Essays on the Marshallese Past

Marshallese Naming of Birds

As with many traditional cultures, the Marshallese view of the avifauna can be split into two categories: those birds either edible or useful, and those birds with are neither. Following from this, the more useful a bird, the more names were used to express growth forms, plumage variations and the like. By the same token, those birds considered "useless" in the literal meaning of the word have often been named by genus and have not been differentiated any further. These birds, such as albatrosses (le), shearwaters (mntl) and petrels had in the eyes of the Marshallese the same general biological properties and the same culinary and technological uses and were thus not further distinguished. Furthermore, such birds were not very common on the inhabited islands of the atolls and therefore the human contact with them was not on a daily basis, thus reducing familiarity with the species.

On the other hand, birds which were common on inhabited atolls, such as terns, were differentiated, either according to their growth forms, such as the sooty terns (Sterna fuscata), whose adults are called mmej, while the juveniles are called Jipilia; by their breeding plumages, such as the Golden Plover (Pluvialis dominica) which in its normal plumage is called kwlej, but in its black breeding plumage lakeke; or according their colour phases, such as the reef heron (Egretta sacra). Domesticated birds as the chicken (Gallus gallus) are further distinguished by sex (Kako, male; Lolo, hen) and age (jendik/kwur, young; jenlap, old).

Traditionally the communications patterns within the Marshall Islands were confined within the two chains (Ralik or Ratak Chain) with little inter-chain communication. This let to the development of distinct dialects. Hence, there can also be some dialect variation in the names or even entirely different names for a bird, thus producing a variety of names.

The reef heron (Egretta sacra), an abundant bird on all atolls except the urban centres, is a case in point for the complexity of names, where all nomenclatorial aspects are combined. These are better set out as a table:

Ralik Chain Ratak Chain
General term kabaj kabaj
white phase keke Ana
grey phase melmela Kabaj, kake
mottled [black-spotted] phase kekebuona -
white phase, tame bird gai kaka

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Essays on the Marshallese Past Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

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