest Sabatier (981p, 1954), a Catholic priest. This dictionary was later translated into English by Sister Olivia (with the help of South Pacific Commission).


Over 99% of the 103,000 people living in Kiribati are ethnically I-Kiribati (wholly or partly)[1] and speak Gilbertese. Gilbertese is also spoken by most inhabitants of Nui (Tuvalu), Rabi Island (Fiji), Mili (Marshall Islands) and some other islands where I-Kiribati have been relocated (Solomon Islands, notably Choiseul Province and Vanuatu)[2] or emigrated (to New Zealand and Hawaii mainly).

Unlike many in the Pacific region, the Kiribati language is far from extinct, and most speakers use it daily. 97% of those living in Kiribati are able to read in Kiribati, and 80% are able to read English.[1]

Countries by number of Gilbertese speakers

  1. Kiribati, 58,300 (1987)[3] 103,000 (2010)[1]
  2. Fiji, 5,300[3]
  3. Nauru, 1,700
  4. Solomon Islands, 4,870[3]
  5. Tuvalu, 870[3]
  6. Vanuatu, 370

Linguistics and study

The Kiribati language has two main dialects: the Northern and the Southern dialects. The main differences between them are in the pronunciation of some words. The islands of Butaritari and Makin also have their own dialect. It differs from the standard Kiribati in vocabulary and pronunciation.

Dialect listing


Kiribati has 10 consonants and 10 vowels (five short, five long)[4]

Bilabial Apical Velar
plain velarized
Nasal m n ŋ
Stop p t1 k
Fricative βˠ2
Flap ɾ3
  1. /t/ is lenited and assibilated to [s] before /i/
  2. The labiovelar fricative /βˠ/ may be a flap and an approximant, depending on the context.[5]
  3. /ɾ/ does not occur in the syllable coda[6]
Front Back
Close1 i u
Mid e o
Open a
  1. Short /i/ and /u/ may become semivowels when followed by more sonorous vowels. /ie/[je] ('sail').[7] Kiribati has syllabic nasals, although syllabic /n/ and /ŋ/ can be followed only by consonants that are homorganic.[5]

Quantity is distinctive for vowels and nasal consonants but not for the remaining sounds so that ana (third person singular article) contrasts with aana ('its underside') as well as anna ('dry land'). Other minimal pairs include:[5]

Short Long
te ben ('ripe coconut') te been ('pen')
ti (1st person subj marker) tii ('only')
on ('full') oon ('the/some turtles')
te atu ('bundle') te atuu ('head')
tuanga ('to tell someone') tuangnga ('to tell')

Written Kiribati

The Kiribati language is written in the Latin script and has been since the 1840s, when Hiram Bingham Jr, a missionary, first translated the Bible into Kiribati. Previously, the language was unwritten. The letter 's' does not appear in the Kiribati alphabet, instead the combination "ti" is used for that sound.

One difficulty in translating the Bible was references to words such as "mountain", a geographical phenomenon unknown to the people of the islands of Kiribati at the time (heard only in the myths from Samoa). Bingham decided to use "hilly", which would be more easily understood. Such adjustments are common to all languages as "modern" things require the creation of new words. For example, the Gilbertese word for airplane is te wanikiba, "the canoe that flies".

Catholic missionaries arrived at the islands in 1888 and translated the Bible independently of Bingham, resulting in differences (Bingham wrote Jesus as "Iesu", while the Catholics wrote "Ietu") that would be resolved only in the 20th century. In 1954, Father Ernest Sabatier published the bigger and more accurate Kiribati to French dictionary (translated into English by Sister Olivia): Dictionnaire gilbertin–français, 981 pages (edited by South Pacific Commission in 1971). It remains the only work of importance between Kiribati language and a western language. It was then reversed by Frédéric Giraldi in 1995, creating the first French to Kiribati dictionary. In addition, a grammar section was added by Father Gratien Bermond (MSC). This dictionary is available at the French National Library (eare language department) and at the headquarters of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC), Issodun.

Kiribati Alphabet[8]
Letter A B E I K M N NG O R T U W
IPA /ä/ /p/ /e/ /i/ /k/ /m/ /n/ /ŋ/ /o/ /ɾ/ /t/ /u/ /βˠ/

Useful phrases

  • Hello – Mauri
  • Hello – [singular] Ko na mauri
  • Hello – [plural] Kam na mauri
  • How are you? – Ko uara?
  • How are you? – [to several people] Kam uara?
  • Thank you – Ko rabwa
  • Thank you – [to several people] Kam rabwa
  • Goodbye – Ti a boo (we will meet)



External links

  • English/Kiribati and Kiribati/English translator with over 50,000 words
  • Gilbertese words collection for SuperMemo
  • The Rosetta Edition
  • Bibliography on Kiribati linguistics
  • How to count in Gilbertese
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