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Te taetae ni Kiribati

The language of Kiribati

Grammar Handbook


Lesson 1


Nasals before other consonants

When studying a language, it is often useful to remember that the writing system is a set of symbols which attempts to represent the sounds of the language which are distinctive – those sounds which indicate changes in meaning.

In practice it is not always easy to come up with a set of symbols which everyone agrees on, and this has been the case with Kiribati, which was first written in the mid-19th century by missionaries translating the Bible.

Since that time, various writing systems have been proposed and used, and while a great deal of regularity has emerged, there is still no complete agreement on how certain sounds should be written.

The spelling system used in this text does not deviate much from those in general use, but it does attempt to make the differences in pronunciation as explicit as possible. (Specifically, this means that you will find many doubled vowels and nasals in this text, where in most other writing you would find only a single form e.g. marooroo / maroro).

On the following pages the sound and spelling system of Kiribati is described in some detail. You are not expected to master all of the intricacies of pronouncing and spelling Kiribati in his one lesson; please consider this lesson as an introduction only. You will probably find yourself referring back to this lesson as you work through the language program.

To examine the sounds of Kiribati, it is convenient to group them into vowels, nasals, and consonants.

1. The Vowels

a aa     e ee     i ii     o oo     u uu

Kiribati vowels may appear as both long and short sounds, and meanings of words will often be distinguished by this difference. As this is not a characteristic of English, some difficulty may be expected in this area.

It is in the representation of vowel length that many of the spelling systems differ. Often, length is not indicated at all, or only in some words. In this text length will be indicated by a doubled letter; it may be thought of as the sound followed by itself.

There is no restriction on vowel combinations; therefore long vowel strings may occur, such as in the word ruoia, a kind of Kiribati national dance. These vowel combinations may also be expected to provide some difficulty.

(Note: The following description of Kiribati sounds should be considered as a reminder rather than as a guide. Actual pronunciation should be learned from a native Kiribati speaker.)

a aa

This is pronounced like the a in father, or the vowel sound of hot, spot, not. While it keeps this pronunciation after b' and m', after b and m it has a sound more like that in cat, bat, or hat.

man   from; animal
maan   long time; animals
m'ata   caterpillar
mata   eye; color
baba   board; fool
b'ab'a   to drown

e ee

This is generally pronounced like the vowel in hate, cane, make.

ben   coconut
been   coconuts
tebe   to jump, dart, bounce up
enga   to be where?
reke   gotten
uee   flower

i ii

This has the sound of the vowel in heap, meet, speak.

ika   fish
iika   fish (plural)
ingaabong   morning
tiku   to stay
riki   to become
aiine   women

o oo

This is like the vowel of hope, coat, smoke.

ota   residue of scraped coconut
oota   light
koro   husking stick
roki   curtain
ongo   to hear
tooro   slaves

u uu

This usually has the sound of the vowel in moon, soup, boot. When it appears immediately before another vowel, it is difficult to distinguish from w.

taku   to say
takuu   curved
uee   flower
bua   lost
ruuruu   cleaning out a shell
um'a   house

2. The Nasals

m mm     m' mm'     n nn     ng ngg

Like the vowels, the nasal sounds may also occur lengthened, which may provide some difficulty for English speakers. This is another area in which spelling systems do not agree, often failing to indicate the additional length. For the most part these sounds are similar to those occurring in English.

m mm

Except when lengthened, this is basically as in English. Unlike the other nasals, it may occur directly before any nasal or consonant sound, providing some combinations which are rare or non-existent in English. (A following a has the vowel sound of hat, cat, rat.)

mate   death
mmanii   thin
mka   rotten
m'baa   to kiss
mronron   round
mte   small, fine
nama   lagoon
koom   comb

m' mm'

This symbol is only used before a, in which case the vowel sound remains like that in hot, top, or mock. (Some systems write ma for both sounds ma and m'a. In others, m'a is written mwa. It never occurs before o or u.)

um'a   house
mm'aane   male
mm'akuri   work
kanimm'a   adhere it
m'ai   cooked

n nn

The n sound is basically that of English, except that it too can be lengthened. It can also occur alone however, as in, the word N, (the pronoun "I").

nako   to go
kana   to eat
nnewe   lobster
ntabena   kind of crab
man   from; animal
N   I (before future)
nrairai   exhaustion

ng ngg

Although written with two symbols, ng is also a single sound, quite similar to that appearing in the English word singer (though not the sound in finger).

ngai   I
ngare   to laugh
kangaa   how
ang   wind
eng   yes
ngka   give me
ngenge   a begging look
uringga   remember it

3. The Consonants

b     b'     t     k     r     w

The Kiribati consonants may only appear at the beginning or middle of a word, never finally. They never occur adjacent to each other (although b' is usually spelled bw before i and e).

The spelling symbols for the consonants are not always good indicators of pronunciation, as quite a bit of variation occurs before different vowels, so some care must be taken to memorize the correct sound/symbol correspondences.


This sound is somewhere between the English b and p, and was often spelled with a p in some earlier systems. It is rather like the p in spit. (The sound of a following a is as in cap, hat, back.)

bane   finished
beebete   easy, light
koobe   coffee
buoka   to help
biri   to run

b' (bw)

Like m' this symbol only appears before a, where it has the effect of retaining the 'hot, stop, lock' sound of a. (Some writing systems don't use a separate symbol for b', using b for both sounds. It is written bw before i and e. It never occurs before o or u.)

b'aka   to fall
rab'a   thanks
bwe   oar, paddle
bwia   floor
b'aa   rock, oil
mb'aa   to kiss


This sound is some where between the English t and d, rather like the t in stick. When it occurs before i it is pronounced as an s (so that ti, 'only, we', is pronounced like see). In the Northern dialect it has this s pronunciation before u as well. (see next chapter on dialects. )

toka   to get on
tiku   to stay
matuu   to sleep
tei   to stand
mata   eye, color


This is pronounced somewhere between the English g and k, but rather similar to the k in skill.

karea   to throw
bike   beach
kiika   octopus
tiku   to stay
korea   to cut


A somewhat difficult sound for English speakers, it is made with a tap of the tongue, and sometimes sounds like a d or dr.

roko   come, arrive
rama   outrigger boom
bure   error
ririki   year
reirei   school


This is usually pronounced similarly to w in English, but is often between w and v. Before e it is always pronounced as a v. (It never occurs before o or u.)

waa   canoe
wetea   to call
kewe   to lie
wii   tooth
rawa   passage


In many cases these exercises illustrate contrasts in pronunciation as well as the simple pronunciation of a symbol. Practice reading the lists both down and across, getting the correct pronunciation from your teacher. After completing the pronunciation drills, practice hearing the contrasts by taking dictation from your teacher with the text closed.

a - aa

man   maan
b'ab'a   b'aab'aa
baba   baabaa
maama   maamaa
b'a   b'aa
kana   kanaa
bana   baana
bao   baao
tan   taan
m'ane   m'aane

b - b'

baba   b'ab'a
baabaa   b'aab'aa
baa   b'aa
bata   b'ata
bai   b'ai
raba   rab'a
baka   b'aka

m - m'

mata   m'ata
mane   mane
rama   ram'a
mai   m'ai
maaka   m'aaka
mka   mwenga
mb'aa   mwi
mronron   m'ai
mnaao   m'aane
mrara   moko
taamnei   mm'akuri
maninga   kanimm'a

e - ee

ben   been
beka   beeka
bebe   beebee

i - ii

ika   iika
tiku   tiiku
tibu   tiibu

o - oo

ota   oota
rota   roota
bora   boora
koro   kooro
toro   tooro

u - uu

taku   takuu
ruru   ruuruu
bubu   buubuu
bua   buua
tua   tuua


toka   katea
taka   roota
tiku   toto
tua   matuu
tei   matie


karea   roko
ke   ngkoe
kiika   bike
ko   baka
kuuka   toki
kunea   tiku


rama   rawa
rere   bure
riki   taari
roko   baro
rao   Beru
ruura   uraura


waa   rawa
wetea   kewe
wii   Rewii
wati   wene


nako   konaa   ben
nete   wene   kan
nii   kani   on
noku   bono   un
nuuka   benu   in

n - nn

na   nna
n   nne
karina   karinna
kana   kanna
nete   nnewe


ngare   kangaa   bong
ngea   kangeri   kiing
ngio   manging   ung
ngongo   ongo   tang
ngure   ibengu   eng

ngg - ngk

ngai   ngkai
ngkoe   tiringga
riingga   uringga

vowel combinations

ae   ai
mai   m'ai
bai   b'ai
aera   aira
taetae   taitai
tuae   tuai
aea   aia
bua   burae
tou   too
routa   roota
ao   au
mao   m'au
aoraki   auti
tao   tau
aon   karau
aue   uee
uota   ruoia
uaa   waa
aua   aoa
tua   tuae
bue   bwe
uia   wii
meang   aea
keu   ruoia
ia   ie
tai   tia
tia   tie
bia   matie
tei   ririu
nei   ngkoe

Section 2 - Nasals before other consonants

Some nasals before other nasals or consonants require the insertion of i. Some variation exists as to whether the inserted i is written, but in this text it will always be shown.

m m'

This is the only nasal which does not require the insertion of i before other nasals or consonants. (m' is not distinguished from m before nasals or consonants.)


Ng requires the insertion of i when it appears before another nasal (m, m', n), or before any consonant except k. This is the case both internally or at the end of the word before a word starting with m, m', n, b, b', r, t, w.

nang   about to
N nang kiitana Betio.   I'm about to leave Betio.
N nangi nako.   I'm about to go.
kang   eat
kangkang   delicious
tang   cry
tangitang   complaints, crying


N requires the insertion of i before the other nasals, and before all the consonants except t and r. (Nor before itself: taian nati.)

Because of the frequency of occurrence of n as a linking particle or genitive marker, it is often necessary to decide between n and ni, and so the environments for the change should be carefully studied.

rang + n + bati + n + raoiroi
very+ n +   much+ n + good
rangi ni bati n raoiroi= very very good
rang + n + bati + n + kukurei
very+ n +   much+ n + happy
rangi ni bati ni kukurei = very very happy


rua ni mate
  grave (pit of death)
nati n uea
  prince (child of king)
nuuka ni bong
  midnight (middle of the night)
baba n takataka
  copra board (board of copra)
kaain Onotoa
  person of Onotoa
kaaini Kiribati
  person of Kiribati
kaain Taiti
  person of Tahiti
kaaini Buritan
  person of Britain
kaain Ruutia
  person of Russia
kaaini Wereti
  person of Wales
kaain Nauru
  person of Nauru
kaaini Maiana
  person of Maiana
I konaa n tiku
  I can stay
i konaa ni karaoia
  I can do it
I kan tiku
  I want to stay
I kani karaoia
  I want to do it


Insert the i into the following phrases where appropriate:

um'a n kuuka
tang n ataei
bong n kukurei
burae n moa
oti n tai
kaain Amerika
boki n te reirei
mane n kirabu
kaibuke n kamb'ana
tang n kitaa
bong n te namakaina
Aro n Katorika
tabo n mm'akuri
kona n tiku
kan mm'akuri taan reirei
taan mm'akuri
taian titooa
taian kiika
taian boom

Kiribati page

© 1979, 2003 Stephen Trussel, ACTION / Peace Corps, The Experiment in International Living. The Experiment in International Living, Inc., prepared this handbook for the U. S. Government under ACTION Contract number 78-043-1037. The reproduction of any part of this handbook other than for such purposes as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, research, or other "fair use" is subject to the prior written permission of ACTION.