MARSHALLESE 4.0: GRAMMAR, BABY!

Io̗kwe! [Hello!]

Ej et am̗ mour? [How are you?] Elukkuun em̗m̗an [I’m doing great.] As you can see, I really mastered all the basic phrases. The truth is, I’ve been repeating them day after day for the past couple of months, so I guess it’s not that big of an achievement. But even if it’s not, it means something – I have completed the first level, and I’m ready to take the next step, which is…grammar, baby!

Since I’m strictly following Peter Rudiak Gould’s textbook (I trust the author is a competent teacher, who knows exactly in which order the lessons should be learnt), I started my grammar adventure with the subject pronouns, that is the “words” you desperately need to create any sentence. So far, so good – they are simple and easy to remember. But, they are also a bit confusing. Let me explain to you why.

First of all, in the Marshallese language there are two pronouns for “we”. “Je” includes the person being spoken to (so-called “inclusive we”) while “kōm” (“exclusive we”) doesn’t. Second, Marshallese make a distinction between singular (“kwō”) and plural (“kom̗”) “you”, which is something a person, especially if their mother tongue is English, needs to remember. Third, exclusive “we” and plural “you” look enormously similar. “Kōm” and “kom̗”. Not much difference between these two, right? Well, the truth is you can learn to spell the pronouns without any problems, but their pronunciation…I’ll tell you this, it is complicated. I’m quite positive that all rim̗ajel̗ hear two perfectly distinct sounds, but for an average learner – like yours truly here – it’s not a piece of cake. I’ll manage though. Cause I’m determined like that.

Now, what I really love about the lingo is the fact that you can make simple (very simple) sentences using a pronoun and an adjective or a “special” verb (unfortunately not all verbs work like this). All you have to do is put a pronoun before an adjective/verb. Here’s the sentence “I am tired.” in Kajin Majōl: “Im̗ōk.” [“I” – “I” + “m̗ōk” – “tired”]. And that’s it. Done. Have you noticed that you don’t need any word for “am”, “are”, “is”? How cool is that? A few lessons and you’re able to express your feelings and emotions. I suppose I wouldn’t be thirsty or hungry in the Marshall Islands… Just a quick reflection.

Ok, moving on to the next chapter of my adventure: tenses. I can’t say I already know them inside out, but I’m slowly getting there. It seems that there are only four tenses in the Marshallese language: past, present, future, and near future. Not a lot, comparing to English or French for example. What is more, they are rather easy to memorize. The verbs stay the same, only the pronouns “change”. They require a special marker, which you add to the end of the pronoun. The present tense marker is “j”, the past – “ar” (or “kar” in the Eastern dialect), the future – “naaj”, and the near future – “itōn”. Even a child is able to learn and remember this. Especially that Marshallese don’t bother with distinguishing between simple, continuous, or perfect aspects. What’s important is when a situation occurs and not how it occurs or is seen by the speaker. Past is past, present is present, future is future; nothing else matters.

As of now, I can create only affirmative sentences, which are at a preschooler’s level. I drink. He drank. You will drink. We are about to drink. Anything outside this range – “Sione drank coconut water to quench his thirst” for instance – is beyond my capabilities. I feel that my theoretical knowledge is really decent; practical, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired. I am aware of the fact that studying a language takes time and patience, but I just would like to speed it up a little bit. So I could (finally) impress you with a nice complex sentence written fully in Marshallese.

By the way, after about 6 months of constant learning I’m still fascinated by this lingo. My initial enthusiasm for the “project” (I do consider learning a foreign language a project) hasn’t worn off. And you know what? I wouldn’t have half the fun if I had opted for German, Japanese, Arabic (ok, Arabic would be great too), or any other popular language. Yeah, Marshallese was the right choice. Definitely.


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