Mother Tongue Tuesday (on Wednesday): Marshallese

Topics: Language LearningMother Tongue TuesdayUncategorizedwords

The other day in my 1000 Places to Visit Before you Die calendar, I saw Chuuk Lagoon. It sits in the Pacific, far out and filled with sunken Japanese ships. Because it was the naval base for most of the Japanese Imperial fleet, the U.S. bombed the lagoon in 1944.

Now it’s a graveyard and a place where divers love to look under the sea for hulking ships as they slowly corrode away while worrying environmentalists about their leaking oil.

Some of my students come from places near these islands that sprinkle the Pacific. One moved to Washington from the Marshall Islands, which the United States used to launch the attack on the Chuuk Lagoon in World War II. The Marshallese student brought me this headdress I would love have the guts to wear. The next time a crown is in the dress code, I will be ready to go.

Marshallese Tidbits (from Wikipedia and Ethnologue) 

  • This language was much harder to find great chunks of information about since only about 55,000 people speak it. The UCLA Language Project which I so often go to has nothing on Marshallese. Still, it’s use is described as ‘vigorous’ in Ethnolgue and I know my former student and his friends communicate in it frequently because I’ve seen their Facebook posts on my instructor account.
  • It’s has several classifications, including Austronesian and Malayo-Polynesian.
  • Marshallese is also known as Ebon and has two major dialects.
  • One of its closest linguistic relatives is Chuukese, the language spoken on the islands in my calendar.
  • It has many consonants with with a grand variety in ways to form them from patatilized to velarized — two things that push at my memory of pronunciation but which I would struggle to fully explain.
  • Marshallese does complicated things with its pronouns and with word order that involve markers and a radically different way of dealing with nouns.

One of the first things my student told me about his islands involved nuclear testing and its lasting effects on the area. Once again, I learned much from a person in my class, but sometimes I wish they wouldn’t teach me so much. My ignorance on this subject was much more comfortable than knowing what happened when we blew up another pristine place in the world and how it keeps affecting people today.

At least the people there were able to retain their fascinating language with forms and sounds so different from English. I do hope we will be able to do more in the future to help the Marshallese and their words flourish.




About the author: Karrie Zylstra Myton is a blogger, essayist, and aspiring author who writes for the wild joy it brings on the best days and the hard lessons she learns about life on the worst. After crafting stories in the ridiculously early morning hours, she chases her two sons, cuddles with cats, and laughs with her husband about how crazy life can get in middle age.

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