Gilbertese language

Gilbertese or taetae ni Kiribati, also Kiribati (sometimes Kiribatese), is an Austronesian language spoken mainly in Kiribati. It belongs to the Micronesian branch of the Oceanic languages.

Taetae ni Kiribati
Native toKiribati
Native speakers
(120,000 cited 1988–2010)[1]
Latin script
(Written Gilbertese)
Official status
Official language in
Regulated byKiribati Language Board
Language codes
ISO 639-2gil
ISO 639-3gil
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.



The word Kiribati, the current name of the islands, is the local adaptation of the previous European name "Gilberts" to Gilbertese phonology. Early European visitors, including Commodore John Byron, whose ships happened on Nikunau in 1765, had named some of the islands the Kingsmill or Kings Mill Islands[2] but in 1820 they were renamed, in French, les îles Gilbert by Admiral Adam Johann von Krusenstern, after Captain Thomas Gilbert, who, along with Captain John Marshall, had passed through some of these islands in 1788. Frequenting of the islands by Europeans, Americans and Chinese dates from whaling and oil trading from the 1820s, when no doubt Europeans learnt to speak it, as Gilbertese learnt to speak English and other languages foreign to them. The first ever vocabulary list of Gilbertese was published by the French Revue coloniale (1847) by an auxiliary surgeon on corvette Le Rhin in 1845. His warship took on board a drift Gilbertese of Kuria, that they found near Tabiteuea. However, it wasn't until Hiram Bingham II took up missionary work on Abaiang in the 1860s that the language began to take on the written form known nowadays. For example, Bingham was the first to translate the Bible into Gilbertese, and wrote several hymn books, a dictionary (1908, posthumous) and commentaries in the language of the Gilbert Islands. Alphonse Colomb, a French priest in Tahiti wrote in 1888, Vocabulaire arorai (îles Gilbert) précédé de notes grammaticales d'après un manuscrit du P. Latium Levêque et le travail de Hale sur la langue Tarawa / par le P. A. C.. Father Levêque named the Gilbertese Arorai (from Arorae) when Horatio Hale called them Tarawa. This work was also based on the first known description of Gilbertese in English, published in 1846, in the volume Ethnology and Philology of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, compiled by Horatio Hale.

The official name of the language is te taetae ni Kiribati, or 'the Kiribati language', but the common name is te taetae n aomata, or 'the language of the people'.

The first complete and comprehensive description of this language was published in Dictionnaire gilbertin–français of Father Ernest Sabatier [fr] (981 pp, 1952–1954), a Catholic priest. This complete dictionary was later partially translated into English by Sister Olivia (with the help of South Pacific Commission).


Over 96% of the 110,000 people living in Kiribati declare themselves I-Kiribati[3] and speak Gilbertese. Gilbertese is also spoken by most inhabitants of Nui (Tuvalu), Rabi Island (Fiji), and some other islands where I-Kiribati have been relocated (Solomon Islands, notably Choiseul Province; and Vanuatu), after the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme[4] or emigrated (to New Zealand and Hawaii mainly).

Unlike some other languages in the Pacific region, the Gilbertese language is far from extinct, and most speakers use it daily. 97% of those living in Kiribati are able to read in Gilbertese, and 80% are able to read English.[3]

Countries by number of Gilbertese speakers

  1. Kiribati, 110,000 (2015 census)[1]
  2. Fiji, 5,300 cited 1988[1]
  3. Solomon Islands, 4,870 cited 1999[1]
  4. New Zealand, 2,115 cited 2013[5]
  5. Nauru, 1,500, then 500 cited 2011[6]
  6. Tuvalu, 870 cited 1987[1]
  7. Vanuatu, 400
  8. Hawaii, 141 (2010 US census)

Linguistics and study

The Gilbertese language has two main dialects: the Northern and the Southern dialects. The main differences between them are in the pronunciation of some sounds. The islands of Butaritari and Makin also have their own dialect. It differs from the standard Kiribati in some vocabulary and pronunciation.

Dialect listing

Historical sound changes

Gilbertese reflexes of Proto-Oceanic consonants[7] (in IPA)
Proto-Oceanic *mp *mp,ŋp *p *m *m,ŋm *k *ŋk *j *w *t *s,nj *ns,j *j *nt,nd *d,R *l *n
Proto-Micronesian *p *pʷ *f *m *mʷ *k *x *j *w *t *T *s *S *Z *c *r *l *n
Gilbertese *p *pˠ *∅ *m *mˠ *k,∅1 *∅ *∅ *βˠ *t,∅2 *t *t,s2 *r *r *r *∅ *n *n *n

1 Sometimes when reflecting Proto-Micronesian /t/.
2 Sometimes when reflecting Proto-Micronesian /k/.


Gilbertese contrasts 13 consonants and 10 vowels sounds[8]

Bilabial Apical Velar
plain velarized
Nasal m n ŋ ŋː
Stop p t1 k
Fricative βˠ2
Flap ɾ3
  1. /t/ is lenited and assibilated to [s] before /i/
  2. The labiovelar fricative /βˠ/ may be a flap or an approximant, depending on the context.[9]
  3. /ɾ/ does not occur in the syllable coda[10]
Front Back
Close1 i u
Mid e o
Open a
  1. Short /i/ and /u/ may become semivowels when followed by more sonorous vowels. /ie/[je] ('sail').[11] Kiribati has syllabic nasals, although syllabic /n/ and /ŋ/ can be followed only by consonants that are homorganic.[9]

The /a/ pronunciation is closer to /ä/ except after velarized BW and MW.

Quantity is distinctive for vowels and nasal consonants but not for the remaining sounds so that ana /ana/ (third person singular article) contrasts with aana /aːna/ ('its underside') as well as anna /anːa/ ('dry land'). Other minimal pairs include:[9]

Short Translation Long translation
te ben /tepen/ ripe coconut te been /tepeːn/ pen
ti /ti/ we tii /tiː/ only
on /on/ full oon /oːn/ turtles
te atu /atu/ bundle te atuu /atuː/ head
tuanga /twaŋa/ to tell tuangnga /twaŋːa/ to tell him/her


Gilbertese has a basic verb–object–subject word order.


Any noun can be formed from a verb or an adjective by preceding it with the definite article "te".

  • nako (to go)
  • te nako (the going)
  • uraura (red)
  • te uraura (the redness)

Nouns can be marked for possession (by person and number). Plurality is only marked in some nouns by lengthening the first vowel.

  • te boki (book)
  • booki (books)

There is no marked gender. Biological gender can be marked by adding mmwaane (male) or aiine (female) to the noun. The absence of gender creates a difficulty with the words brother/sister.

  • te moa (chicken)
  • te moa mmwaane (rooster) (writing mwane is more usual)
  • te moa aiine (hen) (writing aine is more usual)
  • tariu[12] (my brother or my sister if he or she has the same sex of the speaker)
  • maneu[13] (my brother or my sister if he or she has a different sex of the speaker)

For human nouns, the linker 'n' may be used.

  • ataei (child)
  • ataeinimmwaane (boy)
  • ataeinnaiine (girl)

Agentive nouns can be created with the particle tia (singular) or taan(i) (plural).[14]


Singular Plural
Articles te taian

The article 'te' is neither definite or indefinite, it just marks that the next word is a noun and that it's singular, although it can be translated as "the" most times. The plural article is optional since there are many other ways to express plurality, namely in demonstratives, numerals, etc.

Personal articles
Masculine Feminine
Personal article te (tem, ten, teng) — Na Nan Nang form could be used in Butaritari and Makin nei

The personal articles are used before personal names. The masculine form is 'te' before names beginning with <i, u, w, b', ng>, 'tem' before <b, m>, 'ten' before <a, e, o, n, r, t> and 'teng' before <k, (ng)>.


Pronouns have different forms according to case: nominative (subject), accusative (object), emphatic (vocatives, adjunct pronouns), genitive (possessives).

Nominative Accusative Emphatic Genitive Possessive


1S i, n -ai ngai au -u
2S ko -ko ngkoe am -m
3S e -a ngaia ana -na/n
1P ti -ira ngaira ara -ra
2P kam -ngkamii ngkamii amii -mii
3P a -ia/i ngaiia aia -ia


Basic Masculine Feminine Human Neuter
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Proximal aei aikai teuaaei uaakai neiei naakai te baei baikai
Medial anne akanne teuaanne uakanne neienne naakanne te baenne baikanne
Distal arei akekei teuaarei uaakekei neierei naakekei te baerei baikekei

The basic 'aei' simply means "this", 'anne" is "that", 'arei' is "that over there" and are used after the noun. 'Aikai' is "these" and so on. The masculine "teuaei" means "this man", the feminine "neiei" means "this woman", and the inanimate "te baei" means "this thing". There's only feminine singular. The human plural serves for mixed groups.[15]


Time Place
Proximal ngkai ikai
Medial ngkanne ikanne
Distal ngkekei ikekei

"Ngkai" is "now", "ngkanne" is "then" and "ngkekei" is "later". "Ikai" is "here", "ikanne" is "there" and "ikekei" is "over there".


Verbs do not conjugate according to person, number, tense, aspect or mood.[16] These verbal categories are indicated by particles. Nonetheless, there's a passive suffix -aki as in:

  • E kabooa te raiti He bought the rice.
  • E kabooaki te raiti The rice was bought (by him).

Any adjective can also be an intransitive verb. Transitive verbs can be formed by the circumfix ka- (...) -a creating a causative verb, e.g. "uraura" (to be red) becomes "kaurauraa" (to redden). Tense is marked by adverbs. However, the default interpretation of the unmarked (by adverbs) verb is a past tense. Below is a list of verbal particles:[17]

  • a (immediate, incompleted and indeterminate)
  • tabe n(i) (progressive)
  • nang(i) (prospective future)
  • na (general future)
  • a tib'a (immediate past)
  • a tia n(i) (past perfect)

Copula verbs

There are no verbs corresponding to English "to be", so a stative verb must be used or a zero copula strategy:

Te tia mmwakuri teuaarei. (mwakuri or even makuri are usual forms)

A workman       that man.

That man is a workman.

However, there's a locative copula verb "mena":

E mena iaon te taibora te booro.

The ball is on the table

Existential verb

There's also no corresponding verb to "to have", instead an existential verb meaning "there to be" is used - iai.


Reduplication is used to mark aspect.

  • Partial reduplication marks the habitual aspect for example "nako" (to go) and "naanako" (to usually go).
  • Full reduplication shows the continuative aspect, e.g. "koro" (to cut), "korokoro" (to continually cut).
  • Mixed: "kiba" (to jump), "kiikiba" (to usually jump), "kibakiba" (to continually jump, to be excited), "kikibakiba" (to jump on regular occasions).

Adjectives can also be formed by reduplication with the meaning of "abundant in [adj.]" - "karau" (rain), "kakarau" (rainy).


The main negator is the particle "aki" placed after the pronoun and before the verb. The negator "aikoa" is for counterexpected situations.

Ko aki taetae: You don't speak.


Gilbertese uses classifiers for counting with numerals like southeast Asian languages (Chinese, Vietnamese, etc.). These classifiers are suffixes to the numerals: -ua (general, for objects), -man (animate beings), -kai (plants, land, fish hooks), -ai (fish, elongated objects), -waa (transportation), -baa (leaves, flat objects) among many others. It is a decimal system with -bwi as a "10 counting" suffix. Zero ("akea") is just the word for 'nothing'.[18]

Root With -ua classifier
0 akea -
1 te teuana
2 uo/ua uoua
3 ten(i) tenua [19]
4 a aua
5 nima nimaua
6 ono onoua
7 it(i) itiua
8 wan(i) waniua
9 ruai ruaiua
10 te tebwina


When arriving, the translation of the Bible (te Baibara) was the first duty of the missionaries. Protestants (1860) and Roman Catholics (1888) have to find or create some words that were not in use in the Gilbert Islands, like mountain (te maunga, borrowing it from Hawaiian mauna or Samoan maunga), like the serpents, but also to find out a good translation for God (te Atua). Many words were adapted from English, like te moko (smoke), te buun (spoon), te beeki (pig), te raiti (rice), te tai (time, a watch), te auti (house), te katamwa (cat, from expression cat-at-me). Some words of the Swadesh list did not exist in Gilbertese like te aiti (ice) or te tinoo (snow). But things that did not exist previously also interpreted new Gilbertese words: te rebwerebwe (motorbike), te wanikiba (plane, a flying canoe), te momi (pearl, from Hawaiian).[20]


The Gilbertese language is written in the Latin script, which was introduced in the 1860s when Hiram Bingham Jr, a Protestant missionary, first translated the Bible into Gilbertese. Until then, the language was unwritten. Long vowels and consonants are since independence (1979) represented by doubling the character, and a few digraphs are used for the velar nasals (/ŋ ŋː/) and velarized bilabials (/pˠ mˠ/). Bingham and the first Roman Catholic missionaries (1888) did not indicate in their script the vowel length by doubling the character. The discrepancies between the Protestant and Roman Catholic spellings have been an issue since 1895.[21] Neither clearly distinguished the pronunciation of the vowel /a/ after velarized bilabials, like /pˠ/ (bw) and /mˠ/ (mw), which result in discrepancies between old scripts and modern scripts. For example, the word maneaba should be written mwaneaba or even mwaaneaba and the atoll of Makin, Mwaakin. The Kiribati Protestant Church has also recently used a different script for both velarized bilabials, “b’a” and “m’a”, which are found in Protestant publications.

Gilbertese Spelling System[22]
IPA /ä/ /äː/ /p/ /pˠ/ /e/ /eː/ /i/ /iː/ /k/ /m/ /mː/ /mˠ/ /n/ /nː/ /ŋ/ /ŋː/ /o/ /oː/ /ɾ/ /t/ /u/ /uː/ /βˠ/


One difficulty in translating the Bible was references to words such as "mountain", a geographical phenomenon unknown to the people of the islands of Kiribati at the time and were heard only in the myths from Samoa. Bingham decided to use "hilly", which would be more easily understood. Such adjustments are common to all languages as "modern" things require the creation of new words.

For example, the Gilbertese word for airplane is te wanikiba, "the canoe that flies". Some words changed to translate Western words into Gilbertese. For example, te aro (species or colour) is now used in translating religion. Te kiri (the dog), found in 1888 vocabulary, is now less used than te kamea (from English, loan word).

Catholic missionaries arrived at the islands in 1888 and translated the Bible independently of Bingham, which results in differences (Bingham wrote Jesus as "Iesu", but the Catholics wrote "Ietu") that would be resolved only in the 20th century. In 1954, Father Ernest Sabatier published the larger and more accurate Kiribati to French dictionary (translated into English by Sister Olivia): Dictionnaire gilbertin–français, 981 pages (edited by South Pacific Commission in 1971). It remains the only work of importance between the Kiribati and a Western language. It was then reversed by Frédéric Giraldi in 1995 to creating the first French-Kiribati dictionary. In addition, a grammar section was added by Father Gratien Bermond (MSC). The dictionary is available at the French National Library's Rare Language Department and at the headquarters of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC), Issoudun.


  1. ^ a b c d e Gilbertese at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Henry Evans Maude (1961). Post-Spanish discoveries in the central Pacific. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 67-111. Very often, this name applied only to the southern islands of the archipelago. Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam Webster, 1997. p. 594.
  3. ^ a b "Kiribati Census Report 2010 Volume 1" (PDF). National Statistics Office, Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, Government of Kiribati. Archived from the original (PDF) on 30 September 2013. Retrieved 17 March 2013.
  4. ^ "Kiribati - Phoenix Settlement" .
  5. ^ Teariki, M. A. (2017). "Housing and Health of Kiribati Migrants Living in New Zealand" . International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 14 (10): 1237. doi:10.3390/ijerph14101237 . PMC 5664738 . PMID 29039780 .
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ Bender, Byron W. (2003). "Proto-Micronesian Reconstructions: 1". Oceanic Linguistics. 42 (1): 4, 5. doi:10.2307/3623449 . JSTOR 3623449 .
  8. ^ Blevins (1999:205–206) harvcoltxt error: no target: CITEREFBlevins1999 (help)
  9. ^ a b c Blevins (1999:206) harvcoltxt error: no target: CITEREFBlevins1999 (help)
  10. ^ Blevins (1999:207) harvcoltxt error: no target: CITEREFBlevins1999 (help)
  11. ^ Blevins (1999:209) harvcoltxt error: no target: CITEREFBlevins1999 (help)
  12. ^ with possessive suffix -u, my.
  13. ^ with the same possessive suffix.
  14. ^ Trussel, Stephen (1979). "Lesson 13" (PDF). Kiribati (Gilbertese): Grammar Handbook. The Experiment Press: Vermont Peace Corps Language Handbook Series. pp. 85–86.
  15. ^ a b c Trussel, Stephen (1979). "Lesson 19" (PDF). Kiribati (Gilbertese): Grammar Handbook. The Experiment Press: Vermont Peace Corps Language Handbook Series. pp. 126–129.
  16. ^ Trussel, Stephen (1979). "Lesson 31" (PDF). Kiribati (Gilbertese): Grammar Handbook. The Experiment Press: Vermont Peace Corps Language Handbook Series. pp. 203–208.
  17. ^ Trussel, Stephen (1979). "Lesson 37" (PDF). Kiribati (Gilbertese): Grammar Handbook. The Experiment Press: Vermont Peace Corps Language Handbook Series. pp. 239–245.
  18. ^ Trussel, Stephen (1979). "Lesson 16" (PDF). Kiribati (Gilbertese): Grammar Handbook. The Experiment Press: Vermont Peace Corps Language Handbook Series. pp. 103–109.
  19. ^ The script teniua is also usual.
  20. ^ [2]
  21. ^ Alterations in spelling adopted by the Roman Catholic Mission. From: Swayne, British Resident C. R., at Suva, Fiji. WPHC 4/IV: Inwards correspondence, 1895., MSS & Archives.2003/1.WPHC 4/IV.1895. File 393/1895. Special Collections, The University of Auckland. Accessed July 27, 2020.
  22. ^ "Te taetae ni Kiribati - Kiribati Language Lessons - 10" .


  • Blevins, Juliette; Harrison, Sheldon P. (1999). "Trimoraic Feet in Gilbertese". Oceanic Linguistics. 38 (2): 203–230. doi:10.1353/ol.1999.0012 . S2CID 143647044 .
  • Cowell, Reid (1951), The Structure of Gilbertese, Rongorongo Press

External links


Information as of: 20.08.2021 12:51:42 CEST

Source: Wikipedia (Authors [History])    License of the text: CC-BY-SA-3.0. Creators and licenses of the individual images and media can either be found in the caption or can be displayed by clicking on the image.

Changes: Design elements were rewritten. Wikipedia specific links (like "Redlink", "Edit-Links"), maps, niavgation boxes were removed. Also some templates. Icons have been replaced by other icons or removed. External links have received an additional icon.

Please note: Because the given content is automatically taken from Wikipedia at the given point of time, a manual verification was and is not possible. Therefore does not guarantee the accuracy and actuality of the acquired content. If there is an Information which is wrong at the moment or has an inaccurate display please feel free to contact us: email.
See also: Legal Notice & Privacy policy.