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Palauan language

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Palauan language

Native to Palau, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands
Native speakers
19,000[1]  (2000)[2]
Latin, katakana[3]
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-2 pau
ISO 639-3 pau
Glottolog pala1344[4]

Palauan (also spelled Belauan) is one of the two official languages of the Republic of Palau, the other being English. It is a member of the Austronesian family of languages, and is one of only two indigenous languages in Micronesia that is not part of the Oceanic branch of that family, the other being Chamorro.


Palauan is not a Micronesian or Polynesian language like most of its neighbors; rather, like Chamorro, it constitutes a possibly independent branch of the Malayo-Polynesian languages. Its origins are thus somewhat obscure.


The phonemic inventory of Palauan consists of 10 consonants and 6 vowels.[5] Phonetic charts of the vowel and consonant phonemes are provided below, utilizing the .

Vowel Phonemes
  Front Central Back
High i   u
Mid ɛ ə o
Low   a  
Consonant phonemes
Bilabial Alveolar Velar Glottal
Nasal m ŋ
Stop b t d k ʔ
Fricative s
Lateral l
Flap ɾ

While the phonemic inventory of Palauan is relatively small, comparatively, many phonemes contain at least two allophones that surface as the result of various phonological processes within the language. The full phonetic inventory of consonants is given below in (the phonemic inventory of vowels, above, is complete).

Consonant phonemes
Bilabial Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Stop p
Fricative θ ð s
j w
Flap ɾ
Trill r


Palauan contains several diphthongs (sequences of vowels within a single syllable). A list of diphthongs and corresponding Palauan words containing them are given below, adapted from (Zuraw 2003).

IPA Example English Translation
/iɛ/ babier "paper" (German loan)
/ɛi/ mei "come"
/iu/ chiukl "(singing) voice"
/ui/ tuich "torch"
/io/ kikiongel "dirty"
/oi/ tekoi "word"
/ia/ diall "ship"
/ai/ chais "news"
/ɛu/ teu "width"
/uɛ/ sueleb "afternoon"
/ɛo/ Oreor "Koror" (former capital of Palau)
/oɛ/ beroel "spear"
/ɛa/ beached "tin"
/aɛ/ baeb "pipe" (English loan)
/uo/ uos "horse"
/ou/ merous "distribute"
/ua/ tuangel "door"
/au/ mesaul "tired"
/oa/ omoachel "river"
/ao/ taod "fork"

The extent to which it is accurate to characterize each of these vowel sequences as diphthongs has been a matter of debate, as in (Wilson 1972), (Flora 1974), (Josephs 1975), (Zuraw 2003). Nevertheless, a number of the sequences above, such as /ui/, clearly behave as diphthongs given their interaction with other aspects of Palauan phonology like stress shift and vowel reduction. Others do not behave as clearly like monosyllabic diphthongs.

Writing system

In the early 1970s, the Palau Orthography Committee worked with linguists from the University of Hawaii to devise an alphabet based on the Latin script.[6] The resulting orthography was largely based on the "one phoneme/one symbol" notion, producing an alphabet of twelve native consonants, six consonants for use in loan words, and ten vowels. The 20 vowel sequences listed above under the heading Diphthongs are also all officially recognized in the orthography.

On May 10, 2007, the Palauan Senate passed Bill No. 7-79, which mandates that educational institutions recognize the Palauan orthography laid out in (Josephs 1997) and (Josephs 1999). The bill also establishes an Orthography Commission to maintain the language as it develops as well as to oversee and regulate any additions or modifications to the current official orthography.

Native consonants
Palauan letter IPA Example word
b [b], [p], [pʰ] bai "community house"
ch [ʔ] charm "animal"
d [d], [t], [ð], [θ] diall "ship"
k [k], [ɡ], [kʰ] ker "question"
l [l] lius "coconut"
ll [lː] llel "leaf"
m [m] martiliong "hammer (Span. Martillo)"
ng [ŋ], [n] ngau "fire"
r [ɾ] rekas "mosquito"
rr [r] rrom "liquor"
s [s] sechelei "friend"
t [t], [tʰ] tuu "banana"
Foreign consonants
Palauan letter IPA Example word
f [f] fenda "fender (Eng.)"
h [h] haibio "tuberculosis (Jpn. haibyoo 肺病)"
n [n] sensei "teacher (Jpn. sensei 先生)"
p [p] Papa "the Pope (Span. Papa)"
ts [ts] tsuingam "chewing gum (Eng.)"
z [z] miuzium "museum (Eng.)"
Palauan letter IPA Example word
a [a] chad "person"
e [ɛ], [ə] sers "garden"
ę [ə] ngalęk "child"
ee [ɛː] kmeed "near"
i [i] sils "sun"
ii [iː], [ji], [ij] iis "nose"
o [o] ngor "mouth"
oo [oː] sekool "playful"
u [u] bung "flower"
uu [uː], [wu], [uw] ngduul "mangrove clam"


Word order

The word order of Palauan is usually thought to be verb–object–subject (VOS), but this has been a matter of some debate in the linguistic literature.[7] Those who accept the VOS analysis of Palauan word order generally treat Palauan as a pro-drop language with preverbal subject agreement morphemes, final pronominal subjects are deleted (or null).

Example 1: Ak milenga er a ringngo pro. (means: "I ate the apple.")

In the preceding example, the null pronoun pro is the subject "I," while the clause-initial ak is the first person singular subject agreement morpheme.

On the other hand, those who have analyzed Palauan as SVO necessarily reject the pro-drop analysis, instead analyzing the subject agreement morphemes as subject pronouns. In the preceding example, SVO-advocates assume that there is no pro and that the morpheme ak is simply an overt subject pronoun meaning "I." One potential problem with this analysis is that it fails to explain why overt (3rd person) subjects occur clause-finally in the presence of a co-referring 3rd person "subject pronoun" --- treating the subject pronouns as agreement morphemes circumvents this weakness. Consider the following example.

Example 2: Ng milenga er a ringngo a Olilai. (means: "Olilai ate the apple.")

Proponents of the SVO analysis must assume a shifting of the subject a Alan "Alan" from clause-initial to clause-final position, a movement operation that has not received acceptance cross-linguistically, but see (Josephs 1975) for discussion.

Palauan phrases

Some common and useful words and phrases in Palauan are listed below, with their English translations.[8]

Palauan English
Alii! Hello!
Ungil tutau. Good morning.
Ungil sueleb. Good afternoon.
Ungil kebesengei. Good evening.
A ngklek a ___. My name is ___.
Ng techa ngklem? What's your name?
Kę ua ngerang? How are you?
Ak mesisiich. I'm fine.
Ak chad ęr a ___. I'm from ___.
Belau Palau
Merikel U.S.A.
Ingklis England
Siabal Japan
Sina China
Kę chad ęr kęr ęl beluu? Where are you from?
Kę mlechell ęr kęr ęl beluu? Where were you born?
Palauan English
Ak mlechell ęr a ___. I was born in ___.
Ng tela rekim? How old are you?
Ng ___ a rekik. I am ___ years old.
Ng tela a dengua ęr kau? What's your phone number?
A dengua ęr ngak a ___. My phone number is ___.
Kę kiei ęr kęr? Where do you live?
Ak kiei er a ___. I live ___.
Chochoi. Yes
Ng diak. No
Adang. Please.
Sulang. Thank you.
Kę mo ęr kęr? Where are you going?
Mechikung. Goodbye.
Meral ma sulang! Thank you very much!
Ungilbung pretty flower.

Palauan numerals

1 through 10

  1. tang
  2. erung
  3. edei
  4. euang
  5. eim
  6. elolm
  7. euid
  8. eai
  9. etiu
  10. tacher

Palauans have different numbers for different objects. For example, to count people it is: tang, terung, tedei, teuang, teim, telolem, teuid, teai, tetiu, and teruich. There are separate counting sets for people, things, counting, ordinals, bunches of bananas, units of time, long objects, and rafts.


  1. ^ The figure used here, for all countries, is from Ethnologue. According to the 2005 Palau Census, there are 19,000 people aged 5 years or older residing in the Republic of Palau, of whom 4,700 do not speak Palauan. There are thus 14,000 Palauan speakers in Palau. This number does not include native Palauan speakers residing outside of Palau.
  2. ^ Palauan at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  3. ^ Thomas E. McAuley, Language change in East Asia, 2001:90
  4. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Palauan". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  5. ^ Only 5 vowel phonemes are listed in (Wilson 1972) because she avoids the issue of how to treat indeterminate underlying vowels. The vowel chart here tentatively reflects the analysis of (Flora 1974), who treats indeterminate vowels as instances of underlying ə. Furthermore, the analysis of Palauan [w] in (Flora 1974) treats it as a phoneme distinct from /u/, while [w] is merely an allophone of /u/ according (Wilson 1972). The consonant chart tentatively reflects Wilson's analysis.
  6. ^ The final report of the Palau Orthography Committee was released in 1972.
  7. ^ See (Waters 1980), (Georgopoulos 1986), and (Georgopoulos 1991) for arguments in favor of treating Palauan as VOS. cf. (Wilson 1972) and (Josephs 1975), which assume an SVO order for Palauan.
  8. ^ See (Josephs 1990) for a more comprehensive list of words and phrases.


External links

  • "Online Palauan-English Dictionary". Retrieved 1 November 2014. 
  • "A Palauan Linguistic Bibliography". Retrieved 9 February 2008. 
  • "Airai, Palau: Language". Retrieved 12 October 2007. 
  • "République de Belau" (in French). Retrieved 20 June 2007. 
  • "PREL - Pacific Area Language Materials: Palauan". Retrieved 9 February 2008. 
  • "Japanese and Other Loanwords in Palauan". Retrieved 3 February 2008. 
  • Online Palauan-English Dictionary Database
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