Kiribati Languages

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Description[edit | edit source]

The people of Kiribati speak Gilbertese (also known as Kiribatese or Ikiribati), an Oceanic language. English is the other official language, but is not used very often outside the island capital of South Tarawa. It is more likely that some English is mixed in its use with Gilbertese. Older generations of I-Kiribati tend to use more complicated versions of the language. Several words in Gilbertese have been adopted from European settlers, for instance, kamea is one of the Gilbertese words for dog, kiri being the Oceanic one which has its origins in the I-Kiribati people hearing the European settlers saying "come here" to their dogs, and adopting that as kamea.

Many other loanwords have been adopted (like buun, spoon, moko, smoke, beeki, pig, batoro, bottle) but some typical Gilbertese words are quite common, even for European objects (like wanikiba, plane – the flying canoe, rebwerebwe, motorbike – for the motor noise, kauniwae, shoes – the cow for the feet). [1]

Over 96% of the 110,000 people living in Kiribati declare themselves I-Kiribati 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 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. [2]

Countries by number of Gilbertese speakers [3]

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

Word List(s)[edit | edit source]

Alphabet and Pronunciation[edit | edit source]

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. Previously, 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 (i.e. /pˠ mˠ/). Bingham Jr and the first Roman Catholic missionaries (1888) did not indicate in their script the vowel length by doubling the character. The discrepancies between Protestant and Roman Catholic spelling have been an issue since 1895. Neither clearly distinguished the pronunciation of the vowel /a/ after velarized bilabials, like /pˠ/ (bw) and /mˠ/ (mw), that 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 also recently used a different script for these two velarized bilabials, “b’a” and “m’a” forms are found in Protestant publications. [4]

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. [5]

Gilbertese Spelling System
IPA /ä/ /äː/ /p/ /pˠ/ /e/ /eː/ /i/ /iː/ /k/ /m/ /mː/ /mˠ/ /n/ /nː/ /ŋ/ /ŋː/ /o/ /oː/ /ɾ/ /t/ /u/ /uː/ /βˠ/
  • The letter T is very common, especially at the beginning of names.  The uppercase cursive T can sometimes be confused with the unlikely P or S.  Lower-case t is often written with the cross-bar shifted right, detached from the vertical stroke.
  • Lower-case g is the only letter with a down-stroke.  It exists only in the combination ng (equivalent to ñ).
  • The cursive lower-case n and u are about equally common and are not easily distinguished; lower-case n and r are more distinguishable.

Months[edit | edit source]

English and Kiribati forms may exist in the same document.

English Gilbertese (Kiribati) English Gilbertese (Kiribati)
January Tianuari July Turai
February Beberuare August Aokati
March Mati September Tebetembwa
April Eberi October Okitobwa
May Mei November Nobembwa
June Tun December Ritembwa

Names[edit | edit source]

  • Strings of vowels (3 or more) are common.
  • Names frequently include repeated syllables, e.g. bwebwe or teitei.
  • In foreign-inspired names where a J might be expected, Kiribati uses I or T.
  • In foreign-inspired names where an L might be expected, Kiribati uses R.
  • Prefixes, esp. Te, may run into the given name; watch for a capital letter following Te to start the actual name.
  • Before the late 20th century only a given name is typically given.  Later, a patronymic (father’s given name) is often added.
  • Watch for apostrophes placed between letters within names.

Language Aids and Dictionaries[edit | edit source]

Language Aids

Online Language Aids


Online Dictionaries

Additional Resources[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Wikipedia contributors, "Kiribati," in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia,, accessed 2 February 2021.
  2. Wikipedia contributors, "Gilbertese language," in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia,, accessed 2 February 2021.
  3. Wikipedia contributors, "Gilbertese language," in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia,, accessed 2 February 2021.
  4. Wikipedia contributors, "Gilbertese language," in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia,, accessed 2 February 2021.
  5. Wikipedia contributors, "Gilbertese language," in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia,, accessed 20 March 2021.