Do you know what makes learning a foreign language easier? Its similarity to the language you already speak. And anticipating your question here – no, Marshallese is nothing like English (or any other tongue I happen to know). But they have something in common.
This “something” is vocabulary. You would be surprised to see just how many Marshallese words have been loaned from English. Of course, taking into account the history of the Marshall Islands, this is quite understandable – the country was part of the US-administered Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands for over thirty years, and since 1986 has been in free association with the United States under the Compact of Free Association. This close relationship – mainly the fact that Marshallese people may (as citizens of the associated state) travel to, live, and work in uncle Sam’s land – has brought a bit of America (or “Amedka” in Marshallese) to the islands. Which is wonderfully seen in the language.
I won’t lie, for me as a learner, that’s just brilliant. All the loanwords – even if they are “Marshallized” – are super easy to remember. Let’s look at the days of the week, for example. Monday is Mande, Tuesday is Juje, Wednesday is Wōnje, Thursday is Taije, Friday is Bōlaide or Bōraide, Saturday is Jadede, and Sunday is Jabōt (from “Sabbath”). Ok, so maybe the similarity is not so obvious here, but you will surely spot it in the names of the months. January is Jānwōde, February is Pāpode, March is Ṃaaj, April is Eprōl, May is Māe, June is Juun, July is Juḷae, August is Ọkwōj, September is Jeptōmba, October is Oktoba, November is Nobōṃba, and December is Tijeṃba. Don’t they look much the same? Actually, if you heard the words pronounced by a native speaker (or someone who is fluent in Marshallese), you would immediately know that they come from English.
Now, as you may have already noticed, some of the letters that appear in the English alphabet are nowhere to be found in the Marshallese alphabet. For this reason, “the English words” had to be slightly changed – Marshallized if you will. In his textbook, Peter Rudiak-Gould explains: “(…) since Marshallese has no ‘f’ or ‘v’, these sounds usually become ‘p’ or ‘b’ in Marshallese. In the same way, ‘d’ becomes ‘t’, ‘g’ becomes ‘k’, and ‘h’ is dropped altogether.” So we have: “kwōpej” [“garbage”], “naip” [“knife”], “wōteḷ” [“hotel”], “taktō” [“doctor”]. Would you have guessed? To be completely honest with you, after a while you really get a sense of how the two languages differ and what certain words can mean. Putting it simply, you start seeing predictable patterns. Yes, patterns. Let me prove it to you.
If you know that “tea” changes to “ti” in Kajin Ṃajeḷ, you will instantly decipher the meaning of “ki” [that’s “key”, of course]. If you know that “week” is “wiik”, you should have no troubles recognizing “piik” [“pig”] and “riit” [“read”]. If you know that “rice” is “raij”, you must at least suspect that “aij” is “ice”. Logical, right?
I have also found a few especially interesting words that reveal how creative Marshallese people are. And even though it’s no secret that language encourages creativity, I don’t think you expect what I’m about to show you. “Baḷuun” = “airplane” – from English “balloon”. “Tiṃa” = ship – from English “steamer”. “Pata” = ”war” – from English “battle”. “Piit” = ”dance” (Western style) – from English “beat”. “Kilaj” = “mirror” or “look at oneself in the mirror” – from English “glass”. Both a balloon and an airplane can rise in the air. A steamer is obviously a ship. A battle is basically a war. You need a beat (well, some people don’t) to dance. And a mirror is made of glass. You have to admit, that’s rather ingenious.
That is precisely why I am in love with the Marshallese language. It never ceases to surprise me. One day I’m not sure where to put “ke” in yes/no questions; the other I can ask “Where are you going?” without any difficulty. One day I’m trying to remember that “leddik” means “girl” and “ḷaddik” – “boy”; the other I come across a bunch of English-derived words, and they get into my head just like that.
Funny how unpredictable learning a foreign lingo can be. Well, I suppose we all have to get through those yes/no questions, before we can enjoy our “wiiks” and “piiks” .