Linguistic Descriptions
of the Kiribati Language

Stephen Trussel
University of Hawaii

1.1 General Description

Kiribati is the language of the Republic of Kiribati, a small island nation in the mid-Pacific. Independent since 1978, it was linked with Tuvalu to the south as the Gilbert & Ellice Islands Colony of Great Britain from 1916 to 1975, when Tuvalu began steps to independence.

The boundaries of the present country are vast, covering over two million square miles of ocean, but the total land area is less than 300 square miles, consisting almost entirely of small coral atolls.

The population of some 55,000 is the largest of any Micronesian-speaking area, accounting for about a third of the total number of speakers of Micronesian languages. Geographically, it is located at the southeastern limit of Micronesia, with the Marshall Islands to the north, and Tuvalu, a Polynesian group, to the south. The main group, the Gilberts, is composed of 16 islands stretching northeast-southwest, about five degrees north and south off the Equator near the International Dateline. This is where the bulk of the population lives, and the only area with consistent settlements throughout the people's history. It is the language of this group which will be discussed in this description.

Most of the country's area is to the east, encompassing the Phoenix and Line Islands, including Christmas Island, the world's largest coral atoll. A few degrees to the west is Banaba (Ocean Island), the only high island, which was once a source of rich phosphate deposits, today mined out. The Banabans, a closely-related Kiribati-speaking people, have resettled to Rambi, in Fiji. Banaba is about halfway to Nauru, another phosphate island further west. Both islands have had large numbers of Kiribati workers in this century, working the phosphate mines.

Although the atolls are quite small, and have an average elevation of less than 10 feet above sea level, they have proven be a very successful environment for human life, and overpopulation has resulted in Gilbertese settlements to parts of the Solomons, as well as working communities in Nauru, New Hebrides, and the Banabans in Rambi. The soil is shallow and poor, so little is grown except for dense stands of coconuts which provide one of the country's few exports, (in the form of copra) but the climate is favorable, and the bounty of the sea is rich, affording the islanders a relaxed and comfortable life-style.

Within the group the language is mutually intelligible everywhere. There are two major dialects, the Northern and the Southern, with the Equator marking the boundary. Tarawa, the capital island and major population center, is in the Northern group. Life on Tarawa has become increasingly urbanized, with office jobs and money economy, electricity and telephones, hard-top roads and buses. The influences of English language and culture are most strongly seen here.

The most northerly islands of the group, Butaritari and Makin, form another minor dialect area, for they share certain phonological features and vocabulary items which separate them off further from the northern dialect of which they are a part. Dialectal designations in the text will indicate N. or S. for the two main dialects, and But. for this third distinction.

1.1.2 Post-Contact History

The Gilbert Islands remained unknown to European explorers until early in the 17th Century, when the Spanish explorer Quiros spotted Butaritari. During the next ,150 years there were numerous sporadic sightings and minor contact, and in1765 the major voyages and explorations of the British Captains Byron, Marshall, and Gilbert began, resulting in the charting and recognition of the entire group by 1826. It is from this period (and the charts of the Russian hydrographer A.I. Krusenstern) that the islands became known as the Gilberts.

The early 19th Century saw the visitations of numerous whalers, continuing into the 1870's, and during this period a small population of European traders and castaways became established. The US Exploring Expedition of 1838-42 visited the group, and the linguistic and ethnological report of Hale, the voyage's ethnographer, provides one of the earliest and most interesting cultural and linguistic descriptions.

In the early 1850's the first missionaries arrived, Protestants from New England. The most notable of these was Hiram Bingham Jr., son of the Hawaiian missionary, and with him the spread of Christianity throughout the islands was begun. Bingham's mark on the Gilberts was quite strong – his translation of the Bible into Gilbertese was the introduction of literacy to the people, and he has been hailed as the 'father of the Gilbertese (written) language'. Although he left the islands in the early 1860's due to ill health, he and his wife and fellow workers produced and printed Bible translations, school books and eventually a major dictionary (published posthumously in 1906).

About 20 years after Bingham's establishment of the Protestants in the northern part of the group, French Catholics arrived in the south from missions in Tahiti, and began new translations, new texts and dictionaries, and furthering what would become virtually the total conversion of the natives to Christianity.

In 1892 the islands became a Protectorate of Great Britain and they became a colony in 1916, along with the Ellice Islands (Tuvalu) to the south. For the most part, the absence of any significant resource, except for the Banaban phosphate, resulted in a fairly congenial and successful colony. Education was primarily provided by Church schools, but government schools were also established. English was the language of government and became required study in all schools, although today there has been a return to vernacular study. The transition from colonial status to Independence was achieved relatively smoothly, and the nation continues to receive British support.

1.2 Linguistic Descriptions

1.2.1 Hale (1841)

Horatio Hale, the young ethnographer-linguist on the US Exploring Expedition of 1838-42 (The Wilkes Expedition), provided the first description of the vocabulary and grammar of the Gilberts. Stopping briefly in the group in 1841, including a visit to Tabiteuea, Hale interviewed natives and also two beachcombers who were taken on board, and who had lived on the islands for some years. Besides his cultural descriptions (he later achieved note as Boas's' teacher) he published in the reports of the Expedition a 965 entry "Vocabulary of the Tarawan Language", and a brief "Outlines of a Grammar".

Both are of interest and contain many example sentences. There is no suggestion of the [s] pronunciation of /t/ at this time (see below 2.2), and there are numerous words and a few grammatical points which do not seem present in the language of today.

1.2.2 Fabre (1845)

Fabre was auxiliary surgeon on the French Corvette "Le Rhin", which in September 1845 picked up a canoe-load of Kiribati natives who had been blown off course. During the time they were on board, being transported back to a familiar isle, Fabre managed to interview one of the natives, and produced a French-Kiribati wordlist of some 325 forms, virtually all of which are of actions or objects which can be pointed to or mimed. His description is impressive in its close correlation of the language of today, although again there are forms on his list which are currently unknown or unrecognized.

1.2.3 Bingham (1859)

Bingham's earliest essay at a grammatical description of the language was discovered among his notes, a brief handwritten "outlines of a grammar" including discussion of numeral classifiers, pronouns and relatives. He had arrived late in 1857. This was later expanded, and an apparent copy of the later work, dated 1881, was found after his death, and published by later missionaries in 1921 (later revised and reissued in 1945). About 60 pages long, it goes into most areas of the grammar along a traditional Indo-European format.

In 1908, his dictionary was published, just after he died. He had not returned to the islands since 1864. The dictionary, in terse glossary style, defined almost 10,000 words, by far the largest and most accurate dictionary to date at that time. Bingham's training at Yale had included classical languages, and his Bible translation is still highly regarded.

1.2.4 E.T. Doane (1860?)

A contemporary and associate of Bingham's, Doane was posted to Kosrae, but among his papers was found a small description of the Kiribati language, including a comparative chart of some 140 forms and corresponding terms in Polynesian languages. Much of the description is close enough to early Bingham work to assume that it was based on it.

1.2.5 Colomb (1881?)

This was the first major work of the Catholic missionaries who worked in the southern islands, a Kiribati-French dictionary of some 1,500 words, including much of Hale's material. Called "Vocabulaire Arorai", it describes the language of the southernmost island of the main group, Arorae, and was the first published dictionary.

1.2.6 Leray (1865)

Father Leray, another Catholic missionary, left a handwritten manuscript grammar in French, along strongly European lines, and with little novel material, but fairly extensive coverage.

1.2.7 Nantes (1898)

In 1898 the Catholic missionaries published another dictionary, this one Gilbertese-English (no author), containing glosses for about 2,200 words, and including some verbal derivations.

1.2.8 Catholic Mission Press (1930)

Although Bingham's dictionary came out in 1908, there was general competition between the Catholics and Protestants, including favored spellings, and the Catholics produced a moderate sized dictionary in 1930, with almost 5,100 Kiribati forms and an English-Kiribati section of about the same size, uniquely interwoven with the Kiribati-English. Definitions were particularly terse, often one word.

In perhaps 1920, they issued a Grammar and Vocabulary of some 1,250 words, but with extensive semantic sets, useful expressions, etc. These and subsequent works were dedicated to the training of missionaries in the language, and it is primarily the Catholic works which have the greatest scope and value, Bingham not withstanding.

1.2.9. Sabatier (1954)

Sabatier was also a Catholic missionary priest, and-produced a notable description of life in the islands (recently translated into English as "Astride the Equator"). His dictionary, polycopied and about 1,000 pages, is by far the largest, most complete and sophisticated of the Kiribati lexical efforts. Although not much larger than Bingham's in terms of main entries, many of Sabatier's definitions run for paragraphs or even whole pages, including detailed phonetic information, verb conjugation classification, derived forms, example sentences, presumed source morphology, related words and more. Although there are numerous typos and errors of both omission and commission, it remains the great lexical description of the language, but like much of the production of the Catholic Press, it was in French, and many off the new missionaries were English. Thus the publication in 1971 of Sister Oliva's translation of the Sabatier work into English.

1.2.10 Oliva (1971)

Unfortunately for English speaking linguists, Sister Oliva's translation of Sabatier would better be termed an English dictionary based on Sabatier, for the two works are only similar in the broadest form. While Sabatier was scrupulous in presenting the phonetics of vowel length and velarization for the majority of his forms, this information has been omitted from the translation – that is, no vowel length or velarization is indicated. Sabatier's careful assignment of verb conjugation and accompanying charts and explanation have been completely omitted as well, If these weren't enough, whole pages have (apparently inadvertently) been left out of the translation, and innumerable individual entries have disappeared, spelling changes (typos?) inserted, sections of definitions omitted or in many cases changed. In all, the linguist attempting to use Oliva as a suitable substitue for the French original must be strongly warned – it should serve as no more perhaps than an index or aid to perusal of Sabatier. This is the only dictionary currently in print, and distributed rather extensively in the Gilberts.

1.2.11 Kerouanton (1962)

Grammars produced by priests learning the Kiribati language are often passed along to newcomers. I was able to locate two of these manuscripts (see next) from the early 1960s, and they are both among the more sophisticated grammatical descriptions of the language. Kerouanton's is handwritten, and the smaller of the two, written in French. He includes extensive discussion of the problems of verb conjugation, setting up verb classifications which help to formulate a modern analysis of this structure.

1.2.12 Durrheimer (1964)

A contemporary of Kerouanton, Father Durrheimer produced a larger and more carefully organized grammar, of which I was able to locate a typewritten copy, also in French. This work also devotes substantial space to verb conjugation, includes numerous collections of archaic vocabulary, and treats most areas of the grammar in an insightful way. Much material discussed in these two grammars is not available in any earlier source. As they are manuscript editions, access is limited to those who can find a Library with a photocopy of the original.

1.2.13 Lambert (1960?)

Lambert's unpublished manuscript is a description of the Butaritari-Makin dialect, including extensive dialect phonetics, and wordlists, prepared when he was doing anthropological work in the islands. It is the best source for dialectal information of this area.

1.2.14: Groves (1976).

Another manuscript grammar, distributed in mimeograph form, and the largest of the grammars, was produced by Gordon and Terab'ata Groves – an American oceanographer and his i-Kiribati wife, with assistance from linguistics professor R. Jacobs at the University of Hawaii. This grammar contains more extensive treatment of syntax, with numerous example sentences, and extensive lists of morphological forms – more examples than previous descriptions.

1.2.15 Peace Corps (1979)

In 1979 I produced a set of volumes for use by American Peace Corps Volunteers: in Kiribati, including language lessons and a grammar. Between the two volumes they present the largest corpus of translated Kiribati sentences and texts, and the most complete pedagogical grammar to date.

1.2.16 Other Descriptions

The above sections have touched briefly on most of the major (and a few minor) lexical and grammatical descriptions of Kiribati specifically. The availability of this material has resulted in the inclusion of Kiribati in descriptions and comparisons of Micronesian and Oceanic, languages in general, and it is in this area that some of the more linguistically sophisticated analyses including Kiribati have been presented.

[See the Proto-Micronesian (PMC) reconstructions made at the University of Hawaii, Oceanic Linguistics 41, 42, 2003, Byron W. Bender et al.]