Languages of the Marshall Islands

(new orthography) Kajin M̧ajeļ
(old orthography) Kajin Majōl
Native to Marshall Islands
Native speakers unknown (55,000 cited 1979)
Language family
Writing system Latin (Marshallese alphabet)
Official status
Official language in  Marshall Islands (with English)
Language codes
ISO 639-1 mh
ISO 639-2 mah
ISO 639-3 mah
Linguist List

The Marshallese language (Marshallese: new orthography Kajin M̧ajeļ or old orthography Kajin Majōl, ), also known as Ebon, is a Malayo-Polynesian language spoken in the Marshall Islands by about 44,000 people, and the principal language of the country. There are two major dialects: Rālik (western) and Ratak (eastern).


Marshallese, a Micronesian language, is a member of the Eastern Oceanic subgroup of the Austronesian languages.[2] The closest linguistic relatives of Marshallese are the other Micronesian languages, including Chuukese, Gilbertese, Kosraean, Nauruan and Pohnpeian. Marshallese shows 33% lexican similarity with Pohnpeian.[1]

Within the Micronesian archipelago, Marshallese — along with the rest of the Micronesian language group — are not as closely related to the more ambiguously-classified Oceanic language Yapese in Yap State, or to the Polynesian outlier languages Kapingamarangi and Nukuoro in Pohnpei State, and are even less closely related to the Sunda–Sulawesi languages of Palauan in Palau and Chamorro in the Mariana Islands.


The Republic of Marshall Islands contains 34 atolls which are split into two chains: the eastern Ratak Chain and the western Ralik Chain.[2] These two chains have different dialects, which differ mainly lexically, and are mutually intelligible.[1][2] The atoll of Ujelang in the west used to have "slightly less homogeneous speech",[1] though it has been uninhabited since 1980.[3]

The Ratak and Ralik dialects differ phonetically in how they deal with stems that begin with double consonants.[2] Ratak Marshallese inserts a vowel to separate the consonants, while Ralik adds a vowel before the consonants (and pronounced an unwritten consonant phoneme /j/ before the vowel).[2] For example, the stem kkure 'play' becomes ukkure in Ralik Marshallese and kukure in Ratak Marshallese.[2]


Marshallese is the official language of the Marshall Islands and enjoys vigorous use.[1] As of 1979, the language was spoken by 43,900 people in the Marshall Islands.[1] Additional groups of speakers in other countries including Nauru and the United States bring the total number of Marshallese speakers to 49,550[1] Along with Pohnpeian and Chuukese, Marshallese stands out among Micronesian languages in having tens of thousands of speakers; most Micronesian languages have far fewer.[4] A dictionary and Bible translation have been published in Marshallese.[1]



Marshallese has a large consonant inventory, where each consonant has some type of secondary articulation (palatalization, velarization, or rounding).[5] The palatalized consonants are regarded as "light", and the velarized and rounded consonants are regarded as "heavy", with the rounded consonants being both velarized and labialized.[6] (This is similar to "slender" and "broad" consonants in Goidelic languages, or "soft" and "hard" consonants in Russian.) The "light" consonants are considered the more relaxed articulations.[6]

The following are the consonant phonemes of Marshallese:

Consonant phonemes of Marshallese[7]
Labial Coronal Dorsal
Palatalized Velarized Palatalized Velarized Rounded (Velar) Rounded
Light Heavy Light Heavy Heavy
Stop /pʲ/ /pˠ/ /tʲ/ /tˠ/ /k/ /kʷ/
Nasal /mʲ/ /mˠ/ /nʲ/ /nˠ/ /nʷ/ /ŋ/ /ŋʷ/
Rhotic /rʲ/ /rˠ/ /rʷ/
Lateral /lʲ/ /lˠ/ /lʷ/
Glide /j/ (/ɰ/) /w/

Marshallese has no voicing contrast in consonants.[5] However, stops may be allophonically partially voiced: [p→b], [t→d], [k→ɡ].[7] This occurs when they are between vowels and not geminated.[8] Final consonants are often unreleased.[7]

The glides /j ɰ w/ posited to vanish in many environments, coloring their surrounding vowel(s) in backness and roundedness.[9] This is motivated by the limited surface distribution of these phonemes, as well as other evidence that backness and roundedness are not specified phonemically for Marshallese vowels.[9] In fact, the consonant /ɰ/ never surfaces phonetically, but is used to explain the preceding phenomenon.[7] (/j/ and /w/ may surface phonetically, but only in word-initial and word-final positions, and even then not consistently.[7])

The consonant /tʲ/ may be phonetically realized as [tʲ], [tsʲ], [sʲ], [c], or [ç] (or any of their voiced variants [dʲ], [dzʲ], [zʲ], [ɟ], or [ʝ]), in free variation.[6][7][8] Word-internally it usually assumes a voiced fricative articulation as [zʲ] (or [ʝ]), but not when geminated.[8] /tʲ/ is used to adapt foreign sibilants into Marshallese.

Marshallese has no distinct /tʷ/ phoneme.

The dorsal consonants /k ŋ kʷ ŋʷ/ are usually velar, but with the tongue a little further back [k̠ ɡ̠ ŋ̠ k̠ʷ ɡ̠ʷ ŋ̠ʷ], making them somewhere between velar and uvular in articulation.[8] All dorsal phonemes are "heavy" (velarized or rounded), and none are "light" (palatalized).[6] As stated before, the palatal consonant articulations [c], [ɟ], [ç] and [ʝ] are treated as allophones of the palatalized coronal obstruent /tʲ/, even though palatal consonants are physically dorsal.

/nˠ/ and /nʷ/ are usually articulated as retroflex nasals [ɳˠ] and [ɳʷ].[10]

The consonants /rʲ/, /rˠ/ and /rʷ/ are all coronal consonants and full trills. /rˠ/ is similar to Spanish rr with a trill position on the alveolar ridge. But /rʲ/ is a palatalized dental trill [r̪ʲ], articulated further forward behind the front teeth.[8] MED and Willson (2003) describe the rhotic consonants as "retroflex", but are not clear how this relates to their dental or alveolar trill positions.[6][11] (See retroflex trill.)

The heavy lateral consonants /lˠ/ and /lʷ/ are dark Ls, articulated [ɫ] and [ɫʷ] respectively.[8]

The velarized consonants (and, by extension, the rounded consonants) may actually be velarized or pharyngealized.[6] This is similar to the emphatic consonants in Arabic or Mizrahi Hebrew.


Marshallese has a vertical vowel system of just four vowel phonemes, each with several allophones depending on the surrounding consonants.[12]

The Marshallese–English Dictionary (1976), Choi (1992) and Willson (2003) notate some Marshallese vowels differently. Choi (1992) observes only three vowel phonemes, but theorizes there may be a historical process of reduction from four to three. This article uses the notation of the MED.

Marshallese vowels
Phoneme Surface realizations
MED[6] Choi[13] Willson[14]
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
front back front back front back
Close /ɨ/ [i] [ɯ] [u] [i] [ɯ] [u] [i] [ɯ] [u]
Close-mid /ɘ/ [e] [ɤ] [o] [e] [ʌ] [o] [ɪ] [ɤ] [ʊ]
Open-mid /ɜ/ [ɛ] [ʌ] [ɔ] [e] [ʌ] [o]
Open /a/ [æ] [ɑ] [ɒ] [ɛ] [a] [ɔ] [ɛ] [a] [ɔ]

Superficially, twelve Marshallese vowel allophones appear in minimal pairs, a common test for phonemicity.[15] For example, [mʲææ̯] (, 'breadfruit'), [mʲæ͡ɑɑ̯] (ma, 'but'), and [mʲæ͡ɒɒ̯] (mo̧, 'taboo') are separate Marshallese words.[15] However, the uneven distribution of glide phonemes suggest that these underlyingly end with the glides (thus /mʲaj/, /mʲaɰ/, /mʲaw/).[9] When glides are taken into account, it emerges that there are only four vowel phonemes.[9]

When a vowel phoneme appears between consonants with different secondary articulations, the vowel surfaces as a smooth transition from one vowel allophone to the other.[14] For example, jok 'shy', phonemically /tʲɜkʷ/, is realized phonetically as [tʲɛ͡ɔkʷ].[14] It follows that there are twenty-four possible diphthongs in Marshallese:[14]

◌ʲ_◌ˠ ◌ʲ_◌ʷ ◌ˠ_◌ʲ ◌ˠ_◌ʷ ◌ʷ_◌ʲ ◌ʷ_◌ˠ
[i͡ɯ] [i͡u] [ɯ͡i] [ɯ͡u] [u͡i] [u͡ɯ]
[e͡ɤ] [e͡o] [ɤ͡e] [ɤ͡o] [o͡e] [o͡ɤ]
[ɛ͡ʌ] [ɛ͡ɔ] [ʌ͡ɛ] [ʌ͡ɔ] [ɔ͡ɛ] [ɔ͡ʌ]
[æ͡ɑ] [æ͡ɒ] [ɑ͡æ] [ɑ͡ɒ] [ɒ͡æ] [ɒ͡ɑ]

Some syllables appear to contain long vowels, e.g. naaj 'future'.[16] These syllables are thought to contain an underlying glide (/j/, /ɰ/ or /w/) which is not present phonetically.[17][18] For instance, the underlying form of naaj is /nʲaɰatʲ/.[16] Although the medial glide is not realized phonetically, it affects vowel quality; thus in a word like /nʲaɰatʲ/, the vowel smoothly transitions from [æ] to [ɑ] and then back to [æ], as [nʲæ͡ɑː͡ætʲ].[19]


Syllables in Marshallese follow CV, CVC, and VC patterns.[16] Marshallese words always underlyingly begin and end with consonants.[18] Initial, final, and long vowels may be explained as the results of underlying glides which are not present on the phonetic level.[18] Initial vowels are sometimes realized with an onglide [j] or [w], but not consistently:[20]

  • /jatʲ/ → [æ̯ætʲ ~ jætʲ] 'weave'[21]

Only homorganic consonant sequences are allowed in Marshallese.[22] This includes geminate varieties of each consonant.[7] Non-homorganic clusters are separated by vowel epenthesis, even across word boundaries.[22] Some homorganic clusters are also disallowed.[22] Specifically:

  • Obstruent-obstruent, nasal-nasal, liquid-liquid, nasal-obstruent, and nasal-liquid clusters undergo assimilation of the secondary articulation, except if the first consonant is a labialized coronal or a labialized dorsal, in which case the clusters undergo assimilation of the labialized articulation.[23]
  • †Obstruent-liquid and liquid-obstruent clusters besides /lʲtˠ/ and /lˠtˠ/ undergo epenthesis.[23]
  • Liquid-nasal clusters undergo nasal assimilation[23]
  • Obstruent-nasal clusters undergo epenthesis (if coronal) or nasal assimilation (if non-coronal)[23]

This creates the following assimilations, with empty combinations representing epenthesis.

↓→ /p/ /m/
/p/ /pː/ /mː/
/m/ /mp/
↓→ /t/ /n/ /r/ /l/
/t/ /tː/
/n/ /nt/ /nː/ /nr/ /nl/
/r/ /rː/ /rl/
/l/ /lr/ /lː/
↓→ /k/ /ŋ/
/k/ /kː/ /ŋː/
/ŋ/ /ŋk/
↓→ /◌ʲ/ /◌ˠ/ /◌ʷ/
/◌ʲ/ /◌ʲ◌ʲ/ /◌ˠ◌ˠ/ /◌ʷ◌ʷ/
/◌ʷ/ /◌ʷ◌ʷ/

The height of an epenthetic vowel is transitional between the two nearest vowels.[16] Certain westernized Marshallese place names spell out these epenthetic vowels, including:

This article uses parentheses in IPA pronunciations to indicate epenthetic vowels in words, as they can be omitted altogether without affecting the meaning, such as in song or in enunciated syllable breaks.


The short vowel phonemes /a ɜ ɘ ɨ/ and the approximant phonemes /j ɰ w/ each occupy a roughly equal duration of time.[25] Though they occupy time, the approximants are generally not articulated as glides, and Choi (1992) does not rule out a deeper level of representation.[26] In particular, /V/ short vowels occupy one unit of time, and /VGV/ long vowels (where /G/ is an approximant phoneme) are three times as long.[27] For phonemic clarity, this article uses the IPA symbols [æ̯ ɛ̯ e̯ i̯] for /j/, [ɑ̯ ʌ̯ ɤ̯ ɯ̯] for /ɰ/ and [ɒ̯ ɔ̯ o̯ u̯] for /w/ where they occupy time as consonants at syllable boundaries.

As a matter of prosody, each /C/ consonant and /V/ vowel phonemic sequence carries one mora in length, with the exception of /C/ in /CV/ sequences where the vowel carries one mora for both phonemes. All morae are thus measured in /CV/ or shut /C/ sequences:[28]

  • /CVC/ is two morae: /CV-C/. It is also the shortest possible length of Marshallese word.
  • /CVCVC/ is three morae: /CV-CV-C/. Since approximants are also consonants, long vowel sequences of /CVGVC/ are also three morae.
  • /CVCCVC/ is four morae: /CV-C-CV-C/.
  • Prefixes like ri- are /CV-/ sequences occupying only one mora, but are attached to words rather than standing as words on their own.
  • Suffixes like -in are /-VC/ sequences. Though the syllable itself occupies two morae, it only adds one mora to the word because the vowel attaches itself to the last consonant phoneme in the word, changing /-C/ to /-C‿V-C/.

This makes Marshallese a mora-rhythmed language in a fashion similar to Finnish, Gilbertese, Hawaiian or Japanese.


Marshallese is written in the Latin alphabet. There are two competing orthographies.[29] The "old" orthography was introduced by missionaries.[29] This system is not highly consistent or faithful in representing the sounds of Marshallese, but until recently had no competing orthography.[30] It is currently widely used, including in newspapers and signs.[30] The "new" orthography is gaining popularity, especially in schools and among young adults and children.[29] The "new" orthography represents the sounds of the Marshallese language more faithfully, and it is the system used in the Marshallese–English dictionary by Abo et al., currently the only complete published Marshallese dictionary.[29][30]

Here is the current alphabet, as promoted by the Republic of the Marshall Islands. It consists of 24 letters.

a ā b d e i j k l ļ m n ņ o ō p r t u ū w
Orthographic consonants of Marshallese[8]
Labial Coronal Dorsal
Palatalized Velarized Palatalized Velarized Rounded (Plain) Rounded
Stop p b(w) j t k k(w)
Nasal m m̧(w) n ņ ņ(w) n̄(w)
Liquid l d ļ r ļ(w) r(w)
Glide e/i/- - w/-
Orthographic vowels of Marshallese[8]
Unrounded Rounded
Front Back
Close i ū u
Mid e ō o
Open ā a

Marshallese spelling is based on pronunciation rather than a phonemic analysis. Therefore, backness is marked in vowels despite the fact that this is allophonic, and many instances of the glides /j/ /ɰ/ /w/ which have been proposed on the phonemic level are unwritten, because they do not surface as consonants phonetically. In particular, the glide /ɰ/, which never surfaces as a consonant phonetically, is always unwritten (though bimorphemic words like Bok-ak, where the phoneme /ɰ/ is present after a morpheme juncture, may alternatively be written with a doubled vowel, as in Bokaak [pˠʌ͡ɔɡʷɑ̯ɑk] "Bokak"[31]).

The letter w is generally only used in two situations:

  1. To mark a labialized consonant (one of kw ļw ņw n̄w rw) or approximant phoneme (w) before a vowel that will be spelt one of a ā e i ō ū (before an unrounded consonant phoneme).
  2. To mark a velarized bilabial consonant (either bw or m̧w) before a vowel that will be spelt one of ā e i (before a palalatalized consonant phoneme).

w is never written out word-finally or before another consonant.

  • Kuwajleen / Kuajleen [kʷuɒ͡æzʲ(æ)lʲɛːnʲ] "Kwajalein".[32]

The palatal approximant phoneme /j/ may also be written out, but only either as e before one of a o ō o̧, or as i before one of either of u ū. The approximant is never written before any of ā e i. For historical reasons, certain words like io̧kwe may be written as yokwe[33] with a y that does not otherwise exist in the Marshallese alphabet.

One source of orthographic variation is in the representation of vowels. Pure monophthongs are written consistently based on vowel quality. However, diphthongs may often be written with either one of the two vowel sounds they contain:

  • wōtōm / otem [o̯o͡ɤdˠɤ͡emʲ] "all; every".[34]

Modern orthography has a bias in certain spelling choices where both possibilities are equally clear between two non-approximant consonants.

  • a is preferred over ā.
    ļap [ɫɑ͡æpʲ] "big", not *ļāp[35]
  • i is preferred over ū.
    dik [r̪ʲi͡ɯk] "small", not *dūk[36]
  • Historically, both ō and e have been common and sometimes interchangeable. This is still true today with some words. In the new orthography, ō is generally preferred over e in most such situations.
    aelōn̄ [ɑ̯ɑ͡æelʲe͡ɤŋ] "atoll; island; land", not *aelen̄[37]
    Epatōn [ɛ̯ɛbʲæ͡ɑdˠʌ͡ɛnʲ] "Ebadon", not *Epaten[38]
    Kūrijm̧ōj [kɯrˠɯ͡izʲ(i͡ɯ)mˠɤ͡etʲ] "Christmas", not *Kūrijm̧ej[39]
    Nōļ [nʲɛ͡ʌɫ] "Nell", not *Neļ[40]
  • However, after one of d j m p and before one of unrounded b k ļ m̧ ņ n̄ r t, the spelling e is preferred over ō.
    pinjeļ [pʲinʲzʲɛ͡ʌɫ] "pencil", not *pinjōļ[41]
  • For the name of the Marshall Islands, the new orthography prefers e, but the spelling with ō is still found.
    M̧ajeļ or M̧ajōļ [mˠɑɑ̯zʲɛ͡ʌɫ], "Marshall Islands"[42][43]

In a syllable where the first consonant is labialized and the second consonant is palatalized, it is common to see the vowel between them written as one of a ō ū, usually associated with a neighboring velarized consonant. For instance:

  • O̧kwōj [ɒ̯ɒɡʷɔ͡ɛtʲ] "August".[44]
  • Wūjlan̄ [u̯u͡izʲ(e)lʲæ͡ɑŋ] "Ujelang".[45]

The exception to this variation is long vowels and long diphthongs made up of two syllable units, which are written with the vowel quality closer to the phonetic nucleus of the long syllable:

  • jouj [tʲe͡ou͡itʲ] "kindness".[46]
  • naaj [nʲæ͡ɑː͡ætʲ] "will be".[47]
  • tāākji [tˠɑ͡æː͡ɑɡ(ʌ͡ɛ)zʲii̯] "taxicab".[46]

If the syllable is phonetically open, the vowel written is usually the second vowel in the diphthong. For example, the word bwe [pˠʌ͡ɛɛ̯][48]) is usually not written any other way. But there can still be exceptions, such as aelōn̄ (/ɰajɘlʲɘŋ/ [ɑ̯ɑ͡æelʲe͡ɤŋ] "land; country; island; atoll"[37]), which is preferred over āelōn̄ because the a spelling emphasizes that the first (unwritten) consonant approximant phoneme is dorsal rather than palatal.

The spelling of grammatical affixes, such as ri- (/rˠɨ-/[49]) and -in (/-ɨnʲ/) is less variable, despite the fact that their vowels become diphthongs with second member dependent on the preceding/following consonant.. For instance, the prefix ri- may be pronounced as any of [rˠɯ͡i rˠɯ rˠɯ͡u] depending on the stem, e.g. the term Ri-M̧ajeļ ("Marshallese people") is actually pronounced [rˠɯ-mˠɑɑ̯zʲɛ͡ʌɫ].[50]

Display issues

In the most polished printed text, the letters Ļ ļ M̧ m̧ Ņ ņ O̧ o̧ always appear with unaltered cedillas directly beneath, and the letters Ā ā N̄ n̄ Ō ō Ū ū always appear with unaltered macrons directly above. Regardless, these diacritics are often replaced by ad hoc spellings using more common or more easily displayable characters. In particular, the online version of the Marshallese–English dictionary (but not the print version) uses the following characters:[24]

Standard     MOD
ļ ņ ñ

As of 2013, there are no dedicated precomposed characters in Unicode for the letters M̧ m̧ N̄ n̄ O̧ o̧—for now, they can only be displayed as plain Latin letters with combining diacritics, and even many Unicode fonts will not display these combinations properly and neatly. And though Ļ ļ Ņ ņ do exist as precomposed characters in Unicode, these letters also do not display properly as Marshallese letters in most Unicode fonts—Unicode defines the letters as having a cedilla, but fonts usually display them with a comma below because of rendering expectations of the Latvian alphabet.

Both systems already require fonts that display Basic Latin (with A a B b D d E e I i J j K k L l M m N n O o P p R r T t U u W w) and Latin Extended-A (with Ā ā Ō ō Ū ū). The standard orthography also requires Spacing Modifier Letters for the combining diacritics. The MOD's alternative letters have the advantage of being neatly displayable as all-precomposed characters in any Unicode fonts that support Basic Latin, Latin Extended-A along with Latin-1 Supplement (with Ḷ ḷ Ṃ ṃ Ṇ ṇ Ñ ñ) and Latin Extended Additional (with Ḷ ḷ Ṃ ṃ Ṇ ṇ Ọ ọ). If a font comfortably displays both the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration and the Vietnamese alphabet, it can also display MOD Marshallese.

This chart highlights the display issues in common web fonts and common free Unicode fonts that are known to support standard or MOD Marshallese lettering. Distinct typefaces only appear if your operating environment supports them. Some fonts have combining diacritic alignment issues, and the vast majority of the fonts have the Latvian diacritic issue.

Typeface   Standard Letters   MOD Alternates
Arial   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Arial Unicode MS   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Calibri   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Cambria   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Candara   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Charis SIL   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Code2000   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Consolas   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Constantia   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Corbel   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Courier New   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
DejaVu Sans   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
DejaVu Sans Mono   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
DejaVu Serif   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Gentium   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Gentium Plus   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Lucida Sans Unicode   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Segoe UI   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Source Code Pro   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Source Sans Pro   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Tahoma   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ
Times New Roman   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   Ñ ñ

Differences in orthography

The old orthography was still very similar to the new orthography, but made fewer phonological distinctions in spelling than the new orthography does. The new orthography attempts phonological consistency while adhering to most of the spelling patterns of the old orthography, especially in regard to vowels and w. This has made the new orthography relatively easy for old orthography users to learn. The phonology of Marshallese was documented by Bender (1969) with written examples using the old orthography. Some differences between the new and old orthographies:

  • The new orthography uses the cedillaed letters ļ m̧ ņ o̧. The old orthography did not use cedillas, and ambiguously wrote these l m n o.
  • The new orthography uses p for "light" /pʲ/ and b for "heavy" /pˠ/. The old orthography used b for both.
    Compare old binjel vs. new pinjeļ [pʲinʲzʲɛ͡ʌɫ], 'pencil'.
  • The new orthography consistently uses d for "light" /rʲ/ in all positions. The old orthography often wrote this dr before vowels, and r after vowels.
    Compare old Amerka vs. new Amedka [ɑ̯ɑ͡æmʲɛr̪ʲ(ɛ͡ʌ)ɡɑɑ̯], 'United States'.
    Compare old indreo or indrio vs. new indeeo [i̯inʲr̪ʲee̯ɛ̯ɛ͡ɔɔ̯], 'forever'.
  • Except in certain affixes like -an where the spelling of the vowels may be fixed, the new orthography spells the vowel monophthong allophone [æ] as ā in all positions. The old orthography had ā but it was relatively less common, and [æ] was sometimes written e instead.
    Compare old Ebeje vs. new Epjā [ɛ̯ɛbʲ(ɛ)zʲææ̯], 'Ebeye'.
  • Except in certain affixes like ri- where the spelling of the vowels may be fixed, the new orthography spells the vowel monophthong allophone [ɯ] as ū in all positions. The old orthography spelt [ɯ] as i between consonants.
    Compare old Kirijmōj vs. new Kūrijm̧ōj [kɯrˠɯ͡izʲ(i͡ɯ)mˠɤ͡etʲ], 'Christmas'.
  • The new orthography only uses the letters e o ō for allophones of the vowel phoneme /ɘ/. In the old orthography, some words used e o ō, but other words used i u (ū) instead.
    Compare old ailin̄ vs. new aelōn̄ [ɑ̯ɑ͡æelʲe͡ɤŋ], 'land'.
  • The new orthography uses the letter for the vowel monophthong allophone [ɒ] along with many of its related diphthong allophones. The old orthography spelt [ɒ] as a between consonants, but o at the ends of words.
    Compare old iakwe vs. new io̧kwe [i̯æ͡ɒɡʷɔ͡ɛɛ̯], 'hello; good bye; love'.
    Compare old mo vs. new mo̧ [mʲæ͡ɒɒ̯], 'taboo'.
  • The new orthography tries to consistently write long vowels and geminated consonants with double letters. The old orthography habitually wrote these as single letters.
    Compare old ekatak vs. new ekkatak [ɛ̯ɛ͡ʌkːɑdˠɑk], 'study'.
    Compare old jab vs. new jaab [tʲæ͡ɑːpˠ], 'no'.
  • The word io̧kwe [i̯æ͡ɒɡʷɔ͡ɛɛ̯] ('hello; goodbye; love') and the phrase io̧kwe eok [i̯æ͡ɒɡʷɔ͡ɛɛ̯ e̯e͡okʷ] ('hello [to you]') are a special case. The new orthography's rules favor the spelling io̧kwe eok, while the old orthography's rules favored the spelling iakwe iuk. But yokwe yuk has been historically more entrenched in both orthographies, though the letter y does not exist in the normal spelling rules of either orthography. This spelling has multilingual significance as well; yokwe (yuk) /ˈjɒkweɪ (ˈjʊk)/ is also the established spelling for the greeting when used in Marshallese-influenced English and by anglophones in the Marshall Islands.



Nouns are not marked as nouns, and do not inflect for number, gender, or case.[51] Nouns are often verbalized and verbs nominalized without any overt morphological marker:[51]

Je-n al al in pālle. sing.trans song of be.covered(=American)
'We should sing American songs.' (Willson 2008)

Marshallese has determiners and demonstratives which follow the noun they modify.[52] These are marked for number, and in the plural also encode a human/nonhuman distinction.[53] For example, in the singular pinjeļ eo 'the pencil' and ļaddik eo 'the boy' take the same determiner, but in the plural pinjeļ ko 'the pencils' and ļaddik ko have different determiners.[53] Indefinites are an exception; in the singular they are expressed with the word juon 'one' before the noun (e.g. juon al 'a song'), and there is no plural indefinite determiner.[54] The Marshallese demonstrative system has five levels: near the speaker (sg. e / pl. human / pl. nonhuman ), near the speaker and listener (in / rein / kein), near the listener (ņe / raņe / kaņe), away from both speaker and listener (eņ / raņ / kaņ), and distant but visible (uweo / roro / koko).[53]

Marshallese pronouns[55]
Person absolutive /
s 1 n̄a
2 kwe eok
3 e
pl 1 inc kōj
1 exc kōm
2 kom̧ (Ralik)
kom̧i (Ratak)
3 er

Marshallese possesses two sets of 1st and 2nd person singular pronouns, known as "absolutive" or "emphatic" pronouns and as "objective" pronouns.[55] Marshallese 1st person plurals mark for clusivity.[55] Third person objective pronouns may only be used for humans; nonhumans instead take a null pronoun:[55]

E-ar den̄ōt er.
3s.agr-T(past) slap.trans 3pl.obj
'He slapped them (human).' (Willson 2008)
E-ar den̄ōt-i.
3s.agr-T(past) slap.trans-obj
'He slapped them (nonhuman).' (Willson 2008)

The emphatic pronouns serve as subjects of equational sentences, as complements of prepositions, in order to emphasize objects, in coordination structures, and with topicalized or focused subjects.[56] It is common in Oceanic languages for a special type of pronoun to be used in equational sentences and for topicalization or focus.[56]

N̄a rikaki.
1s.emph teacher
'I am a teacher.' (Willson 2008)
N̄a i-j yokwe ajiri ro nej-ū.
1s.emph 1s.agr.T(pres) love child cher.poss-1s.gen
'Me, I love my children.' (Willson 2008)


Marshallese, similarly to many Micronesian languages, divides sentences into two types: predicational sentences and equational sentences.[57] Predicational sentences have SVO word order and a main verb:[57]

E-j kajan̄jan̄ kita.
3rdS-PRES play guitar.
'He plays guitar.' (Willson 2002)

In equational sentences, both the subject and predicate are noun phrases:[57]

Nuknuk eo e-aibujuij.
Dress DET 3rdS-beautiful.
'The dress is beautiful.' (Willson 2002)


Marshallese vocabulary[24]
aaet [ɑ̯ɑ͡æe͡ɤtˠ] Yes
aelōn̄ [ɑ̯ɑ͡æelʲe͡ɤŋ] Atoll, or island; the word for land in general
ej et am̧ mour [ɛ̯ɛzʲ e̯e͡ɤdˠ ɑ̯ɑ͡æmʲ mʲe͡ou͡ɯrˠ] How are you? (Literally, "How is your life doing?") Notice that the assimilates before the m.
em̧m̧an [ɛ̯ɛ͡ʌmˠːɑ͡ænʲ] (It) is good.
enana [ɛ̯ɛnʲæ͡ɑɑ̯nʲæ͡ɑɑ̯] (It) is bad.
io̧kwe; yokwe [i̯æ͡ɒɡʷɔ͡ɛɛ̯] Hello, goodbye and love, similar to the Hawaiian aloha; also an expression of sympathy. Its literal, archaic meaning is "You are a rainbow".[33]
irooj [i̯i͡ɯrˠɤ͡oː͡etʲ] Iroij, the various paramount chieftains of Marshallese culture
jaab [tʲæ͡ɑːpˠ] No.
kom̧m̧ool tata [kʷɔ͡ʌmˠːʌ͡ɔː͡ɛlʲ dˠɑɑ̯dˠɑɑ̯] Thank you very much. Kom̧m̧ool alone means "thank you".
kōn jouj [kɤ͡enʲ zʲe͡ou͡itʲ] You're welcome. Literally "for kindness".
Kūrjin [kɯrˠ(ɯ͡i)zʲinʲ] Christian: The majority religion of the Marshall Islands

Cardinal numbers

This includes the cardinal numbers one through ten in the Rālik dialect. Where Ratak forms differ, they are listed in parentheses.

  1. juon [tʲi͡uɔ͡ɛnʲ]
  2. ruo [rˠɯ͡uɔɔ̯]
  3. jilu [tʲilʲi͡uu̯]
  4. emān [ɛ̯ɛmʲænʲ]
  5. ļalem [ɫɑ͡ælʲemʲ]
  6. jiljino [tʲizʲinʲɛ͡ɔɔ̯] (the l is silent[58])
  7. jimjuon [tʲimʲ(i)zʲi͡uɔ͡ɛnʲ]
  8. ralitōk [rˠɑɑ̯lʲii̯dˠɤk] (ejino)
  9. ratimjuon [rˠɑɑ̯dˠɯ͡imʲ(i)zʲi͡uɔ͡ɛnʲ] (ejilimjuon)
  10. jon̄oul [tʲe͡oŋʷou͡ilʲ]


  1. Jānwōde [tʲænʲɔ̯ɔ͡ɛr̪ʲɛɛ̯], 'January'
  2. Pāpode [pʲæbʲɛ͡ɔɔ̯r̪ʲɛɛ̯], 'February'
  3. M̧aaj [mˠɑː͡ætʲ], 'March'
  4. Eprōļ [ɛ̯ɛbʲ(ɛ͡ʌ)rˠʌɫ], 'April'
  5. Māe [mʲæee̯], 'May'
  6. Juun [tʲi͡uː͡inʲ], 'June'
  7. Juļae [tʲi͡uu̯ɫɑɑ̯ɛ̯ɛɛ̯], 'July'
  8. O̧kwōj [ɒ̯ɒɡʷɔ͡ɛtʲ], 'August'
  9. Jeptōm̧ba [tʲɛbʲ(ɛ͡ʌ)dˠʌmˠbˠɑɑ̯], also Jebtōm̧ba [tʲɛ͡ʌbˠ(ʌ)dˠʌmˠbˠɑɑ̯], 'September'
  10. Oktoba [ɔ̯ɔ͡ʌɡ(ʌ)dˠʌ͡ɔɔ̯bˠɑɑ̯], 'October'
  11. Nobōm̧ba [nʲɛɔɔ̯bˠʌmˠbˠɑɑ̯], also Nopem̧ba [nʲɛ͡ɔɔ̯bʲɛ͡ʌmˠbˠɑɑ̯], 'November'
  12. Tijem̧ba [tˠɯ͡ii̯zʲɛ͡ʌmˠbˠɑɑ̯], 'December'


  1. Jabōt [tʲæ͡ɑbˠʌtˠ], 'Sunday; Sabbath'
  2. M̧ande [mˠɑ͡ænʲr̪ʲɛɛ̯], 'Monday'
  3. Juje [tʲi͡uu̯zʲɛɛ̯], 'Tuesday'
  4. Wōnje [ɔ̯ɔ͡ɛnʲzʲɛɛ̯], 'Wednesday'
  5. Taije [tˠɑɑ̯i̯izʲɛɛ̯], 'Thursday'
  6. Bōraide [pˠʌrˠɑɑ̯i̯ir̪ʲɛɛ̯], also Bōļaide [pˠʌɫɑɑ̯i̯ir̪ʲɛɛ̯], also Būļāide [pˠɯɫɑ͡æir̪ʲɛɛ̯], 'Friday'
  7. Jādede [tʲær̪ʲɛɛ̯r̪ʲɛɛ̯], 'Saturday'

Marshallese atolls and islands

Other countries and places

  • Amedka [ɑ̯ɑ͡æmʲɛr̪ʲ(ɛ͡ʌ)ɡɑɑ̯], 'United States (America)'
    • Awai [ɑ̯ɑ͡ɒː͡ɑɑ̯i̯ii̯], 'Hawaii'
    • Jāipaan [tʲæibʲæ͡ɑː͡ænʲ], 'Saipan'
    • Kuwaam̧ [kʷuɒ͡ɑːmˠ], 'Guam'
  • Aujtōrōlia [ɑ̯ɑ͡ɒu͡ɯtˠːʌrˠʌ͡ɛlʲiæ͡ɑɑ̯], 'Australia'
  • Bōļau [pˠʌɫɑɑ̯u̯uu̯], 'Palau'
  • FSM [ɛ̯ɛbʲɛzʲɛmʲ], 'Federated States of Micronesia (F.S.M.)'
    • Boonpe [pˠɤ͡oː͡enʲ(e)bʲee̯], 'Pohnpei (Ponape)'
    • Iaab [i̯æ͡ɑːpˠ], 'Yap'
    • Kujjae [kʷu͡itʲːæ͡ɑɑ̯ɛ̯ɛɛ̯], 'Kosrae (Kusaie)'
    • Ruk [rˠɯ͡ukʷ], 'Chuuk (Truk)'
  • In̄len [i̯i͡ɯŋ(ɤ͡e)lʲɛnʲ], 'England'
  • Jaina [tʲæ͡ɑɑ̯i̯inʲæ͡ɑɑ̯], also Jāina [tʲæinʲæ͡ɑɑ̯], also Jeina [tʲeinʲæ͡ɑɑ̯], 'China'
  • Jam̧uwa [tʲæ͡ɑɑ̯mˠɯ͡uu̯ɒ̯ɒ͡ɑɑ̯], 'Samoa'
  • Jāmne [tʲæmʲ(æ)nʲɛɛ̯], 'Germany'
  • Jepaan [tʲɛbʲæ͡ɑː͡ænʲ], also Nibbon̄ [nʲi͡ɯpˠːʌ͡ɔŋʷ], 'Japan (Nippon)'
  • Jipein [tʲibʲeinʲ], 'Spain'
  • Kilbōt [kɯ͡ilʲ(e͡ɤ)bˠʌtˠ], 'Kiribati (Gilbert Islands)'
  • Nawōdo [nʲæ͡ɑɑ̯ɔ̯ɔ͡ɛr̪ʲɛ͡ɔɔ̯], 'Nauru (Naoero)'
  • Nukne [nʲi͡uɡʷ(u͡i)nʲee̯], also [nʲi͡uɡʷ(o͡e)nʲɛɛ̯], 'New Guinea'
  • Rojia [rʷoo̯zʲiæ͡ɑɑ̯], 'Russia'

Text examples

Modern orthography

Here is the Hail Mary in standard Marshallese orthography:

Io̧kwe eok Maria, kwo lōn̄ kōn
menin jouj;
Irooj ej pād ippam̧.
Kwo jeram̧m̧an iaan kōrā raņ im
ejeram̧m̧an ineen lo̧jiōm̧, Jesus.
O Maria kwojarjar, jinen Anij,
kwōn jar kōn kem rijjerawiwi.
Kiiō im ilo iien
amwōj mej. Amen.

Older orthography

Here is the Lord's Prayer from the 1982 Marshallese Bible, which uses the older orthography (most commonly used today):

Jememuij iljōn̄:
En kwojarjar im utiej etam;
En itok am Ailin̄;
Kimin kōmōnmōn ankilam ilōl einwōt air kōmmōn ilōn.
Letok n̄ōn kim kijim rainin.
Jolok amuij bwid ibbam,
Einwōt kimij julok bwid ko an ro jet ibbem.
Am melejjon̄e kim en jab ellā jen jon̄an,
Ak kwon kejbarok kim jen Eo Enana.
Bwe am Ailin̄ im kajur im aibuijuij indrio, Amen.



Further reading

  • Bender, Byron W. (1969). Spoken Marshallese: an intensive language course with grammatical notes and glossary. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-87022-070-5
  • Bender, Byron W. (1969). Vowel dissimilation in Marshallese. In Working papers in linguistics (No. 11, pp. 88–96). University of Hawaii.
  • Bender, Byron W. (1973). Parallelisms in the morphophonemics of several Micronesian languages. Oceanic Linguistics, 12, 455-477.
  • Choi, John D. (1992). Phonetic underspecification and target interpolation: An acoustic study of Marshallese vowel allophony. UCLA Working Papers in Phonetics (No. 82). [1]
  • Hale, Mark. (2007) Chapter 5 of Historical Linguistics: Theory and Method. Blackwell
  • Hale, Mark. (2000). Marshallese phonology, the phonetics-phonology interface and historical linguistics. The Linguistic Review, 17, 241–257.
  • Pagotto, L. (1987). Verb subcategorization and verb derivation in Marshallese: a lexicase analysis.

External links

  • Marshallese–English Online Dictionary
  • Marshallese Phrasebook on the website for the Republic of Marshall Islands lists the Marshallese word for the Marshallese language as kajin Majöl
  • PDF, 275 KB; instead of macrons uses trema on vowels and tilde on n, and underlines instead of cedillas)
  • Marshallese Spelling Reforms article in the blog, "Far Outliers"
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