The Kiribati Language reflects changes which have already taken place in the culture today. While changes in a language are inevitable, speakers of the language show different attitudes towards these changes. With the introduction of Western ideas and behaviours, new words have to be borrowed or invented to accommodate these foreign concepts.

In short, language is never static. It is dynamic and this is so anywhere in the world. Therefore, the Kiribati language is bound to go through changes. This is necessary if we want to keep up with the changing world.



The Kiribati language was first put down in writing by Rev. Hiram Bingham, Jr. of the Protestant mission based in Hawaii who arrived in the Gilberts in 1857 and, much later, by priests of the Sacred Heart Mission which was first established in the Gilberts in 1888. Even though none of them were trained in linguistics, they successfully accomplished their task of translating the Bible into the local vernacular, although not without some difficulty. They used different spellings in their respective versions and also translated some words differently.

For example, in the case of a Bible reference to "mountainous", Bingham adopted maungaunga,while the Catholic selection was tabukibuki. The word maungaunga is derived from the Kiribati maunga which has the sense of "high" or "elevated" and may ultimately be traced to prehistoric contacts with Samoans. The Catholic use of tabukibuki suggests an understanding that because mountains do not exist in the low coral islands of Kiribati, a word that means "hilly" in the local dialect would be grasped more quickly.

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Another case of the difficulties in translation of the Bible is seen in St. Mark 2.:11 "I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house". Bingham translated this as "I taku nako im, Tei rake, ao tabeka am kainiwene ao nako n am auti". Kainiwene is a compound word having the meaning of "an object to lie on", possibly invented to refer to the Western introduction of beds. Mr. Eastman, another missionary after Bingham, changed the word in the translation from kainiwene to kiem, which means "mat" in English. A mat was (and still is) more commonly used by I-Kiribati than a bed.

The Protestants spelled the name of Jesus as Iesu while the Catholics opted for Ietu. Such differences in spelling were resolved in later years when the Catholics agreed in general to conform to Bingham's language usages.

Linguists and others have invented signs by which they can indicate different sounds in written form, but usually this can be done in many ways. For example, long vowel sounds may be distinguished from short vowels by simply doubling the vowel or by adding a diacritic mark over the single vowel sign (a/aa or a/a). Also, the nasal sound "ng" as distinguished from the nasal "n" may be represented as ng or as n with the diacritic added. Other more complex sound differences can be written in similarly distinctive ways. In Kiribati, the aa and ng are more acceptable forms, whereas a and n a known by island readers but are not widely observed in writing practice.! Shop Mizuno Team Sports! Never Settle!

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With the changes taking place in Kiribati culture and the need to provide a standardised vocabulary for new ideas which are being assimilated, the Government has realised the importance of having a Language Board to ensure that I-Kiribati would be able to keep up with new ideas and technology from developed countries without discarding the fundamental component of their culture, that is, their language, as some unfortunate peoples in the Pacific Basin have done.

The Kiribati Language Board was officially set up in the mid-1970s within the Ministry of Education, Training and Culture. According to the Board's own constitution, its functions are to standardise the orthography and grammar of the Kiribati language, to compose and update a dictionary and to work towards development of a Kiribati literature. The Ministry of Education selects the Board's Chairman, appoints its members and allocates a modest sum annually for the Board's operations.

Board members number thirteen and are nominated from the Ministry, the Civil Service, the principal churches and the Tungavalu Society (now renamed Te Rikia n Tungaru). The northern and southern islands of the Gilberts both have a representative in recognition of the strong dialect differences between the two areas. Board recommendations on language matters are made to the Minister who, if he approves, forwards them to the Cabinet for final decisions.

The Board has had varied success in its attempts to standardise the local vernacular. In general the nation's schools, both public and private, have been co-operative in adopting changes. The national newspaper, Te Uekera, in its news reporting has implemented Board recommendations when approved by the Cabinet but not otherwise. Until recently, public hearings on language changes were not held regularly.

Some examples will illustrate the nature of the Board's problems in dealing with linguistic change. The English term "Commonwealth" is expressed in the Kiribati language as Kaomanuareta. This may be confusing because the last part of the word, "-reta", is similar to the Kiribati way of saying the English noun "letter". Again, the English word "minister" has two meanings in Kiribati which often leads to misunderstanding, that is, minister as a member of the clergy and minister as a government official. Everyone uses minita when referring to either individual and depends on the context to indicate which meaning is intended. Recently, there have been attempts to substitute Minitita for government minister and to reserve minita for the churchman, but popular usage has not changed noticeably. The local equivalent of "missionary" is expressed as mitinare.

The Board has also faced a problem which has resulted from the creation of Kiribati as an independent state. Before 1979 our culture, language and nationality were officially identified as "Gilbertese", after the name of the main group of our islands. With Independence, there were feelings among those in the new government that a local word should be used in place of Gilbertese. Tungaru is the traditional name for the Gilbert Islands, but the new state also includes the Line and Phoenix groups to the east, and these were never viewed as part of Tungaru. So the local rendition of "Gilberts", that is, Kiribati, was adopted to provide a compromised equivalent of the former colonial entity.

But then a question arose as to what form of Kiribati would be used as an adjective. At first, "Kiribatese" (after Gilbertese) was considered, as well as "Kiribatian" or just plain Kiribati. I-Kiribati, which as a proper noun was being used to refer to a local person, was also employed sometimes as an adjective. Recently, the Board has recommended and the Cabinet has approved the word Kiribati as the adjective and I-Kiribati (or I Kiribati, without the hyphen) as the noun. A long period of education will be necessary no doubt before the officially mandated words are accepted uniformly by the public, even though they will have been incorporated in the school curriculum.

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Older I-Kiribati have a strong resentment towards change in the language. Most of them are very conservative and are often very quick to criticise young people when the latter fail to use what they call "proper" Kiribati speech. Young folks tend to be careless in the way they use the language, both in the grammatical structure and in the vocabulary, and they tend to mix Kiribati and English in order to convey their message in a changing cultural situation. It does not mean that they have no words in their own language which they could adapt to their need. Some youths are quick to use English words modified by a Kiribati pronunciation, for example, boki for "book".

Despite the older generation's effort to discourage young people from misuse of words and incorrect grammar, many new words or slang terms of non-Kiribati origin are being introduced. A great number of these are borrowed from the English language and also from neighbouring Pacific Island vernaculars but some seem to be completely new inventions by local youth.

Most people, especially those who have had formal schooling, tend to converse in a mixture of Kiribati and English. A visit to one of the public bars will clearly portray this change. Not only will they mix English with Kiribati when they are drunk but it often becomes a habit even when they are sober. The older people are against this trend, and they often write letters to the newspaper or Radio Kiribati, saying very sarcastic remarks about those who speak over the radio in a mixture of the two languages.

Under the rules of procedure in the national parliament, members have the right to choose either English or Kiribati during legislative sessions. However, most I-Kiribati would rather have all discussions and debates in "pure" Kiribati. The Clerk of the Maneaba in Maungatabu recently stated in the national newspaper that there is a tendency for members to mix English with Kiribati because they are often pressed for time and find that some English words or phrases cannot be easily translated into the local vernacular. For instance, "the sovereign state of the Republic of Kiribati" is a phrase that would be hard to translate accurately. Generally, all proceedings in the parliament are conducted in the Kiribati language with a word or phrase in English added every now and then.

The young people see things differently from their elders. To them, the use of English in written form, and to some extent in oral communication, is more convenient. Obviously the younger generation is getting the upper hand in this conflict. Probably the changing world gives them some advantage over their more traditional elders.


In colonial days, English was considered as being the more important language. On all formal occasions such as conferences or the writing of petitions English was always used. Although English still maintains its importance today, the Kiribati language has now been given more or less the same status. It is up to the individual to make a judgement on which of these two is regarded as being more desirable in a given situation.

Almost all important government reports, documents and even the nation's constitution are written in both English and Kiribati. Should there be any misunderstanding of the text by the public, then the English version overrides the one recorded in Kiribati. Memos, letters and official circulars from one government ministry to another are usually written in English. However, when dealing more generally with the public interest, then the Kiribati language is used.

Radio programmes and newspaper articles are presented predominantly in the vernacular. Although many I-Kiribati would like to see Kiribati as the only language used by the media, some English-language features are currently retained on the radio as well as in Te Uekera, the national newspaper. It is important to note that changes which have been introduced in the Kiribati language are reinforced by their use in the media. Once a new slang word is adopted or invented by young people, there is a greater chance to see it in the newspaper or to hear it over the radio.


In Primary schools throughout Kiribati, the vernacular serves as the medium of instruction during the first three years, for the children come from homes in which Kiribati speech is preferred. In the fourth year, a transition to English begins with the teaching of that language. From the fifth through the ninth year, English is gradually introduced as the medium of instruction. Although this is stated to be the policy, the local speech may be used more generally throughout the Primary programme, especially in the outer islands where both pupils and teachers are more comfortable in the vernacular.

There is one school, Rurubao Primary School in Bairiki, that was first established years ago for the children of expatriates who came to the islands to work for the Government. The teachers at Rurubao are mostly I-Matang or white people, and the fees charged for schooling are extremely high. Entry into Rurubao is by examination. Today the school accepts some Kiribati children who are considered to be sufficiently competent in English.

For nearly a century, Primary education of I-Kiribati was a responsibility of Protestant and Catholic churches. Policies varied, as did practice, in regard to the language of instruction and the teaching of reading and writing. In Catholic schools, where many of the teachers were nuns from overseas, the English language received more attention. This was probably for status reasons and not from necessity since experience has shown that most of the expatriate teachers became fluent in the vernacular in a remarkably short time. In the Protestant schools, the case was somewhat different in that most of the teachers were local people, working under the direction of I-Matang missionaries who also assisted in production of textbook materials in the Kiribati language.

After the Government took responsibility for Primary education, first from the Protestant Church in the early 1950s and later from the Catholic Church in the late 1970s, language policy varied. A strong push from the Government in the 1960s attempted to give more emphasis to English as a preparation of I-Kiribati for a more active role in Western-oriented economic and governmental activities. More recently, however, the trend is towards a reasonable mix of Kiribati and English and more attention to Kiribati culture in the curriculum. Classroom materials for the latter are produced by Kiribati trainees in the Tarawa Teachers College. These students are also trained in Vernacular Studies. A standardised curriculum is applied in all Primary schools at the present time.

As children continue their studies at the Secondary school level, the emphasis is definitely given to English. All subjects are taught in that language, except in a course on Kiribati Studies where the vernacular is used for all instruction. Children generally find it hard to deal with the English language when they first go to high school. The exception occurs among those who come from Primary schools in South Tarawa, Banaba and Nauru where they have been exposed to a more urbanised and English-speaking environment.

Churches in Kiribati often conduct their services in the local language and some of these are broadcast on the radio. Hymns are always sung in the vernacular, although most were originally composed in Latin or English. One church in South Tarawa does not have a qualified local minister and therefore an expatriate is recruited to serve in that capacity. Although the services are consequently conducted in English, an interpreter translates the minister's sermons.


The state of Kiribati vernacular literature is very limited. Thus, it is difficult for the general public to find reading material in their own language. The government newspaper, Te Uekera, is not read much on the outer islands owing to the lack of "interesting" articles, to the problem of dispatching the issues promptly from South Tarawa or simply because most people cannot afford to buy the paper.

The principal religious denominations put out monthly newsletters which attract more readers in the outer islands than in South Tarawa. This success may be due to the fact that most outer islanders are religious enthusiasts who are more interested in what is going on in the church and its teachings than in the political and economic issues or advertisements contained in Te Uekera. These newsletters are written entirely in the vernacular. Other church publications are usually in the local language also, which means that I-Kiribati are more exposed to the written form of their language through church publications than through government reports and other documents available to the public.

Both the Ministry of Education and the Broadcasting and Publication Authority play a major role in encouraging potential writers to reduce short stories either in English or the vernacular. Monetary prizes are awarded to the winners of a short-story writing competition. Contestants are divided into three categories according to age. The first group consists of Primary school pupils, the second is in the age range of Secondary school students and the third is made up of adults. This gives everyone who wants to write an opportunity to exploit his or her talent in written expression. The criteria for selecting the winners include the content of the story and the writer's ability to follow generally recognised practice in both grammar and spelling.

To date, there is really but one major educational book produced in the vernacular. This is the translation of Kiribati: Aspects of History (1979), entitled Taraan Karakin Kiribati and written entirely by local authors. It was carefully edited by "experts" in the Kiribati language, obviously including persons on the Kiribati Language Board. This publication has attracted at least two groups of readers in Kiribati. The first consists of the elders, who are interested in the myths, legends and historical accounts of their islands. It is not that they want to gain information from the book so much as to test the accuracy of the stories and to criticise them if they do not agree with the versions of those stories which they themselves know. All myths and legends have different versions in the different islands and are popular topics for argument amongst the elders. The other group is the younger generation who tend to favour the English edition of the book, using it to collect information for classroom assignments or to read it just for the pleasure it gives them.

As yet, one cannot draw firm conclusions about the influence which publications in Kiribati language may have had on the orthography or selling practices, since there are not near enough materials published in the vernacular to provide models for the way people write their language.


In the outer islands, the Kiribati language is not in any immediate danger of being lost as a consequence of influences from foreign countries nor is it faced with serious linguistic problems as a result of introduced technologies from developed and industrial nations. In South Tarawa, however, the situation appears to be more critical, for here is where I-Kiribati are in more direct contact with Western culture. Hopefully, I-Kiribati will be able to adjust to the changing environment to become more aware of the increasing threat to their language and culture. Precautions are necessary to counteract undesirable impact on the language.

The Kiribati Language Board now seems well prepared to initiate actions that may help to minimise problems affecting the language in times to come. One of the principal problems identified at this stage is standardisation of the Kiribati orthography and structure.

A comparison of words and phrases from the two northernmost islands - Makin and Butaritari - with those from the rest of Kiribati illustrates a special issue posed by dialectical differences which exist within the nation

What is your name?
What is it?
I can't hear, you.   
Come here, you.
They/them (those people)
These people.  
Nanta aram?   
I aki n ongo.
Kuriko naerea.
Other Islands
Antai aram?
I aki ongo.
Nakomai nao.

Such differences exist not only between the two abovementioned islands and the rest of Kiribati but they also occur more generally between the northern and southern groups on the Gilberts. An example of this diversity is clearly shown in the send-person singular pronoun which is pronounced ngke in the north and ngkoe in the south. Even between islands in the same group one will find differences in speech but these are less obvious to the untrained ear.

In this regard, the question facing the Language Board is whether to standardise the Kiribati orthography using the southern dialect as the base (which tends to be the present practise) or to incorporate features from both southern and northern dialects, not to mention the unique speech forms of Makin and Butaritari. If the board favours usages in the south it will discriminate against preferences in the north. What criteria can be adopted to standardise vocabulary for all Kiribati? Who will be the losers by such a decision?

In the meantime, the children of Makin and Butaritari are required in school to learn a brand of Kiribati which is different from the language they use everyday. As a result they are starting to replace some of their own words and phrases with those used in the rest of the islands. Are I-Kiribati a a nation prepared to destroy a vital component of the culture of these people in the far north, unique as it is, and to mould it in the way that others want it to be?

The dialect of Makin/Butaritari has undergone more changes already as compared with language used in the rest of Kiribati. But most of these changes are due not so much to introduction of Western ideas as they are to the imposition of words and phrases from the other islands through classroom instruction and the mass media.

One further change that is likely to need consideration is the addition of some new letters to the Kiribati alphabet, namely p,v and s. The reason is that I-Kiribati are now using acronyms such as PUB (Public Utilities Board) and PVU (Plant and Vehicle Unit), to mention only two. Although many I-Kiribati favour the adoption of such letter combinations as common practice, the Board will want to justify the grounds on which such decisions would be recommended.

The Board has been very systematic in reaching its decisions but it needs to exercise caution in anticipating both positive and negative effects that implementation may have on the language generally. Its present method of conducting public hearings on a given issue may well disadvantage the minority whose dialect and cultural values are as important to them as are others to the majority. While these are only some of the problems confronting the Board, there is as yet no overriding concern that any large-scale destruction of the Kiribati language is imminent.                                        

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