MARSHALLESE 13.0: WHAT? WHEN? WHERE? WHY?

When you’re learning a foreign language, you’re often wondering: what does it mean? when to apply which grammar rule? where to put this or that word? why is the proper pronunciation so difficult to master? I’m sure you, dear learner, have asked yourself these questions hundreds of times. And although I would love to answer them for you, I simply can’t. But instead, I can tell you (all) about the WH-words in Kajin M̗ajel̗. Interested?

We all know what WH-words are – they are the words we put at the beginning of an English question when we want to hear something more than a short “yes” or “no” as an answer. They are also called “interrogatives” because, well let’s be honest here, we use them when we intend to interrogate others. (I’m kidding, of course. We use them to ask for specific information.)

Obviously, WH-questions exist in every language, including Marshallese. I was pleasantly surprised (yet again) when I discovered that they are quite easy to make. Not as easy as in English, but still easy.

So let me introduce to you the basic question words in Kajin M̗ajel̗.

ta – what? do what?

et – do what?

ia – where?

n̄āāt – when?

wōn – who?

etke – why?

jete – how many?

As you can see, “how” and “how much” are missing from the list. I have read in my textbook that they work a little differently (hmm…), so I will probably get acquainted with them later on.

Unlike in English, almost all of the above question words are placed somewhere near the end (usually at the very end) of the sentence. “Etke” is the only exception to this rule – it always goes at the beginning.

Interesting is the fact that even though I am not 100 percent certain where exactly I should put a chosen word, I somehow manage to create correct questions. Which I am ecstatic about, because this might mean I am beginning to develop Marshallese language intuition.

Now, if you allow me, I would like to ask you a few things. I hope I am not being too intrusive.

Kom̗ij itok jān ia? [Where are you from?]

Kom̗ar l̗otak n̄āāt? [When were you born?]

Kom̗ij jokwe ippan̄ wōn? [Who do you live with?]

Kom̗ jel̗ā jete kajin? [How many languages do you speak?]

Kom̗ij pād ia kiiō? [Where are you now?]

Kom̗ij et? [What are you doing?]

I can also ask you this:

Wōn in Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner? [Who is Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner?]

(She is an extremely talented Marshallese poet.)

Ta in “bwiro”? [What is “bwiro”?]

(It is a Marshallese dish made from mā [breadfruit].)

“Wōn in …” and “Ta in …” are special constructions that you can use if you want to say “Who is …?” or “What is …?”. Very convenient, isn’t it? Actually, there are two more question words in Kajin M̗ajel̗ that will make your life easier – “ewi” and “erri”. The former is translated as “Where is she/he/it?” or “Where is …?” and the latter as “Where are they?” or “Where are ….?”. So instead of a long(ish) “Junior epād ia?” [Where is Junior?], you can simply ask: “Ewi Junior?” and it will mean exactly the same thing.

So, WH-questions – check! They turned out to be quite alright. I’m pretty sure there is a lot more to discover in the question department – I have no idea how to make subject questions, for example – but I’ll take it slow. One step at a time is what they say. I don’t really have to rush forward. What I have to do is practise, practise, practise. Because practice makes perfect.

I must tell you, though, that now when I know how to make statements, negatives, and questions, I feel a bit more competent if you will. I have already gone through a large portion of grammar and it shows. Of course, I am still at the very beginning of my journey, but I literally feel that I’m making progress. Funny how the ability to make (uncomplicated) questions can boost your language confidence. For some people it may be nothing (my friends are constantly laughing at me), but if you’re trying (hard!) to learn any skill, the smallest success is a huge reason to smile.


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