MARSHALLESE 25.0: I CAN BE POLITE

I have recently noticed that the lessons in the textbook I’m using are getting more and more “advanced”. It is definitely not a beginner level anymore, and I think I can officially say that I have moved up the language ladder. I now know how to give commands, make requests, and offer suggestions.

Almost three years ago I wrote that Marshallese grammar was simple. Do you remember that? Huge mistake – Marshallese grammar is not simple. Apparently I needed thirty-something months to finally realize that it is not going to be a walk in the park. Well, better late than never is what they say. But if you think that this realization has dampen my enthusiasm, you are terribly wrong. I am as passionate about the language as I was at the beginning of my journey and probably even more determined to reach my goal – which is to speak kajin Ṃajeḷ one day. So I work hard, even if it’s frustrating at times.

In the last two lessons I learnt how to form sentences which can give other people the impression that I am actually able to say something more than just “iọkwe” and “koṃṃooltata”.

First I got introduced to the subjunctive. It isn’t awfully complicated (yes, I know – a few lines earlier I wrote that Marshallese grammar is not simple; just bear with me here). All you have to do is add a special marker – “n” – to the subject pronoun and voilà! You have a subjunctive form which you can use to tell someone that “you want him / her to help you” for example. Of course, to make a sentence like this, more words are needed. One of them is “bwe” (here translated as “that”). You place it right before the subjunctive pronoun, adorn with other verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc. and your sentence – “Ikōṇaan bwe kwōn jipañ eō.” – is ready.

The trouble is that the same construction – bwe + subjunctive pronoun – can also mean “so that”. And if the word “bwe” is used without the subjunctive, it means “because”. Believe me, it can be a little problematic. The reason why being that to see the difference, you need practice, of which I have none. If you don’t put your theoretical knowledge to use, it is extremely difficult to feel … competent, if you will. But, what can you do? Other than keep doing what you’re doing?

So after I “mastered” the subjunctive, I learnt how to make commands and requests, in all possible ways. I can tell you “Go!”; if I feel I should do that of course (I am not an ill-mannered person!). I can be more polite and nicely say “Please go.”. Or I can be super nice and ask you to be kind and go. I can even make a question: “Could you go?”. How impressive is that, huh?

Seriously, though, I do believe it is very important to be able to express yourself courteously in a foreign language. Naturally, no one will ever think you are being rude if you tell them to sit, drink, eat, or give you something, especially knowing you are not a fluent speaker of their language. But adding a simple “please”, and perhaps a smile, is always the more desirable option, which your interlocutors will surely appreciate.

That being said, I absolutely love the Marshallese phrase “jouj im …”. Its literal translation is “kind and …”, and it is ridiculously easy to use in a sentence. You don’t need any special language skills – just pair it with a verb, and your polite request will be ready.

You know, I can’t believe that another year of my Marshallese learning adventure is nearing the end. Time flies; it really does. Learning a foreign tongue is quite a journey – there are ups and downs; sometimes you ride the wave, and sometimes the wave knocks you down. The most important is keeping calm and staying in the water. After a while – shorter or longer – you will notice that you’ve become a really good swimmer. That’s the whole point of whatever you’re trying to achieve in life – not to give up. The results will eventually come. And if they don’t, well … just be polite and smile!


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