People interested in languages are usually suckers for language books. All kinds of language books: textbooks, phrasebooks, dictionaries, vocabulary picture books, linguistic volumes – you name it, they love it. Some of those books are of great help, others simply look good sitting on the shelf. Into which of these two categories does “Marshallese Reference Grammar” fall?

The publication – written by Byron W. Bender, Alfred Capelle, and Louise Pagotto – is an extensive study of the Marshallese language. It can be considered a “sister book” to “Spoken Marshallese: An Intensive Language Course with Grammatical Notes and Glossary” (by Byron W. Bender) as well as a companion to “Marshallese-English Dictionary” (by Takaji Abo, Byron W. Bender, Alfred Capelle, Tony DeBrum).


This 337-page book covers the phonology, morphology, and syntax of the Marshallese language. It comprises six extensive chapters (Introduction, The Sound System of Marshallese, Marshallese Words and Their Forms, Nouns and Their Modifiers, Verbs and Their Modifiers, Marshallese Sentences), which are further divided into smaller sections and sub-sections.

The first chapter gives readers not only a general idea of what is to follow but also some basic information on the country, its people and their culture, as well as the language itself. It also includes suggested further readings, which provide sources for more in-depth study of specific topics.

The subsequent chapters focus strictly on the intricacies of Marshallese grammar, beginning with the sounds and dialects of the language and then moving on to the two major parts of speech – nouns and verbs. The book ends with a thorough analysis of Marshallese sentences.

Ease of use

“Marshallese Reference Grammar” is a very in-depth book. It presents readers with the knowledge they need to (better) understand the Marshallese language. I deliberately use the word “understand” and not “learn”, because this title is not a textbook.

The blurb on the back cover says that “the grammar avoids technical terminology, especially in the early chapters, and is aimed at educated laypersons – teachers and college students – who either speak the language or are motivated to learn it”. Well, in my humble opinion, this is not entirely true.

The authors’ explanations may be confusing, especially for non-linguists and those who are not fluent speakers of Marshallese. By no means is this a book for laypersons or beginner students! It does use technical terminology and even though it is rich in example sentences (some translated word-for-word) and tables that highlight key information, ordinary readers will probably find certain issues and topics quite difficult to grasp. But then again, ordinary readers will probably not be interested in this publication.

One slight drawback I would like to mention here is the table of contents. Despite the fact that it’s very detailed, you may have trouble quickly identifying desired topics. Unless you are a linguist – then I think you will manage just fine.

Would I recommend it?

This is a question to which I will answer “yes” and “no”. Let me explain to you why.

“Marshallese Reference Grammar” is a great book for linguists and/or all those people who do have a broad knowledge of Marshallese. If you fall into one (or both) of these categories, you will surely find this publication immensely interesting and valuable. Read it and you will learn a lot, you will deepen your understanding of the language, you will improve your skills.

If you, however, are looking for a textbook – a nice, simple textbook that will teach you Marshallese – this book is not for you. If you buy it, it will probably end up sitting on your shelf looking good and making you look smart and intelligent. Unless… Unless you will try very hard to decipher what the authors had to say.

Yes, you can use this book even if you don’t have a good command of the Marshallese language. With a little perseverance and a lucid coursebook (like Peter Rudiak-Gould’s “Practical Marshallese” for instance; because you will need the basics), you may benefit from this title. Just don’t treat it as your main source of knowledge but rather as an addition – something that will complement what you have already learnt.

All in all, if you are serious about Marshallese, “Marshallese Reference Grammar” is a book worth having.

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