MARSHALLESE 2.0: THE ART OF PRONUNCIATION

Io̗kwe aolep! [Hello everyone!]

Eta in… [My name is…] (ok, that’s not really an important piece of information, so let’s just omit this part). Jiln̄oul juon aō iiō [I’m 31 years old.]. When it comes to introducing myself, that’s basically all I can say (or write, to be more precise) in Marshallese at this point. Two sentences. Not a lot; I’m well aware of that. But still, I’m proud as hell of myself!

Yes, my adventure with the Marshallese language has officially begun. I went through three lessons surprisingly smoothly. I remember when I used to learn French, I had much more difficulty absorbing the material (which explains why I don’t parle français fluently). Here everything looks super easy. Too easy, actually. There has to be a catch, but I will most likely find it later on.

You are probably wondering what I have learnt so far. Well, let me tell you what I haven’t learnt. Pronunciation. The Marshallese alphabet consists of 24 letters. Apart from the “normal” ones we all know, there are a few special characters: ā/l̗/m̗/n̗/n̄/o̗/ō/ū. While they look cool, which I admit, they are quite bothersome. I’m just unable to hear the difference between “m” and “m̗”, “l” and “l̗”, “n” and “n̗”, “o” and “o̗”. And you must know that I’ve been trying very hard to hear it. The author of “Practical Marshallese” writes that the characters with cedilla accent marks should sound a bit “darker”. Yeah… Explain “darker” to me, please.

Another somewhat problematic letter is “j”. Again, according to Peter Rudiak-Gould it is pronounced “halfway between pats and patch at the beginning or end of a word, or if there are two ‘j’s’ in a row; everywhere else, halfway between maze and the second ‘g’ in a garage”. Although this is a very thorough explanation, I couldn’t (well, still can’t) quite grasp it. So I looked for some videos on YouTube and tried to “analyze” the sounds. Big mistake. Now I am really confused. It seems that this particular letter sounds completely different in every single word! Either I don’t have a good ear, or it will just take some time for me to master the art of Marshallese pronunciation.

And then there’s the letter “d”. This one is pretty ok. It’s like a trilled “r”. I don’t have any troubles with trilled “r”. However, I am not sure if the letter “d” itself should be silent or not. Let’s take for example the word “jidik”.  Should it be pronounced “jidrik” or “jirik”? Tell me this, and I will be the happiest person in the world.

To be perfectly honest with you, I can’t even imagine what I would do without the pronunciation tips that are generously placed throughout the textbook – they are enormously helpful. Which does not mean, of course, that they make your pronunciation problems disappear for good. They don’t. That’s why I’m pretty sure that right now not even one Marshallese person would understand my words. Hopefully this will change in the future. Otherwise I’ll be communicating with others in writing only.

Now, please do not think I haven’t gained any knowledge, because I have. I know how to greet someone in more ways than I had previously thought possible. I know all the basic phrases that we commonly refer to as pleasantries. I can ask you for your name (Etam̗?), thank you (Kom̗m̗ool), or apologize to you (Jol̗o̗k aō bōd) with no problems. I can also tell you not to worry (Jab inepata) right after you tell me that you’re not doing so well (Enana). I’m quite bad at math, but in Marshallese I’m able to count almost proficiently. By the way, I love the Marshallese number system. It’s logical, easy to understand and learn. You want 573? Just add together the words: 500 (limabukwi), 70 (jimjuon̄oul), 3 (jilu) – limabukwi jimjuon̄oul jilu. And done.

I embarked on my lingo learning adventure a few weeks ago and I am already hooked. I start noticing some patterns, which I am pretty excited about. And even though I know nothing yet, I am happy as a clam at high tide whenever I can decipher the meaning of Marshallese phrases.

A couple of days ago I found this sentence on Twitter: Tōmak im enej tōbrak. Believe and it will happen. That’s my new motto.


2 thoughts on “MARSHALLESE 2.0: THE ART OF PRONUNCIATION

  1. I am in the same boat! I will be leaving for the Marshall Islands in July, for 1 year with WorldTeach and Am trying to learn a little Marshallese before I go. Definitely not easy given the lack of audio help out there!

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    1. Right? It’s not easy to learn a language when you don’t really know how the words should be pronounced 🙂 But don’t worry, with a little help of Marshallese people (who are super nice and always willing to help), you’ll learn the lingo. And maybe then you’ll give me some advice 🙂

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