Marshallese language

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(new orthography) Kajin M̧ajeļ
(old orthography) Kajin Majōl
Native toMarshall Islands
Native speakers
(55,000 cited 1979)[2]
Latin (Marshallese alphabet)
Official status
Official language in
 Marshall Islands (with English)
Language codes
ISO 639-1mh
ISO 639-2mah
ISO 639-3mah

The Marshallese language (Marshallese: new orthography Kajin M̧ajeļ or old orthography Kajin Majōl [kɑ͡æzʲinʲ(e͡ɤ) mˠɑ.zʲɛ͡ʌɫ]), also known as Ebon, is a Micronesian language spoken in the Marshall Islands. The language is spoken by about 44,000 people in the Marshall Islands, making it the principal language of the country. There are also roughly 6,000 speakers outside of the Marshall Islands, including those in Nauru and the U.S.

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.[4] The closest linguistic relatives of Marshallese are the other Micronesian languages, including Chuukese, Gilbertese, Kosraean, Nauruan and Pohnpeian. Marshallese shows 33% lexical similarity with Pohnpeian.[1]

Within the Micronesian archipelago, Marshallese—along with the rest of the Micronesian language group—is 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 even less closely related to the non-Oceanic languages Palauan in Palau and Chamorro in the Mariana Islands.


The Republic of the Marshall Islands contains 34 atolls that are split into two chains, the eastern Ratak Chain and the western Ralik Chain.[4] These two chains have different dialects, which differ mainly lexically, and are mutually intelligible.[1][4] The atoll of Ujelang in the west used to have "slightly less homogeneous speech",[1] but it has been uninhabited since 1980.[5]

The Ratak and Ralik dialects differ phonetically in how they deal with stems that begin with double consonants.[4] 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).[4] For example, the stem kkure 'play' becomes ukkure in Ralik Marshallese and kukure in Ratak Marshallese.[4]


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.[6] A dictionary and at least two Bible translations have been published in Marshallese.[1]



Marshallese has a large consonant inventory, and each consonant has some type of secondary articulation (palatalization, velarization, or rounding).[7] 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.[8] (This contrast is similar to that between "slender" and "broad" consonants in Goidelic languages, or between "soft" and "hard" consonants in Russian.) The "light" consonants are considered more relaxed articulations.[8]

The following are the consonant phonemes of Marshallese:

Consonant phonemes of Marshallese[9]
Labial Coronal Dorsal
Palatalized Velarized Palatalized Velarized Rounded (Velar) Rounded
Light Heavy Light Heavy Heavy
Stop k
Nasal ŋ ŋʷ
Glide j (ɰ) w

Marshallese has no voicing contrast in consonants.[7] However, stops may be allophonically partially voiced ([p → b], [t → d], [k → ɡ])[9], when they are between vowels and not geminated. (Technically, partially voiced stops would be [p̬~b̥], [t̬~d̥], [k̬~ɡ̊], but this article uses voiced transcriptions [b], [d], [ɡ] for simplicity.)[10] Final consonants are often unreleased.[9]

Glides /j ɰ w/ vanish in many environments, with surrounding vowels assimilating their backness and roundedness.[11] That 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.[11] In fact, the consonant /ɰ/ never surfaces phonetically but is used to explain the preceding phenomenon.[9] (/j/ and /w/ may surface phonetically only in word-initial and word-final positions and, even then, not consistently.[9])

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.[8][9][10] Word-internally it usually assumes a voiced fricative articulation as [zʲ] (or [ʝ]) but not when geminated.[10] /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 farther back [k̠ ɡ̠ ŋ̠ k̠ʷ ɡ̠ʷ ŋ̠ʷ], making them somewhere between velar and uvular in articulation.[10] All dorsal phonemes are "heavy" (velarized or rounded), and none are "light" (palatalized).[8] 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].[12]

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.[10] The Marshallese–English Dictionary (MED) and Willson (2003) describe the rhotic consonants as "retroflex", but are not clear how this relates to their dental or alveolar trill positions.[8][13] (See retroflex trill.)

The heavy lateral consonants /lˠ/ and /lʷ/ are dark l like in English feel, articulated [ɫ] and [ɫʷ] respectively.[10]

The velarized consonants (and, by extension, the rounded consonants) may be velarized or pharyngealized[8] like 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.[14]

MED (1976), Choi (1992) and Willson (2003) notate some Marshallese vowels differently. Choi (1992) observes only three vowel phonemes but theorizes that 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[8] Choi[15] Willson[16]
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, 12 Marshallese vowel allophones appear in minimal pairs, a common test for phonemicity.[17] For example, [mʲæ] (, 'breadfruit'), [mʲæ͡ɑ] (ma, 'but'), and [mʲæ͡ɒ] (mo̧, 'taboo') are separate Marshallese words.[17] However, the uneven distribution of glide phonemes suggests that they underlyingly end with the glides (thus /mʲaj/, /mʲaɰ/, /mʲaw/).[11] When glides are taken into account, it emerges that there are only 4 vowel phonemes.[11]

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.[16] For example, jok 'shy', phonemically /tʲɜkʷ/, is realized phonetically as [tʲɛ͡ɔkʷ].[16] It follows that there are 24 possible diphthongs in Marshallese:[16]

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

Some syllables appear to contain long vowels: naaj 'future'.[18] They are thought to contain an underlying glide (/j/, /ɰ/ or /w/), which is not present phonetically.[19][20] For instance, the underlying form of naaj is /nʲaɰatʲ/.[18] Although the medial glide is not realized phonetically, it affects vowel quality; in a word like /nʲaɰatʲ/, the vowel smoothly transitions from [æ] to [ɑ] and then back to [æ], as [nʲæ͡ɑː͡ætʲ].[21]


Syllables in Marshallese follow CV, CVC, and VC patterns.[18] Marshallese words always underlyingly begin and end with consonants.[20] Initial, final, and long vowels may be explained as the results of underlying glides not present on the phonetic level.[20] Initial vowels are sometimes realized with an onglide [j] or [w] but not consistently:[22]

  • /jatʲ/ → [ætʲ ~ jætʲ] 'weave'[23]

Only homorganic consonant sequences are allowed in Marshallese[24] that includes geminate varieties of each consonant.[9] Non-homorganic clusters are separated by vowel epenthesis even across word boundaries.[24] Some homorganic clusters are also disallowed:[24]

  • 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. Then, the clusters undergo assimilation of the labialized articulation.[25]
  • †Obstruent-liquid and liquid-obstruent clusters besides /lʲtˠ/ and /lˠtˠ/ undergo epenthesis.[25]
  • Liquid-nasal clusters undergo nasal assimilation[25]
  • Obstruent-nasal clusters undergo epenthesis (if coronal) or nasal assimilation (if non-coronal)[25]

The following assimilations are created, 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 vowel height of an epenthetic vowel is transitional between the two nearest vowels.[18] Certain Westernized Marshallese placenames spell out the epenthetic vowels:

This article uses parentheses in IPA pronunciations to indicate epenthetic vowels in words, as they can be omitted 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/ all occupy a roughly equal duration of time.[27] Though they occupy time, the approximants are generally not articulated as glides, and Choi (1992) does not rule out a deeper level of representation.[28] In particular, /V/ short vowels occupy one unit of time, and /VGV/ long vowels (for which /G/ is an approximant phoneme) are three times as long.[29]

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:[30]

  • /CVC/ is two morae: /CV-C/. It is also the shortest possible length of a 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. The syllable itself occupies two morae but adds only one mora to the word because the vowel attaches itself to the last consonant phoneme in the word, changing /-C/ into /-C‿V-C/.

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

Historic sound changes[edit]

Marshallese reflexes of Proto Oceanic consonants[31]
Proto-Oceanic *mp *mp,ŋp *p *m *m,ŋm *k *ŋk *y *w *t *s,nj *ns,j *j *nt,nd *d,R *l *n
Proto-Micronesian *p *pʷ *f *m *mʷ *k *x *y *w *t *T *s *S *Z *c *r *l *n
Marshallese /pʲ/ /pˠ/ /j/ /mʲ/ /mˠ/ /k, kʷ/ /ŋ, ŋʷ/ /j/ /w/ /tʲ/ /tʲ/ /tˠ/ /tˠ/ /rʲ/ /rˠ, rʷ/ /lʲ, lˠ, lʷ/ /nʲ, nˠ, nʷ/ /nʲ/

Marshallese consonants show splits conditioned by the surrounding Proto-Micronesian vowels. Proto-Micronesian *k *ŋ *r become rounded next to *o or next to *u except in bisyllables whose other vowel is unrounded. Default outcomes of *l and *n are palatalized; they become velarized or rounded before *a or sometimes *o if there is no high vowel in an adjacent syllable. Then, roundedness is determined by the same rule as above.


Marshallese is written in the Latin alphabet. There are two competing orthographies.[32] The "old" orthography was introduced by missionaries.[32] This system is not highly consistent or faithful in representing the sounds of Marshallese, but until recently, it had no competing orthography.[33] It is currently widely used, including in newspapers and signs.[33] The "new" orthography is gaining popularity especially in schools and among young adults and children.[32] The "new" orthography represents the sounds of the Marshallese language more faithfully and is the system used in the Marshallese–English dictionary by Abo et al., currently the only complete published Marshallese dictionary.[32][33]

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[10]
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[10]
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 being allophonic (it does change the meaning), and many instances of the glides /j/ /ɰ/ /w/ 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 (but bimorphemic words like Bok-ak in which the phoneme /ɰ/ is present after a morpheme juncture may be written with a doubled vowel, as in Bokaak [pˠʌ͡ɔɡʷ.ɑk] "Bokak"[34]).

The letter w is generally used only in two situations:

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

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

  • Kuwajleen / Kuajleen [kʷuɒ͡æzʲ(æ)lʲɛːnʲ] "Kwajalein".[35]

The palatal approximant phoneme /j/ may also be written out but only as e before one of a o ō o̧, or as i before one of either 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[36] with a y, which 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 one of the two vowel sounds that they contain:

  • wōtōm / otem [o͡ɤdˠɤ͡emʲ] "all; every".[37]

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

  • a is preferred over ā.
    ļap [ɫɑ͡æpʲ] "big", not *ļāp[38]
  • i is preferred over ū.
    dik [r̪ʲi͡ɯk] "small", not *dūk[39]
  • Historically, both ō and e have been common and sometimes interchangeable. It is still true today with some words. In the new orthography, ō is generally preferred over e in most such situations.
    aelōn̄ [ɑ͡æelʲe͡ɤŋ] "atoll; island; land", not *aelen̄[40]
    Epatōn [ɛbʲæ͡ɑdˠʌ͡ɛnʲ] "Ebadon", not *Epaten[41]
    Kūrijm̧ōj [kɯrˠɯ͡izʲ(i͡ɯ)mˠɤ͡etʲ] "Christmas", not *Kūrijm̧ej[42]
    Nōļ [nʲɛ͡ʌɫ] "Nell", not *Neļ[43]
  • 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[44]
  • For the name of the Marshall Islands, the new orthography prefers e, but the spelling with ō is still found.
    M̧ajeļ or M̧ajōļ [mˠɑ.zʲɛ͡ʌɫ], "Marshall Islands"[45][46]

In a syllable whose first consonant is labialized and whose 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:

  • O̧kwōj [ɒɡʷɔ͡ɛtʲ] "August".[47]
  • Wūjlan̄ [u͡izʲ(e)lʲæ͡ɑŋ] "Ujelang".[48]

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

  • jouj [tʲe͡ou͡itʲ] "kindness".[49]
  • naaj [nʲæ͡ɑː͡ætʲ] "will be".[50]
  • tāākji [tˠɑ͡æː͡ɑɡ(ʌ͡ɛ)zʲi] "taxicab".[49]

If the syllable is phonetically open, the vowel written is usually the second vowel in the diphthong: the word bwe [pˠʌ͡ɛ][51] is usually not written any other way, but exceptions exist such as aelōn̄ (/ɰajɘlʲɘŋ/ [ɑ͡æelʲe͡ɤŋ] "land; country; island; atoll"[40]), which is preferred over *āelōn̄ because the a spelling emphasizes that the first (unwritten) approximant consonant phoneme is dorsal rather than palatal.

The spelling of grammatical affixes, such as ri- (/rˠɨ-/[52]) and -in (/-ɨnʲ/) is less variable despite the fact that their vowels become diphthongs with second member dependent on the preceding/following consonant: the prefix ri- may be pronounced as any of [rˠɯ͡i rˠɯ rˠɯ͡u] depending on the stem. The term Ri-M̧ajeļ ("Marshallese people") is actually pronounced [rˠɯ-mˠɑ.zʲɛ͡ʌɫ] as if it were Rūm̧ajeļ.[53]

Display issues[edit]

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, the diacritics are often replaced by ad hoc spellings using more common or more easily displayable characters. In particular, the Marshallese-English Online Dictionary (but not the print version), or MOD, uses the following characters:[26]

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; they must be displayed as plain Latin letters with combining diacritics, and even many Unicode fonts will not display the combinations properly and neatly. Although Ļ ļ Ņ ņ 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. However, for some fonts, there is a workaround to display these letters properly if encoded as one of the base letters L l N n followed by a zero-width non-joiner character and a combining cedilla character, yielding L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧. This does not always produce a more accurate result if the combining diacritics appear misaligned with their letters.

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 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 appear only if the operating environment supports them. Some fonts have combining diacritic alignment issues, and the vast majority of the fonts have the Latvian diacritic issue.

Marshallese letters in various typefaces
Typeface   Standard letters   With ZWNJ   MOD alternates
Arial   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Arial Unicode MS   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Calibri   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Cambria   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Candara   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Charis SIL   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Code2000   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Consolas   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Constantia   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Corbel   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Cormorant   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Courier New   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
DejaVu Sans   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
DejaVu Sans Mono   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
DejaVu Serif   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Gentium   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Gentium Basic   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Gentium Book Basic   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Gentium Plus   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Inconsolata   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Junicode   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Linux Libertine   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Lucida Sans Unicode   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Noto Sans   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Noto Sans Mono   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Noto Serif   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Open Sans   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Segoe UI   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Source Code Pro   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Source Sans Pro   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Source Serif Pro   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Tahoma   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ
Times New Roman   Ā ā Ļ ļ Ņ ņ Ō ō Ū ū   L‌̧ l‌̧ N‌̧ n‌̧   Ñ ñ

Differences in orthography[edit]

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. It 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. Here are 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 them 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 dr before vowels, and r after vowels.
    Compare old Amerka vs. new Amedka [ɑ͡æmʲɛr̪ʲ(ɛ͡ʌ)ɡɑ], 'United States'.
    Compare old indreo or indrio vs. new indeeo [inʲr̪ʲe.ɛ͡ɔ], 'forever'.
  • Except in certain affixes like -an whose spelling 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 [ɛbʲ(ɛ)zʲæ], 'Ebeye'.
  • Except in certain affixes like ri- whose 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 spelled [ɯ] as i between consonants.
    Compare old Kirijmōj vs. new Kūrijm̧ōj [kɯrˠɯ͡izʲ(i͡ɯ)mˠɤ͡etʲ], 'Christmas'.
  • The new orthography uses only 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 [ɑ͡æelʲe͡ɤŋ], 'land'.
  • The new orthography uses the letter for the vowel monophthong allophone [ɒ] along with many of its related diphthong allophones. The old orthography spelled [ɒ] as a between consonants but o at the ends of words.
    Compare old iakwe vs. new io̧kwe [i̯æ͡ɒɡʷɔ͡ɛ], 'hello; good bye; love'.
    Compare old mo vs. new mo̧ [mʲæ͡ɒ], '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 [ɛ͡ʌkːɑdˠɑk], 'study'.
    Compare old jab vs. new jaab [tʲæ͡ɑːpˠ], 'no'.
  • The word io̧kwe [i̯æ͡ɒɡʷɔ͡ɛ] ('hello; goodbye; love') and the phrase io̧kwe eok [i̯æ͡ɒɡʷɔ͡ɛ e͡okʷ] ('hello [to you]') are a special case. The new orthography's rules use io̧kwe eok, while the old orthography's rules used iakwe iuk. However, yokwe yuk has been historically more entrenched in both orthographies, but the letter y does not exist in the normal spelling rules of either orthography. That 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.

Bender's orthography[edit]

Bender's orthography only uses 4 vowels: a e ȩ i. Ȩ, the fourth vowel not distinguished from e in the current orthography, was previously written as &. a is written as ah, as aw, ā as ay, ō as eh or ȩh (depending on pronunciation), o as ew or ȩw (depending on pronunciation), e as ey or ȩy (depending on pronunciation), ū as ih, u as iw, and i and iy. /j/ is written as y, and /ɰ/ is written as h. Other spelling changes are that is written as g, and kw is written as q.[54]



Nouns are not marked as nouns, and do not inflect for number, gender, or case.[55] Nouns are often verbalized and verbs nominalized without any overt morphological marker:[55]

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.[56] These are marked for number, and in the plural also encode a human/nonhuman distinction.[57] 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 ro have different determiners.[57] 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.[58] 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).[57]

Marshallese pronouns[59]
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.[59] Marshallese 1st person plurals mark for clusivity.[59] Third person objective pronouns may only be used for humans; nonhumans instead take a null pronoun:[59]

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.[60] It is common in Oceanic languages for a special type of pronoun to be used in equational sentences and for topicalization or focus.[60]

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.[61] Predicational sentences have SVO word order and a main verb:[61]

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

In equational sentences, both the subject and predicate are noun phrases:[61]

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


Marshallese vocabulary[26]
aaet [ɑ͡æe͡ɤtˠ] Yes
aelōn̄ [ɑ͡æelʲe͡ɤŋ] Atoll, or island; the word for land in general
ej et am̧ mour [ɛzʲ e͡ɤdˠ ɑ͡æmʲ mʲe͡ou͡ɯrˠ] How are you? (Literally, "How is your life doing?") Notice that the assimilates before the m.
em̧m̧an [ɛ͡ʌmˠːɑ͡ænʲ] (It) is good.
enana [ɛnʲæ͡ɑ.nʲæ͡ɑ] (It) is bad.
io̧kwe; yokwe [i̯æ͡ɒɡʷɔ͡ɛ] Hello, goodbye and love, similar to the Hawaiian aloha; also an expression of sympathy. Its literal, archaic meaning is "You are a rainbow".[36][failed verification]
irooj [i͡ɯrˠɤ͡oː͡etʲ] Iroij, the various paramount chieftains of Marshallese culture
jaab [tʲæ͡ɑːpˠ] No.
kom̧m̧ool tata [kʷɔ͡ʌmˠːʌ͡ɔː͡ɛlʲ tˠɑ.dˠɑ] Thank you very much. Kom̧m̧ool alone means "thank you".
kōn jouj [kɤ͡enʲ tʲe͡ou͡itʲ] You're welcome. Literally "for kindness".
Kūrjin [kɯrˠ(ɯ͡i)zʲinʲ] Christian: The majority religion of the Marshall Islands

Cardinal numbers[edit]

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 [rˠɯ͡uɔ]
  3. jilu [tʲilʲi͡u]
  4. emān [ɛmʲænʲ]
  5. ļalem [ɫɑ͡ælʲemʲ]
  6. jiljino [tʲizʲinʲɛ͡ɔ] (the l is silent[62])
  7. jimjuon [tʲimʲ(i)zʲi͡uɔ͡ɛnʲ]
  8. ralitōk [rˠɑ.lʲi.dˠɤk] (ejino)
  9. ratimjuon [rˠɑ.dˠɯ͡imʲ(i)zʲi͡uɔ͡ɛnʲ] (ejilimjuon)
  10. jon̄oul [tʲe͡oŋʷou͡ilʲ]


  1. Jānwōde [tʲænʲ.ɔ͡ɛr̪ʲɛ], 'January'
  2. Pāpode [pʲæbʲɛ͡ɔ.r̪ʲɛɛ̯], 'February'
  3. M̧aaj [mˠɑː͡ætʲ], 'March'
  4. Eprōļ [ɛbʲ(ɛ͡ʌ)rˠʌɫ], 'April'
  5. Māe [mʲæe], 'May'
  6. Juun [tʲi͡uː͡inʲ], 'June'
  7. Juļae [tʲi͡u.ɫɑ.ɛ], 'July'
  8. O̧kwōj [ɒɡʷɔ͡ɛtʲ], 'August'
  9. Jeptōm̧ba [tʲɛbʲ(ɛ͡ʌ)dˠʌmˠbˠɑ], also Jebtōm̧ba [tʲɛ͡ʌbˠ(ʌ)dˠʌmˠbˠɑ], 'September'
  10. Oktoba [ɔ͡ʌɡ(ʌ)dˠʌ͡ɔ.bˠɑ], 'October'
  11. Nobōm̧ba [nʲɛɔ.bˠʌmˠbˠɑ], also Nopem̧ba [nʲɛ͡ɔbʲɛ͡ʌmˠbˠɑ], 'November'
  12. Tijem̧ba [tˠɯ͡i.zʲɛ͡ʌmˠbˠɑ], 'December'


  1. Jabōt [tʲæ͡ɑbˠʌtˠ], 'Sunday; Sabbath'
  2. M̧ande [mˠɑ͡ænʲr̪ʲɛ], 'Monday'
  3. Juje [tʲi͡u.zʲɛ], 'Tuesday'
  4. Wōnje [ɔ͡ɛnʲzʲɛ], 'Wednesday'
  5. Taije [tˠɑ.izʲɛ], 'Thursday'
  6. Bōraide [pˠʌrˠɑ.ir̪ʲɛ], also Bōļaide [pˠʌɫɑ.ir̪ʲɛ], also Būļāide [pˠɯɫɑ͡æir̪ʲɛ], 'Friday'
  7. Jādede [tʲær̪ʲɛ.r̪ʲɛ], 'Saturday'

Marshallese atolls and islands[edit]

Other countries and places[edit]

  • Amedka [ɑ͡æmʲɛr̪ʲ(ɛ͡ʌ)ɡɑ], 'United States (America)'
    • Awai [ɑ͡ɒː͡ɑ.i], 'Hawaii'
    • Jāipaan [tʲæibʲæ͡ɑː͡ænʲ], 'Saipan'
    • Kuwaam̧ [kʷuɒ͡ɑːmˠ], 'Guam'
  • Aujtōrōlia [ɑ͡ɒu͡ɯtˠːʌrˠʌ͡ɛlʲiæ͡ɑ], 'Australia'
  • Bōļau [pˠʌɫɑ.u], 'Palau'
  • FSM [ɛbʲɛzʲɛmʲ], 'Federated States of Micronesia (F.S.M.)'
    • Boonpe [pˠɤ͡oː͡enʲ(e)bʲe], 'Pohnpei (Ponape)'
    • Iaab [i̯æ͡ɑːpˠ], 'Yap'
    • Kujjae [kʷu͡itʲːæ͡ɑ.ɛ], 'Kosrae (Kusaie)'
    • Ruk [rˠɯ͡ukʷ], 'Chuuk (Truk)'
  • In̄len [i͡ɯŋ(ɤ͡e)lʲɛnʲ], 'England'
  • Jaina [tʲæ͡ɑ.inʲæ͡ɑ], also Jāina [tʲæinʲæ͡ɑ], also Jeina [tʲeinʲæ͡ɑ], 'China'
  • Jam̧uwa [tʲæ͡ɑ.mˠɯ͡u.ɒ͡ɑ], 'Samoa'
  • Jāmne [tʲæmʲ(æ)nʲɛ], 'Germany'
  • Jepaan [tʲɛbʲæ͡ɑː͡ænʲ], also Nibbon̄ [nʲi͡ɯpˠːʌ͡ɔŋʷ], 'Japan (Nippon)'
  • Jipein [tʲibʲeinʲ], 'Spain'
  • Kilbōt [kɯ͡ilʲ(e͡ɤ)bˠʌtˠ], 'Kiribati (Gilbert Islands)'
  • Nawōdo [nʲæ͡ɑ.ɔ͡ɛr̪ʲɛ͡ɔ], 'Nauru (Naoero)'
  • Nukne [nʲi͡uɡʷ(u͡i)nʲe], also [nʲi͡uɡʷ(o͡e)nʲɛ], 'New Guinea'
  • Rojia [rʷo.zʲiæ͡ɑ], 'Russia'

Text examples[edit]

Modern orthography[edit]

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[edit]

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.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "Marshallese". SIL International. n.d. Retrieved December 5, 2012.
  2. ^ Marshallese at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  3. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Marshallese". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Willson (2002, 1.1 General background)
  5. ^ "Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal: In the Matter of the People of Enewetak". International Legal Materials. 39 (5): 1214. 2000.
  6. ^ Willson (2008:6–7)
  7. ^ a b Willson (2003:1)
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Abo et al. (1976, 4. The Sounds of Marshallese)
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Choi (1992:14)
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h Rudiak-Gould (2004:7–8)
  11. ^ a b c d Bender (1968:21–22)
  12. ^ Bender (1969:xvii)
  13. ^ Willson (2003:6)
  14. ^ Willson (2003:2)
  15. ^ Choi (1992:15)
  16. ^ a b c d Willson (2003:3)
  17. ^ a b Bender (1968:17)
  18. ^ a b c d Willson (2003:7)
  19. ^ Willson (2003:7–8)
  20. ^ a b c Bender (1968:22)
  21. ^ Choi (1992:70–73)
  22. ^ Choi (1992:22)
  23. ^ Choi (1992:23)
  24. ^ a b c Willson (2003:4–5)
  25. ^ a b c d Willson (2003:5)
  26. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Abo et al. (1976)
  27. ^ Choi (1992:27)
  28. ^ Choi (1992:71)
  29. ^ Choi (1992:65)
  30. ^ Willson (2003:8)
  31. ^ Bender, Byron W. (2003). "Proto-Micronesian Reconstructions: 1". Oceanic Linguistics. 42: 4, 5. doi:10.2307/3623449. JSTOR 3623449.
  32. ^ a b c d Miller (2010:x)
  33. ^ a b c Rudiak-Gould (2004:6)
  34. ^ MED: Bokaak
  35. ^ MED: Kuwajleen; MED concordance: Kuajleen
  36. ^ a b MED: io̧kwe
  37. ^ MED: wōtōm
  38. ^ MED: ļap
  39. ^ MED: dik
  40. ^ a b MED: aelōn̄
  41. ^ MED: Epatōn
  42. ^ MED: Kūrijm̧ōj
  43. ^ MED: Nōļ
  44. ^ MED: pinjeļ
  45. ^ MED: M̧ajeļ
  46. ^ MED: M̧ajōļ
  47. ^ MED: O̧kwōj
  48. ^ MED: Wūjlan̄
  49. ^ a b MED: tāākji
  50. ^ MED: naaj
  51. ^ MED: bwe
  52. ^ MED: ri-
  53. ^ MED: Ri-M̧ajeļ
  54. ^ Bender, Byron (1969). Spoken Marshallese : An Intensive Language Course With Grammatical Notes and Glossary. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0870220705.
  55. ^ a b Willson (2008:15)
  56. ^ Willson (2008:16)
  57. ^ a b c Willson (2008:17)
  58. ^ Willson (2008:17–18)
  59. ^ a b c d Willson (2008:18)
  60. ^ a b Willson (2008:19–21)
  61. ^ a b c Willson (2002, 3.2 Morphosyntax)
  62. ^ Rudiak-Gould (2004:12)


Further reading[edit]

  • 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. doi:10.2307/3622863.
  • 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. doi:10.1515/tlir.2000.17.2-4.241.
  • Pagotto, L. (1987). Verb subcategorization and verb derivation in Marshallese: a lexicase analysis.

External links[edit]