Gilbertese language

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Taetae ni Kiribati
Native toKiribati
Native speakers
(120,000 cited 1988–2010)[1]
Latin script (Kiribati alphabet)
Official status
Official language in
Regulated byKiribati Language Board
Language codes
ISO 639-2gil
ISO 639-3gil
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Taetae ni Kiribati or Gilbertese, also Kiribati (sometimes Kiribatese), is a Micronesian language of the Austronesian language family. It has a basic verb–object–subject word order.


The word Kiribati, the current name of the islands, is the local adaptation of the previous European name "Gilberts". Early European visitors, including Commodore John Byron, whose ships happened on Nikunau in 1765, had named some of the islands the Kingsmill or Kings Mill Islands[3] but in 1820 they were renamed, in French, les îles Gilbert by Adam Johann von Krusenstern, after Captain Thomas Gilbert, who, along with Captain John Marshall, had passed through the islands in 1788. 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', but the common name is te taetae n aomata, or 'the language of the people'.

The first complete description of this language was in Dictionnaire gilbertin–français of Father Ernest Sabatier (981 pp, 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)[4] and speak Kiribati. Kiribati 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)[5] or emigrated (to New Zealand and Hawaii mainly).

Unlike some other languages 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.[4]

Countries by number of Kiribati speakers[edit]

  1. Kiribati, 103,000 (2010 census)[1]
  2. Fiji, 5,300 cited 1988[1]
  3. Solomon Islands, 4,870 cited 1999[1]
  4. Tuvalu, 870 cited 1987[1]

Linguistics and study[edit]

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[edit]

Historical sound changes[edit]

Gilbertese reflexes of Proto-Oceanic consonants[6] (in IPA)
Proto-Oceanic *mp *mp,ŋp *p *m *m,ŋm *k *ŋk *j *w *t *s,nj *ns,j *j *nt,nd *d,R *l *n
Proto-Micronesian *p *pʷ *f *m *mʷ *k *x *j *w *t *T *s *S *Z *c *r *l *n
Gilbertese *p *pˠ *∅ *m *mˠ *k,∅1 *∅ *∅ *βˠ *t,∅2 *t *t,s2 *r *r *r *∅ *n *n *n

1 Sometimes when reflecting Proto-Micronesian /t/.
2 Sometimes when reflecting Proto-Micronesian /k/.


Kiribati contrasts 13 consonants and 10 vowels sounds[7]

Bilabial Apical Velar
plain velarized
Nasal m n ŋ ŋː
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 or an approximant, depending on the context.[8]
  3. /ɾ/ does not occur in the syllable coda[9]
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').[10] Kiribati has syllabic nasals, although syllabic /n/ and /ŋ/ can be followed only by consonants that are homorganic.[8]

Quantity is distinctive for vowels and nasal consonants but not for the remaining sounds so that ana /ana/ (third person singular article) contrasts with aana /aːna/ ('its underside') as well as anna /anːa/ ('dry land'). Other minimal pairs include:[8]

Short Translation Long translation
te ben /tepen/ ripe coconut te been /tepeːn/ pen
ti /ti/ we tii /tiː/ only
on /on/ full oon /oːn/ turtles
te atu /atu/ bundle te atuu /atuː/ head
tuanga /twaŋa/ to tell tuangnga /twaŋːa/ to tell him/her



Any noun can be formed from a verb or an adjective by preceding it with the definite article "te".

  • nako (to go)
  • te nako (the going)
  • uraura (red)
  • te uraura (the redness)

Nouns can be marked for possession (by person and number). Plurality is only marked in some nouns by lengthening the first vowel.

  • te boki (book)
  • booki (books)

Biological gender can be marked by adding mm'aane (male) or aiine (female) to the noun.

  • te moa (chicken)
  • te moa mm'aane (rooster)
  • te moa aiine (hen)

For human nouns, the linker 'n' may be used.

  • ataei (child)
  • ataeinimm'aane (boy)
  • ataeinnaiine (girl)

Agentive nouns can be created with the particle tia (singular) or taan(i) (plural).[11]


Singular Plural
Articles te taian

The article 'te' is neither definite or indefinite, it just marks that the next word is a noun and that it's singular, although it can be translated as "the" most times. The plural article is optional since there are many other ways to express plurality, namely in demonstratives, numerals, etc.

Personal articles
Masculine Feminine
Personal article te (tem, ten, teng) nei

The personal articles are used before personal names. The masculine form is 'te' before names beginning with <i, u, w, b', ng>, 'tem' before <b, m>, 'ten' before <a, e, o, n, r, t> and 'teng' before <k, (ng)>.


Pronouns have different forms according to case: nominative (subject), accusative (object), emphatic (vocatives, adjunct pronouns), genitive (possessives).

Nominative Accusative Emphatic Genitive Possessive


1S i, n -ai ngai au -u
2S ko -ko ngkoe am -m
3S e -a ngaia ana -na/n
1P ti -ira ngaira ara -ra
2P kam -ngkamii ngkamii amii -mii
3P a -ia/i ngaiia aia -ia


Basic Masculine Feminine Human Neuter
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Proximal aei aikai teuaaei uaakai neiei naakai te baei baikai
Medial anne akanne teuaanne uakanne neienne naakanne te baenne baikanne
Distal arei akekei teuaarei uaakekei neierei naakekei te baerei baikekei

The basic 'aei' simply means "this", 'anne" is "that", 'arei' is "that over there" and are used after the noun. 'Aikai' is "these" and so on. The masculine "teuaei" means "this man", the feminine "neiei" means "this woman", and the inanimate "te baei" means "this thing". There's only feminine singular. The human plural serves for mixed groups. [12]


Time Place
Proximal ngkai ikai
Medial ngkanne ikanne
Distal ngkekei ikekei

"Ngkai" is "now", "ngkanne" is "then" and "ngkekei" is "later". "Ikai" is "here", "ikanne" is "there" and "ikekei" is "over there".


Verbs do not conjugate according to person, number, tense, aspect or mood.[13] This verbal categories are indicated by particles. Nonetheless, there's a passive suffix -aki like in:

  • E kabooa te raiti He bought the rice.
  • E kabooaki te raiti The rice was bought (by him).

Any adjective can also be an intransitive verb. Transitive verbs can be formed by the circumfix ka- (...) -a creating a causative ver, e.g. "uraura" (to be red) becomes "kaurauraa" (to redden). Tense is marked by adverbs. However, the default interpretation of the unmarked (by adverbs) verb is a past tense. Below is a list of verbal particles[14]:

  • a (immediate, incompleted and indeterminate)
  • tabe n(i) (progressive)
  • nang(i) (prospective future)
  • na (general future)
  • a tib'a (immediate past)
  • a tia n(i) (past perfect)

Copula verbs[edit]

There are no verbs corresponding to English "to be", so a stative verb must be used or a zero copula strategy:

Te tia mm'akuri teuaarei.

A workman       that man.

That man is a workman.

However there's a locative copula verb "mena":

E mena iaon te taibora te booro.

The ball is on the table

Existential verb[edit]

There's also no corresponding verb to "to have", instead an existential verb meaning "there to be" is used - iai.


Reduplication is used to mark aspect.

  • Partial reduplication marks the habitual aspect for example "nako" (to go) and "naanako" (to usually go).
  • Full reduplication shows the continuative aspect, e.g. "koro" (to cut), "korokoro" (to continually cut).
  • Mixed: "kiba" (to jump), "kiikiba" (to usually jump), "kibakiba" (to continually jump), "kikibakiba" (to jump on regular occasions).

Adjectives can also be formed by reduplication with the meaning of "abundant in [adj.]" - "karau" (rain), "kakarau" (rainy).


The main negator is the particle "aki" placed before the verb. The negator "aikoa" is for counterexpected situations.


Gilbertese uses classifiers for counting with numerals like southeast Asian languages (Chinese, Vietnamese, etc.). These classifiers are suffixes to the numerals: -ua (general, for objects), -man (animate beings), -kai (plants, land, fish hooks), -ai (fish, elongated objects), -waa (transportation), -baa (leaves, flat objects) among many others. It is a decimal system with -bwi as a "10 counting" suffix. Zero ("akea") is just the word for 'nothing'.[15]

Root With -ua classifier
0 akea -
1 te teuana
2 uo/ua uoua
3 ten(i) teniua
4 a aua
5 nima nimaua
6 ono onoua
7 it(i) itiua
8 wan(i) waniua
9 ruai ruaiua
10 te tebwina

Written Kiribati[edit]

The Kiribati language is written in the Latin script, which was introduced in the 1840s when Hiram Bingham Jr, a missionary, first translated the Bible into Kiribati. Previously, the language was unwritten. Long vowels and consonants are represented by doubling the character, and a few digraphs are used for the velar nasals (/ŋ ŋː/) and velarized bilabials (i.e. /pˠ mˠ/).

Kiribati Spelling System[16]
IPA /ä/ /äː/ /p/ /pˠ/ /e/ /eː/ /i/ /iː/ /k/ /m/ /mː/ /mˠ/ /n/ /nː/ /ŋ/ /ŋː/ /o/ /oː/ /ɾ/ /t/ /u/ /uː/ /βˠ/

Translating Kiribati[edit]

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 the Kiribati 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.

Useful phrases[edit]

  • Hello – Mauri
  • Hello – [singular] Ko na mauri (You will hello)
  • Hello – [plural] Kam na mauri (You [plural] will hello)
  • 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)

Text sample[edit]

Ao ti teuana aia taetae ka-in aonaba ma aia taeka ngkekei. Ao ngke a waerake, ao a kunea te tabo teuana ae aoraoi n te aba are Tina; ao a maeka iai. Ao a i taetae i rouia ni kangai, Ka-raki, ti na karaoi buatua, ao ti na kabuoki raoi. Ao aia atibu boni buatua, ao aia raim boni bitumen. Ao a kangai, Ka-raki, ti na katea ara kawa teuana, ma te taua, ae e na rota karawa taubukina, ao ti na karekea arara ae kakanato; ba ti kawa ni kamaeaki nako aonaba ni kabuta. Ao E ruo Iehova ba E na nora te kawa arei ma te taua arei, ake a katei natiia aomata. Ao E taku Iehova, Noria, te botanaomata ae ti teuana te koraki aei, ao ti teuana aia taetae; ao aei ae a moa ni karaoia: ao ngkai, ane e na aki tauaki mai rouia te b’ai teuana ae a reke nanoia iai ba a na karaoia. Ka-raki, ti na ruo, ao tin a kakaokoroi aia taetae iai, ba a aonga n aki atai nako aia taeka. Ma ngaia are E kamaeia nako Iehova mai iai nako aonaba ni kabuta: ao a toki ni katea te kawa arei. Ma ngaia are e aranaki ka Babera; ba kioina ngke E bita aia taetae ka-in aonaba ni kabaneia iai Iehova: ao E kamaeia nako Iehova mai ai nako aonaba ni kabuta.[17]

(Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. Book of Genesis 11:1–9)[18]


  1. ^ a b c d e Gilbertese at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Gilbertese". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Maude, H. E. (1961). Post-Spanish discoveries in the central Pacific. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 67-111. Very often, this name applied only to the southern islands of the archipelago. Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam Webster, 1997. p. 594.
  4. ^ a b "Kiribati Census Report 2010 Volume 1" (PDF). National Statistics Office, Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, Government of Kiribati. Archived from the original (PDF) on 30 September 2013. Retrieved 17 March 2013.
  5. ^ "Kiribati - Phoenix Settlement".
  6. ^ Bender, Byron W. (2003). "Proto-Micronesian Reconstructions: 1". Oceanic Linguistics. 42 (1): 4, 5. doi:10.2307/3623449. JSTOR 3623449.
  7. ^ Blevins (1999:205–206)
  8. ^ a b c Blevins (1999:206)
  9. ^ Blevins (1999:207)
  10. ^ Blevins (1999:209)
  11. ^ Trussel, Stephen (1979). "Lesson 13" (PDF). Kiribati (Gilbertese): Grammar Handbook. The Experiment Press: Vermont Peace Corps Language Handbook Series. pp. 85–86.
  12. ^ a b c Trussel, Stephen (1979). "Lesson 19" (PDF). Kiribati (Gilbertese): Grammar Handbook. The Experiment Press: Vermont Peace Corps Language Handbook Series. pp. 126–129.
  13. ^ Trussel, Stephen (1979). "Lesson 31" (PDF). Kiribati (Gilbertese): Grammar Handbook. The Experiment Press: Vermont Peace Corps Language Handbook Series. pp. 203–208.
  14. ^ Trussel, Stephen (1979). "Lesson 37" (PDF). Kiribati (Gilbertese): Grammar Handbook. The Experiment Press: Vermont Peace Corps Language Handbook Series. pp. 239–245.
  15. ^ Trussel, Stephen (1979). "Lesson 16" (PDF). Kiribati (Gilbertese): Grammar Handbook. The Experiment Press: Vermont Peace Corps Language Handbook Series. pp. 103–109.
  16. ^ "Te taetae ni Kiribati - Kiribati Language Lessons - 10".
  17. ^ "Tower of Babel in Kiribati".
  18. ^ "Bible Gateway passage: Genesis 11:1-9 - New International Version". Bible Gateway.


  • Blevins, Juliette; Harrison, Sheldon P. (1999). "Trimoraic Feet in Gilbertese". Oceanic Linguistics. 38 (2): 203–230. doi:10.1353/ol.1999.0012.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Cowell, Reid (1951), The Structure of Gilbertese, Rongorongo PressCS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

External links[edit]