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 visit the Gilbert Islands in 1788. Some of the islands had been sighted or visited earlier, including by Commodore John Byron, whose ships happened on Nikunau in 1765. Frequenting of the islands by Europeans and Chinese dates from whaling and oil trading from the 1820s, when no doubt Europeans learnt to speak it, as I-Kiribati learnt to speak English and other languages foreign to them. However, it wasn't until Hiram Bingham II took up missionary work on Abaiang in the 1860s that the language began to take on the written form known today. For example, Bingham was the first to translate the Bible into Gilbertese, and wrote several hymn books, dictionaries and commentaries in the language of the Gilbert Islands.
The official name of the language is now 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).
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.
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.
Short /i/ and /u/ may become semivowels when followed by more sonorous vowels. /ie/ → [je] ('sail'). Kiribati has syllabic nasals, although syllabic /n/ and /ŋ/ can be followed only by consonants that are homorganic.
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:
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 (rare language department) and at the headquarters of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC), Issoudun.