Marshall Islands - Orientation

Identification. The Republic of the Marshall Islands, formerly part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, gained independence as part of a Compact of Free Association with the United States in 1986. Marshall Islanders now speak mutually intelligible dialects of the same language, and each atoll group recognizes cultural affinities with at least some other atolls in its area. In precolonial times sporadic contact was maintained among all atolls—even the most distant—and occasionally the strongest chiefs were able to extend their reign over several atolls of the central Ratak or Rālik cultures for short periods of time. A common Marshall Islands identity, however, is a volatile notion developed in response to Western geopolitical agendas.

Location. The Marshall Islands cover an area of 1.95 Million square kilometers in the west central Pacific Ocean, with a combined land mass of just under 180 square kilometers. The group is located between 160° and 173° E and 4° and 20° N. Its twenty-nine atolls (nineteen currently inhabited) and five coral pinnacles (four with human occupants) are simultaneously linked together and separated by the sea. The vast stretches of ocean help maintain an average temperature of 27° C with very little diurnal or yearly variation. Rainfall increases as one nears the equator, with around 152 centimeters per year in the north and 460 centimeters per year in the south. The dry part of the year, December through April, is typified by brisk breezes, and the central month of the wet season, August, may have periods of total calm. For much of the year, a light trade wind, most often northeasterly, provides mellow air conditioning. Typhoons, however, are not uncommon in the winter months.

Demography. The population of the islands in 1988 was 43,335, with the vast majority of people concentrated on the capital, Majuro Atoll (19,664), and on Ebeye, Kwajalein Atoll (8,277), across from the missile testing and tracking center on the Kwajalein islet. In the 1850s and 1860s missionaries very roughly estimated individual atoll populations to be between 100 and 2,000-3,000. The port towns and Government centers supported by three waves of colonizers (Germany, Japan, and the United States) have provided the impetus and ability to alter the delicate balance between human populations and local atoll environments.

Linguistic Affiliation. Marshallese is a member of the Micronesian Family of the Oceanic Austronesian languages, and it shares the largest number of roots with the languages of Fiji, Nauru, and nearby locales like Pohnpei. Currently there are three dialects of Marshallese, though greater diversity undoubtedly existed in the nineteenth century. Translations of the Bible in the 1860s and 1870s made a missionary-inspired variant of Rālik dialect the standard for over a century. This text, read by nearly every Marshallese, was retranslated in a less awkward style in the 1970s and 1980s. Ratak dialect, spoken in the windward atolls of the Marshall Islands, is grammatically similar but lexically distinct from Rālik dialect, and Enewetak and Ujelang modes of speaking once differed so radically in both lexicon and grammar as to be considered a totally different language by local residents. The construction of a common dictionary and standard grammar has become one unifying focus since Marshallese independence.

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