Kapasen Mwoshlók: Speech of the Mortlocks

by on June 2, 2015

Mé mwmwan meet mwonson, iaa mwashan féérei iáái kapsen tiirou óómi, shóón pangei iáái mmak ie—sááilón re Mwoshlók mwonson. Iaa min kilissou reen náái sounpatak kewe, pwe úkkúúkún iáái kile, iaa angai sangei iáái sukuul reer. Amwusaala iáái tipis kare mii mwáál meet iké makkei. [1]

Before all else, I would like to ask for pardon from you all, the readers of my writing—most especially all Mortlockese people. I am very grateful for my teachers, because my knowledge was gained from my studies with them. Please forgive any mistakes I may have written.


Mortlockese—referred to as kapasen Mwoshlók ‘speech of the Mortlocks’ in the language itself—is a language spoken indigenously in the Mortlock Islands, an array of atolls and islands to the southeast of Chuuk Lagoon, within Chuuk State in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). There are approximately 7,000 speakers of Mortlockese living in the Mortlock Islands, with several thousand more elsewhere in the world, including other areas in the FSM, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Hawai‘i, and other states in the continental United States. This frames Mortlockese as a minority language, both in the context of the FSM—which has a population of about 100,000—and the world. However, although it might be tempting to automatically place Mortlockese in the “threatened” or “potentially endangered” category solely due to its small number of speakers, the language is still vibrant in many respects, including the fact that the newest generations of infants are raised speaking Mortlockese as their first language. With such strong intergenerational transmission of language, Mortlockese serves as but one of many examples—especially in the Pacific—of languages that have minority status but are not endangered.

Dialectal diversity

Mortlockese is best regarded not as a single language, but as an array of at least 11 dialects corresponding to the inhabited islands of the Mortlock Islands. Partly due to geographical distance, and partly due to sociocultural factors, the communities of each inhabited area of the archipelago developed their own distinct ways of speaking—and yet they still understand each other without any problem in communication. One of the easiest ways of observing these similarities and differences is in a comparison of vocabulary between the various dialects of Mortlockese. Here is a brief sampling across four such dialects: Piis-emmwar, Lukunoch, Satowan, and Ta. [2]

‘land, island’fénúfanéúfanúfénú
‘fly (insect)’mechchanglóónglóóngpitiring

Dialectal distinctions are easily (but not necessarily) mapped onto geography, since we tend to associate different ways of speaking the same language with specific areas: cities, villages, municipalities, mountain ranges, atoll groups, and so forth. To draw upon the US context, these distinctions can be made very broadly at the state level; for example, American English as spoken in New York is distinct from that spoken in Florida, or Alaska, or Hawai‘i. And of course, even within each state, there are more distinctions in dialects that cannot be captured at just the state level. The same applies to the dialects of Mortlockese. For example, on Satowan Islet, even though members of the community speak the Satowan dialect of Mortlockese, there are important differences in the speech of specific villages in that islet; these linguistic cues become signs of social identity (i.e., to which village one belongs). To return to the broader dialectal level, a person who says likúkkútong ‘small ant’ could be perceived by others that he or she is from Satowan Islet, whereas a person who says lengeleng ‘small ant’ could be perceived by others that he or she is from Lukunoch Islet. [3] In the table above, the first three words illustrate that vocabulary can be very similar across these four dialects. The last three words, however, show some differences across the dialects—although some words are nearly identical within small subsets (e.g., the word for ‘fly’ (as in the insect) is lóóng in both the Lukunoch and Satowan dialects). The dialectal differences are very interesting, especially considering that islets such as Satowan and Ta are adjacent to each other, sharing the same lagoon!

Grammatical features

There are aspects of Mortlockese grammar that are similar to many other languages spoken in the Pacific—most especially Oceania (Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia) [4]. One is the use of classifiers for both counting and expressing possession. Regarding counting, nouns must be counted with classifiers that correspond to what the noun means (or represents) in the real world. For example, the -shé category is used for counting flat objects such as pieces of paper, clothing, leaves, and planks. When it comes to counting round objects like fruits (e.g., breadfruit, coconuts, and noni), balls, and seeds, one uses the -faú category of counting. Living things like people and animals must be counted with the -man category. The following table illustrates this numeral classifier system for the numbers one to ten:

Nolong objectsround objectsliving things

Regarding possession, many nouns take suffixes that are directly attached to the noun, whereby the suffix expresses the “owner” (or the one who is directly related to the noun in some way). This table provides some simple examples:

‘our (inclusive)’pésheeshóóshnúrrish
‘our (exclusive)’pésheemamóómamnúrrimam
‘your (plural)’pésheemióóminúrrimi

The linguistic term for a noun that is possessed is possessum, and the “owner” is the possessor. Even in taking a cursory look down each paradigm, one can see a pattern of recurrent elements. In the paradigm for ‘leg/foot’ the element péshee- occurs in each cell, which is the most obvious candidate for the noun itself (i.e., the possessum). The elements after péshee- are the “variables,” and they correspond to the differences in the possessor. As they are written here, it appears that the possessor element is directly attached to the possessum element péshee-; the linguistic analysis, then, is that the possessors are expressed with suffixes that attach to the possessum. A more common way of talking about this is that “possessive suffixes” attach to the noun. Therefore, if one were to analyse ‘my leg/foot’ as péshee-i, then the element to the left of the hyphen is the noun, and the element to the right is the possessive suffix. A literal translation of pésheei in English would be ‘leg-my’ or ‘foot-my.’ Such patterns are common for many languages in Oceania, Insular Southeast Asia, and around the world.

It makes sense for the words meaning ‘tooth’ or ‘shadow’ to be possessable, since such nouns are objects that are in a sense “owned” by a person in relation to the body (e.g., ‘my tooth’ or ‘their shadow’). However, the word for ‘above’ in Mortlockese actually patterns like nouns when it comes to possession—it can take possessive suffixes. In other aspects of what is expected for nouns, though, it does not follow those patterns (e.g., it cannot be counted, and it cannot be the subject of a sentence). Nevertheless, this word meaning ‘above’ has the same meaning as the English word above. As such, the word óómw is usually translated as ‘above you,’ but it literally means ‘on your top’ (or even more literally, ‘top-your’).

Other nouns cannot follow this pattern of taking suffixes. Instead, the possessive suffix must attach to a classifier, and that {classifier + suffix} element precedes the noun. For example, mwangaaku ‘clothes’ must take the iaa- category of classifiers, whereas mwongo ‘food’ must take the ana- category. Here are a few examples:

Pronouniaa- (clothes, general stuff, etc.)ana- (cooked foods)féta- (crops)
‘our (inclusive)’iaashanashfétash
‘our (exclusive)’iaamamanamamfétamam
‘your (plural)’ióómianómifétómi

Therefore, to say ‘my clothes,’ one would say iáái mwangaaku, and ‘their (cooked) food’ is anar mwongo. Some nouns can take different classifiers to express different types of possessum relationships. For example, if the noun uush ‘banana’ takes the ana- classifier, it means that the banana is already cooked (e.g., anei uush ‘my cooked banana’), but if it takes the féta- classifier, it means that the banana is a crop that has been (or will be) planted (e.g., fétei uush ‘my banana to plant’).

Few, yet strong

Mortlockese may be a minority language in terms of the sheer number of its speakers, but it is a language spoken by people with a rich and vibrant cultural and linguistic identity. Consider the fact that there are plenty of other languages spoken in the Pacific Islands that have only had small populations historically—some as few as only a couple hundred speakers (e.g. on low islands like Satowan Atoll), others as many as tens of thousands (e.g., on high islands like Hawai‘i). The difference, of course, is that the past few hundred years have seen drastic changes related to globalisation that have affected even the most remote island communities. In the case of Mortlockese, it is potentially vulnerable to the changes brought on by the fact that Chuukese is the official language in the region. Not only are there more speakers of Chuukese (~50,000), but also Chuukese is the language officially taught in schools and used in public domains such as the government. Furthermore, English is the national language of the FSM, also taught in schools. In a country of at least 17 distinct (and generally mutually unintelligible) indigenous languages, any citizen of the FSM needs to learn English in order to communicate with other fellow FSM citizens. Mortlockese is also spoken primarily in coral atolls, which means that those communities are especially susceptible to the drastic effects of typhoons, tsunamis, king tides, drought, and sea-level rise. Such events that cause loss of life also decrease the absolute numbers of speakers of the language.

Nevertheless, one cannot gauge degrees of (potential) “endangerment” solely based on number alone. When the intergenerational transmission of language is strong in the home domain—which is where infants acquire language—and the language is supported in the wider community, then it has a strong chance of being spoken by the newest generations of parents, who then raise their children in the language, and so forth. This is the case for the Mortlockese language, which is still spoken as a first language by Mortlockese people across generations—including people who live in the diaspora. One important factor that promotes such intergenerational transmission is the overwhelming positive attitude that Mortlockese people have toward their own language. I have often heard people use the metaphor of shsha ‘blood’ when talking about identity and language: if they consider themselves to have shshaan Mwoshlók ‘blood of the Mortlocks’, then they must also speak kapasen Mwoshlók ‘speech of the Mortlocks’. Such ideas about “blood = language = identity” are powerful factors that encourage elders to raise their children in the language, as well as children to continue speaking their first language as they grow older, even though there are pressures—or opportunities—to speak other languages like Chuukese and English.

Furthermore, it is common for members of minority language communities to become fluent in the more dominant language(s) while not giving up their mother tongue. In the Mortlocks, young people develop fluency in Chuukese and English while still holding on to Mortlockese. Chuukese is primarily spoken on the main high islands of Chuuk State, several hundreds of miles away from the Mortlock Islands. People who are born and raised primarily speaking Chuukese as their mother tongue would probably develop fluency in English, but it is unlikely that they would go out of their way to learn how to become fluent in a minority language like Mortlockese. (There are exceptions, of course, especially with regard to factors like marriage, clan membership, and family connections.) In contrast, people who speak Mortlockese as their first language and who grow up in Chuuk State will most likely develop functional Mortlockese-Chuukese-English trilingualism. This may be a common state of affairs for minority speech communities around the world, but it is an amazing feat nonetheless!

Mortlockese is alive and strong, even if the total number of speakers of the language are so few in relation to the 7 billion people in the world today. Numbers, however, cannot tell the whole story when it comes to any given language and the outlook for its future. Resilience, spirit, and love for one’s mother tongue cannot be indicated (or predicted) solely by population numbers. There is much to learn from speech communities such those in the Mortlock Islands with regard to the factors that promote linguistic vitality for languages with small populations of speakers.

[1] Although Mortlockese does not have an official spelling system (in terms of being recognised in the government or in formal education), I use the conventions as developed for the Chuuk State language of Chuukese, with slight modifications. In many contexts—but not all—the Chuukese spelling system is used for Mortlockese. The following orthographic symbols have the following International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) values: <á> = [æ], <é> = [ɞ], <ó> = [ɔ], <ú> = [ʉ], <mw> = [m], <ng> = [ŋ], <pw> = [p], <ch> = [tʃ], <sh> = [ʃ], <VV> = [Vː], and <CC> = [Cː]. The other orthographic symbols have their expected IPA values.

[2] The dialect names correspond to these pronunciations in IPA, respectively: [piːsɛmːar], [lukunoʃ], [satowan], and [tɞ].

[3] This is a simplified example in which I draw upon my limited knowledge of the Satowan and Lukunoch dialects. There could be other dialects of Mortlockese that also use the words likúkkútong and lengeleng in the meaning of ‘small ant’; as such, those particular words don’t necessarily correlate to only Satowan or Lukunoch identity, respectively.

[4] In all of the subsequent examples, I draw upon the Lukunoch dialect of Mortlockese.

[5] In Mortlockese, ‘leg’ and ‘foot’ are expressed by the same noun: péshe. There are other words and phrases that distinguish specific parts of the leg-foot continuum.

Leave a Comment