Gilbertese language

Gilbertese language

nativename=Taetae ni kiribati
states=Kiribati, Fiji, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu
fam3=Central Eastern
fam6=Central-Eastern Oceanic
fam7=Remote Oceanic
fam9=Micronesian Proper
agency=Kiribati Language Board

Gilbertese or Kiribati (or sometimes Kiribatese, a mixture of both) is a language from the Austronesian family, part of the Oceanian branch and of the Nuclear Micronesian subbranch. It is a verb object subject language.


The word "Kiribati" is just the modern rendition for "Gilberts", so the name is not usually translated into English. "Gilberts" comes from Captain Thomas Gilbert, who along with Captain John Marshall were the first Europeans to discover the Gilbert Islands in 1788. The official name of the language is "te taetae ni Kiribati", or 'the Kiribati language'.

The first complete description of this language was in "Dictionnaire gilbertin-français" of Father Ernest Sabatier (981p, 1954), a Catholic priest. This Dictionary has been translated into English later by Sister Olivia (with the help of South Pacific Commission).


About 105,000 people speak Gilbertese, 98,000 of whom live in Kiribati, about 97.2% of the entire population. The others are the inhabitants of Nui (Tuvalu), Rabi Island (Fiji), Mili (Marshall Islands) and some other islands where I-Kiribati have been relocated (Solomon Islands, notably Choiseul Province, and Vanuatu) or emigrated (to New Zealand and Hawaii mainly).

Unlike many in the Pacific region, the Kiribati language is far from extinct, and most speakers use it daily. Only 30% of Kiribati speakers are fully bilingual with English, meaning that the language is in no current danger of being swallowed by the latter.

Fishermen, sailors, farmers and people involved in the production of copra comprise the majority of Kiribati speakers.

Countries by number of Gilbertese speakers

# Kiribati, 98,000
# Fiji, 5,300
# Nauru, 1,700
# Solomon Islands, 1,230
# Tuvalu, 870
# Vanuatu, 370
# The 189 remaining countries, probably less than 370 each

Linguistics and study

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

Dialect listing

* Banaban (Banaba Island and Fiji)
* Northern Gilbertese (Makin, Butaritari, Marakei, Abaiang, Tarawa, Maiana, Kuria, Abemama, Aranuka, Tabiteuea, Nonouti, Beru Island and Nikunau)
** Butaritari/Makin (Butaritari and Makin)
* Nuian (Tuvalu)
* Rabi (Fiji)
* Southern Gilbertese (Tabiteuea, Onotoa, Tamana and Arorae)


Kiribati has 10 consonants and 10 vowels (5 short, five long) [Harvcoltxt|Blevins|1999|p=205-206]

Written Kiribati

The Kiribati language is written in the Latin alphabet, and has been since the 1840s, when Hiram Bingham Jr, a missionary, first translated the Bible into Kiribati. Previously, the language was unwritten. The letter 's' does not appear in the Kiribati alphabet, instead the combination "ti" is used for that sound.

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 (only heard 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 creation of new words. The Gilbertese word for airplane is "te wanikiba", "the canoe that flies".

Catholic missionaries would later arrive at the islands in 1888 and translate the Bible independently of Bingham, resulting in differences (Bingham wrote Jesus as "Iesu", while the Catholics wrote "Ietu") that would only be resolved in the 20th century. In 1954, Father Ernest Sabatier published the bigger and more accurate English-Kiribati Dictionary (translated into English by Sister Olivia): "Dictionnaire Gilbertin-Français", 981p. (edited by South Pacific Commission in 1971).

Useful phrases

*Hello - Mauri
*Hello - [singular] Ko na mauri
*Hello - [plural] Kam na mauri
*How are you? - Ko uara?
*How are you? - [to several people] Kam uara?
*Thank you - Ko rabwa
*Thank you - [to several people] Kam rabwa
*Goodbye - Ti a bo ("we will meet")



last =Blevins
first= Juliette
year= 1999
title= Trimoraic Feet in Gilbertese
journal= Oceanic Linguistics
volume= 38(2)
pages = 203-230

last =Cowell
first= Reid
year= 1951
title= The Structure of Gilbertese

External links

* [ English/Kiribati and Kiribati/English translator with over 50,000 words]
* [ Ethnologue report for Kiribati/by Amota A Merang]
* [ Gilbertese words collection for SuperMemo]
* [ Dictionary] with Gilbertese - English Translations from [ Webster's Online Dictionary] - the Rosetta Edition
* [ Bibliography on Kiribati linguistics]

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  • Gilbertese — ISO 639 3 Code : gil ISO 639 2/B Code : gil ISO 639 2/T Code : gil ISO 639 1 Code : Scope : Individual Language Type : Living …   Names of Languages ISO 639-3

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