MARSHALLESE 23.0: WHEN YOU HAVE TO ASK FOR DIRECTIONS

There are times in our lives when we get lost; when we don’t have a map or a compass to guide us. Once this happens, our natural reaction is to ask someone else – someone who knows better, someone who is more experienced, someone who can help us – which direction we should go. If you lose your way in the forest, you’ll eventually find it. But sometimes you don’t know where you are while sitting in your favourite armchair.

I got lost. A bit. While sitting in my favourite armchair and learning about – wait for it – directionals.

At first it all seemed easy. Three words I had already had a chance to learn: “tok”, “wōj” (or “waj”), and “ḷọk”. They mean “to me / us” (towards where I am or where we are), “to you” (towards where you are), and “to him / her / it / them” (away from where you are and I am) respectively. Nothing complicated; you can memorize them without any problems. But – because when you are learning a language there is always a “but” – the way these words are used in Kajin Ṃajeḷ turned out to be slightly more confusing. Let me elaborate.

First of all, you can put “tok”, “wōj”, and “ḷọk” after most verbs involving the movement of something from one place to another. You do understand, right? If you don’t, this is how Peter Rudiak-Gould explains the rule. The verb “aō” means “swim”. If you add “tok” to the end of this word, you will get “aōtok”, which you can translate into English as “swim to me / us” or “swim to here”. In the same manner, “aōwōj” will be translated as “swim to you” or “swim to where you are” and “aōḷọk” as “swim to him / her / it / them” or “swim away”. This is still comprehensible. Let’s continue.

Apparently, there are a few verbs that always have one of the above words attached to them. Those are for example, “i-“ (“go”), “le-“ (“give”), “kā-“ (“jump”, “fly”), “rei-“ (“look at”), “lo-“ (“visit”), “jo-“ (“throw”), “jilkin-“ (“send”), “eḷ-” (“pay attention to”, “take seriously”), and “po-“ (“arrive in a boat”). Now the fun begins.

Sometimes, when you add a directional to the verb, it – the verb – will change its meaning, if you will. Let’s look at the word “delọñ” – “enter”. “Delọñtok” translates as “enter to me / us”. But in English, you would never say anything like this! You would use a completely different phrase. Instead of “enter to me” you would say “come in”, so “delọñtok” means just that. “Iwōj” – “go to you” – simply means “come with you” and “iḷọk” – “go to anywhere other than me and you” – can be translated as “go away”.

The few examples that Peter Rudiak-Gould shares in his textbook can of course be learnt by heart. But somehow I have this feeling that more words like these exist in the Marshallese language. And deciphering their meaning can be a challenge.

What is more, the word “ḷọk” – when put after other verbs – means “hurry up and …”, so you have to be careful here. “Itok ḷọk”, my friends, does not mean “come and go” but “hurry up and come”.

And, to complicate things even more, “-ḷọk” is also a Marshallese equivalent of the English comparative suffix “-er”. So you can say: “Ijeḷāḷọk eọñōd” – “I’m better at fishing”. But wait, isn’t “jeḷā” a verb? It is a verb indeed. Surprised?  Well, adjectives, adverbs, verbs… It seems that nothing is a problem for the Marshallese. Mind you, making a comparative verb is extremely practical. If only I knew which verbs I can do this with… Is there a list somewhere?

You know, when I began learning Marshallese, I thought that Marshallese grammar was simple. There are only three tenses, pronouns are ok, plurals couldn’t be any easier. Now I’m taking my words back! Marshallese grammar is not simple. You have to work hard to understand it. And the further you get, the more complicated everything becomes. I am wondering, will it be exactly the same with Hawaiian? Or with the Kiribati language, which I’m planning to start learning next year?


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