MARSHALLESE 3.0: MAY THE RAINBOW BE WITH YOU

Io̗kwe! [Hello!]

Ilukkuun m̗ōn̗ōn̗ō [I am very happy] that I’m (slowly) making (some) progress in Marshallese. Imel̗el̗e [I understand] more and more, which is something I’m extremely excited about. Obviously, I still can’t construct whole sentences, but I’m trying to use the vocabulary I already know whenever I can. And that is why today I will share with you some of the most beautiful and interesting Marshallese words I’ve come across so far.

I had a chance to study two foreign languages in the past, and during that time I discovered that vocabulary is an utterly fascinating thing. It reveals how users of a particular language think, how they perceive the world and reality that surrounds them. Let’s take, for example, the English verb “watch”. It means a) to look at somebody or something and b) to take care of somebody or something. If you think about it carefully, you’ll notice that basically taking care of someone or something equals looking at that person or thing (at least from time to time, to check if all is well; otherwise you’re not doing a very good job). However, in other languages you’ll find two different words that serve as equivalents of the two meanings of “watch”. Interesting? It is interesting indeed. But let’s get back to Marshallese.

What is the most-used word in Kajin Majōl? I can’t say for sure, but I do believe it might be “Io̗kwe”. In addition to being a common greeting (it means both “Hello” and “Goodbye”), it is also an expression of love and even sympathy. A truly “broad-spectrum” word, isn’t it? But how did it come into being? As the world’s biggest database – widely known as the Web – discloses, “Io̗kwe” literally translates to “you are a rainbow” or “rainbow on you”. It is a contraction, so to speak: “iia” means “rainbow” (in the Rālik dialect; in the Ratak dialect the word for “rainbow” is “jemāluut”) and “kwe” is a pronoun “you” (singular). Now imagine walking down the road and hearing somebody says with a smile: “Io̗kwe!”. Wouldn’t this one word make you feel exceptional? It is the most beautiful greeting in any language, period.

Actually, poetry seems to be omnipresent in Marshallese. I thought I wouldn’t be able to find a more delightful word than “Io̗kwe”, but apparently I was wrong. When I was reading Peter Rudiak Gould’s memoir, “Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island” (a terrific book, by the way!), I discovered the phrase for “tears” – “dānnin kōmjaal̗al̗”. The author explains that it translates as “the liquid of sorrowful gazing”. It sounds almost magical. And a little bit sad, because it somewhat implies that you can’t cry happy tears. This might be a cultural thing. Mental note to myself: check this with a Marshallese person.

Another interesting word I found is “aelōn̄”, which, according to Nik Willson’s Marshallese-English dictionary, means both “country” and “a large island”. Does this suggest that at one point in time the inhabitants of the Marshalls viewed each country as an island? Living in a remote place, they couldn’t have any knowledge of other lands. Is it therefore possible that this influenced the Marshallese language? I have no authority to speak on the topic (I’m not a linguist, nor am I an anthropologist), but it really makes me wonder. Especially that this is not the only word of this type. Another example: “enno̗” (or “neno̗” in the Ratak dialect) also has two different – yet similar – meanings: “tasty”, “delicious” and “edible”. In most other cultures something may be edible but not necessary tasty. In the Marshall Islands, well, it seems much more complicated.

I could go on and on about the Marshallese vocabulary (and I probably will in the future). It simply fascinates me. And because I strive to be a conscious learner, I delve deep. Plus, I strongly believe that language is the mirror of a culture. We don’t usually pay enough attention to notice that, but if we did, we would discover a whole new world.


A lovely Marshallese lady assured me that it is common to cry happy tears in her mother country. So I guess the literal translation is just a poetic way of saying things.


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