publisher colophon

1 Sounds and Spelling of Palauan


When a linguist attempts to present a description of a language, he usually finds it desirable to treat the sound system of the lan­guage separately from the grammatical system. Even though this division may seem arbitrary or artificial (for how can we have the words, phrases, and sentences of a language without sound, and vice versa?), we are nevertheless going to examine the sound system of Palauan before proceeding to a description of the grammatical system.

Every language of the world uses its own particular set of sounds to construct words. No two languages have precisely the same set of sounds or the same number of sounds. Even though the human vocal apparatus is capable of producing an extremely large number and variety of sounds, speakers of different lan­guages actually use only a relatively small number of such possible sounds when communicating in speech. The Hawaiian language, for example, uses only thirteen distinctive sounds, perhaps the smallest number among world languages; closer to the average are Chamorro, with twenty-five distinctive sounds, and English, with approximately thirty. When a human being learns his native lan­guage, he becomes so used to the particular sounds of it that he may have great difficulty in pronouncing the sounds of some other language correctly. As a result of such imperfect pronunci­ation, he is said to speak the second language with a “foreign accent.”

In addition to having a limited number of sounds, every lan­guage organizes its sounds into a system which is unique to that language. This systematic organization involves such things as the positions and combinations in which the various sounds can occur, the frequency with which certain sounds occur, the varia­tions of pronunciation which particular sounds undergo, and so 2forth. In this chapter we will take up some of the more outstanding features of the sound system of Palauan.


When a linguist studies the sound system of a language, his pri­mary concern is to discover the significant sounds, or phonemes. In order to determine what the significant sounds of the language are, the linguist tries to find cases in which the substitution of one sound for another results in a different word and, consequently, a change of meaning. For example, if we take the Palauan word tub ‘spit’ and substitute a d for the first sound t, we will get dub, which is a completely different word meaning ‘dynamite’. On the basis of this pair of words—tub ‘spit’ and dub ‘dynamite’—we can con­clude that t and d are significant sounds, or phonemes, of Palauan. To use another term common among linguists, we can say that t and d are contrastive sounds in Palauan because they contrast with each other (or are in opposition to each other) in otherwise identi­cal environments. Linguists use the term ‘environment’ in a techni­cal sense to refer to the sound or sounds which are adjacent to or close to some other sound. For the pair of words under discussion, both t and d contrast in the same environment, because both of them are followed by ub.

The pair of words tub ‘spit’ and dub ‘dynamite’ can be called a minimal pair because the difference between them is minimal—i.e., determined by the substitution of a single sound. Some other minimal pairs in Palauan include

(1) blai ‘house’ mlai ‘canoe’
  chad ‘person’ char ‘price’
  kar ‘medicine’ ker ‘question’
  tet ‘purse’ tut ‘breast’

What are the contrastive sounds in each of the above minimal pairs? Why don’t the pairs of words brer ‘raft’—brak ‘taro’ or daob ‘ocean’—taod ‘fork’ qualify as minimal pairs?

There are also differences in the individual sounds of a lan­guage which are non-contrastive. Even though the linguist can identify and describe such differences, the speakers of the lan­guage are often unaware of them because they are automatic or predictable varieties of the same sound. For example, in Palauan the letter d is used to represent four phonetically different sounds, as in the following words. (Note that the phonetic transcription of 3the words is given in square brackets [ ]; the unfamiliar phonetic symbols will be explained below in the discussions of d and other consonants).

(2)   Palauan Spelling   Phonetic Transcription   English Gloss
    dub   [dup, ðup]   ‘dynamite’
    dmak   [tmakh]   ‘together’
    dngod   [θŋoð]   ‘tattoo needle’

To most native speakers of Palauan, the sounds represented by the letter d in the above three words probably all sound alike. To the linguist-phonetician, however, they are very different sounds: that is why the linguist uses four different phonetic symbols [d, t, θ, ð] to represent what speakers of Palauan think of as only one sound and what is spelled with the letter d. The differences among [d, t, θ, ð] which the linguist-phonetician hears are non-contrastive or non-significant; such non-contrastive sounds are called allo­phones of a particular sound (or phoneme). By studying the distribution of sounds in a language (i.e., where the sounds do and do not occur), the linguist can predict which allophones of a particular phoneme will occur in a given environment. While contrastive sounds (or phonemes) provide us with minimal pairs, as in the case of tub ‘spit’—dub ‘dynamite’ mentioned above, non-contrastive sounds (or allophones of a particular phoneme) never give us minimal pairs, as will be illustrated below.

In the following discussion of the sound system of Palauan, we will examine the significant sounds (phonemes) of the language, as well as some of the non-significant variations (allophones) of these sounds. In addition, some discussion of the distribution of these sounds will be given: In the discussion it will be necessary to introduce some technical linguistic terms and concepts which are essential to our understanding of how the Palauan sound system works.


The consonants of Palauan can be seen at a glance in the following chart. Notice that the chart includes labels arranged horizontally across the top and vertically along the left side. It will be worth­while to learn these new terms and to associate them with the facial diagram (Fig. 1) which shows the important articulators and points of articulation which are used in making the sounds of Palauan. The sounds of speech are produced when a particular 4articulator—e.g., the tip, blade, or back of the tongue—moves and touches some point of articulation—e.g., the teeth. In the produc­tion of certain sounds, pairs of speech organs serve simultaneously as articulator and point of articulation; this happens, for example, when the lips are brought together or when the vocal cords are closed against each other. A thorough understanding of how the sounds are produced and their relationships to each other will help in understanding the many complex changes that Palauan sounds undergo when different words or parts of words come together during conversation.

    Points of Articulation
Manner of
  bilabial dental alveolar velar glottal
Stops voiceless   t   k ch
voiced b d      
Fricative       s    
Nasals   m     ng  
Liquids       r, l    

In the above chart, the five terms along the top—bilabial, dental, alveolar, velar, and glottal—represent the different points of articulation at which consonants are pronounced, while the four terms at the left—stops (voiceless or voiced), fricative, nasals, and liquids—describe different manners (or ways) of articulation.

1.3.1. Stops

The largest subtype of Palauan consonants consists of the stops b, t, d, k, and ch. These sounds are called stops because in their pro­duction the outward flow of air which originated in the lungs is completely stopped at some point in its passage through the throat or mouth; this stoppage is achieved by placing some articu­lator against some point of articulation. Two Palauan stops, b and d, are labelled voiced, because when either of them occurs at the beginning of a word before a vowel (i.e., before a, i, e, o, or u—see 1.4 below), they are pronounced with a simultaneous vibration of the vocal cords. This vibration is caused by air passing through the vocal cords, thus producing a “buzzing” sound called voicing. The term voiceless is used to describe the stops t, k, and ch; in the pro­duction of such sounds, the vocal cords do not vibrate but remain at rest, and the air is allowed to pass quietly between them. (In 5addition to the three voiceless stops t, k, and ch, Palauan has one other voiceless sound—s, which will be examined in some detail below.)



Drawing by Vanna Condax

Figure 1

Bilabial Stop b. The consonant represented by the letter b is called a bilabial stop because the outward air flow is stopped completely by closing the two lips. When it occurs at the beginning of a word before an l or a vowel, it is voiced (phonetic symbol [b]), as in the following examples:

(3)    Palauan Spelling    Phonetic Transcription    English Gloss
          blai         [blay]   ‘house’
          bloes         [bloεs]   ‘shot’
          bai         [bay]   ‘community house’
          bung         [buŋ]   ‘flower’
          beot         [bεoth]   ‘easy’
          bilis         [bilis]   ‘dog’

When the consonant b occurs in certain environments, its pronunciation changes. For example, b is pronounced without voicing when it immediately precedes or follows another conso­nant 6(except l) in the same word. In other words, in such environ­ments, b becomes a voiceless bilabial stop, which is represented by the phonetic symbol [p]. The different pronunciations of the con­sonant b as voiced [b] or voiceless [p] are non-significant; they are predictable from the kind of environment in which b appears. We can therefore say that the different pronunciations of b as [b] and [p] are allophones of b. As we mentioned at the end of 1.2 above, non-contrastive sounds (or allophones of a given phoneme) never provide us with minimal pairs. Since [b] and [p] are non-con­trastive sounds, we never find Palauan minimal pairs like *pungbung. (The asterisk mark * is used to identify items which do not occur in the Palauan language.) Some examples showing the voiceless allophone of b preceding or following another consonant are given here:

(4) btuch [ptuɂ] ‘star’
  bsibs [psipsǝ] ‘drill’
  bngak [pŋakh] ‘my flower’
  brer [prεr] ‘raft’
  tbak [tpakh] ‘my spit’
  kbokb [kpokpǝ] ‘wall’

We can conclude that the Palauan consonant b is a phoneme which has two allophones—[b] and [p]. The voiced allophone [b] occurs at the beginning of words (i.e., word-initially) before vowels and the consonant l, and between two vowels, as in oba [oba] ‘have, carry’ and rubak [rubakh] ‘old man’. On the other hand, the voiceless allophone [p] occurs before or after consonants other than l and at the end of words (i.e., word-finally), as in tub [tup] ‘spit’ and bob [bap] ‘above’.


Dental Stops t and d. The consonants t and d are voiceless and voiced, respectively. Like the consonant b, they are stops, because they involve complete stoppage of the outward air flow. But while the closure for b is bilabial, the closure for t and d is dental. This dental closure is produced by placing the tongue tip (the articu­lator) against the back of the upper teeth (the point of articula­tion). In comparing b on the one hand with t and d on the other, we can say that the three sounds are the same with respect to manner of articulation, since they are all stops; but b differs from t and d in point of articulation, since the former is produced at the lips, while the latter are articulated in back of the teeth. Recall how this is shown in the chart of Palauan consonants given in 1.3, 7where the terms across the top represent the five points of arti­culation at which, consonants are found, while the terms listed at the left describe the four possible manners of articulation. Note further that t and d are identical in both point of articulation and manner of articulation—i.e., they are both dental stops; what differentiates them is the presence or absence of voicing.

Both t and d have allophones which are determined by the environment in which each of them occurs. The consonant t has two different pronunciations. When t occurs at the end of a word it is released quite strongly with an audible puff of air. This type of articulation is known as aspiration; the phonetic symbol for such an aspirated t is [th]. The aspiration (or puff of air) that accompanies a word-final t in Palauan can be heard in the fol­lowing words:

(5) liluut [liluwth] ‘returned’
  dakt [ðakth] ‘fear’
  chȩlat1 [ɂǝlath] ‘smoked (fish)’

The other pronunciation of t involves no aspiration; this unaspirated t is represented by the phonetic symbol [t]. This allophone of t occurs at the beginning of words (when either a consonant or vowel follows) and within words (or word-internally) when it is preceded by another consonant and followed by a vowel. The following examples illustrate these environments:

(6) tbak [tpakh] ‘my spit’
  tmuu [tmuw] ‘enter’
  tkul [tkul] ‘its edge’
  tȩruich [tǝruyɂǝ] ‘ten’
  tuu [tuw] ‘banana’
  tȩchang [tǝɂaŋ] ‘who?’
  rȩktel [rǝktεl] ‘his sickness’

We can therefore say that the Palauan phoneme t has two allophones whose distribution is predictable as specified below:

     [th]    (aspirated)—word-finally
  [t]   (unaspirated)—elsewhere (i.e., word-initially and word-internally).

The consonant d has four possible pronunciations, depending on the environment in which it occurs. To illustrate these different pronunciations, it will be necessary to introduce two new phonetic symbols. They are [θ], which sounds like the first sound of the 8English word thin, and [ð], which sounds like the first sound of the English word then. Both of these sounds are pronounced by putting the tongue tip against the back of the upper teeth without complete closure; thus, they are not stops, but fricatives. Fricatives involve partial closure or constriction between the articulator and point of articulation; their characteristic quality is one of audible friction. While both [θ] and [ð] are therefore dental frica­tives, the former is voiceless while the latter is voiced. They are not listed in the chart in 1.3 because they are not separate phonemes, but merely allophones of the phoneme d.

The distribution of the four possible pronunciations of d may be summarized as follows:


a. Word-initially before a vowel, the pronunciation of d ranges from [d] to [ð]; in this environment, [d] tends to appear in rapid, casual speech, while [ð] is heard in more careful, con­trolled speech. Words which show this alternate pronunciation include

(7) dub [dup, ðup] ‘dynamite’
  deel [dεyl, ðεyl] ‘nail’

b. Word-initially before a consonant, the pronunciation of d varies between [t] and [θ]. The allophone [t] tends to appear before b and m and in rapid speech in general, while [θ] occurs before k and ng and in careful pronunciation. Some words illustra­ting these allophones are listed below:

(8) dmak [tmakh] ‘together’
  dbak [tpakh] ‘my dynamite’
  dngod [θŋoð] ‘tattoo needle’

You may have noticed that tbak ‘my spit’ (cf. 6 above) and dbak ‘my dynamite’ are pronounced in the same way, even though they are spelled differently. This identical pronunciation is re­flected in identical phonetic transcriptions—namely, [tpakh] for both words—and is due to the fact that t has the voiceless allo­phone [t] word-initially (before any consonant) and d also has the voiceless allophone [t] word-initially before a b. If we heard the word [tpakh] spoken in isolation, we would therefore be unable to tell whether the utterance meant ‘my spit’ or ‘my dynamite’; however, looking at the written forms poses no difficulty, since tbak ‘my spit’ is spelled with the same word-initial consonant as tub [tup] ‘spit’, while dbak ‘my dynamite’ is spelled with the same initial consonant as dub [dup, ðup] ‘dynamite’.9

c. When the consonant d occurs between vowels or at the end of a word, it is pronounced with the allophone [ð], as in the following examples:

(9) mȩdal [mǝðal] ‘his face’
  kȩdeb [kǝðεp] ‘short’
  chȩdil [ɂǝðil] ‘mother’
  bad [bað] ‘stone’
  kid [kið] ‘we’
  eangȩd [yaŋǝð] ‘sky’

Velar Stop k. The consonant represented by the letter k is called a velar stop because it is articulated by raising the back of the tongue (the articulator) against the velum (the point of articulation) to form a complete closure. This consonant has three principal allophones, whose distribution is described below:

a. When k occurs word-finally, it is pronounced with aspi­ration; the phonetic symbol for this aspirated allophone of k is [kh]. Observe the words below:

(10) brak [prakh] ‘taro’
  chȩrmek2 [ɂǝrmεkh] ‘my animal’
  dȩrumk [ðǝrumkh] ‘thunder’

What other Palauan consonant which we have studied thus far has an aspirated allophone with the same kind of distribution?

b. Word-initially (before a consonant or vowel), k is pro­nounced with the unaspirated allophone [k], as the following examples show:

(11) klou [klow] ‘big’
  kmarȩd [kmarǝð] ‘light’
  kid [kið] ‘we’
  ker [kεr] ‘question’

This allophone also appears word-internally when k is next to any consonant except l, as in lotkii [lotkiy] ‘remembers it’, skuul [skuwl] ‘school’, and kbokb [kpokpǝ] ‘wall’.

c. Between vowels, k is pronounced with the voiced allophone [g], as in the words below:

(12) olȩkiis [olǝgiys] ‘wake up’
  mȩkeald [mǝgεalðǝ] ‘warm’
  rȩkas [rǝgas] ‘mosquito’

Do you recall any other Palauan consonant which has a voiced allophone between vowels? 10


Glottal Stop ch. The consonant ch is formed by closing the vocal cords tightly against each other to impede the outward flow of air. Since the space between the vocal cords is called the glottis, the stop sound described here is known as a glottal stop (phonetic symbol [ɂ]). Although a sequence of two letters—ch—is used in the Palauan spelling system to write the glottal stop, it is just a single consonant sound like b, t, d, or k. The English sound system does not have a glottal stop phoneme, but speakers of American English frequently use [ɂ] in certain words. For example, the negative expression uh uh is normally pronounced with a glottal stop at the beginning of each of its syllables.

The Palauan glottal stop phoneme shows no allophonic variation, and is pronounced as [ɂ] in all environments. A sam­pling of words containing this sound is given here:

(13) charm [ɂarm] ‘animal’
  chisel [ɂisεl] ‘news of him’
  mȩched [mǝɂεð] ‘shallow’
  dȩngchokl [ðǝŋɂoklǝ] ‘sit’
  taoch [taoɂ] ‘channel’
  tȩruich [tǝruyɂǝ] ‘ten’

Some special comment needs to be made about when and when not to spell words with an initial ch. There are some Palauan words which are pronounced with an initial glottal stop under all circumstances—that is, regardless of whether they are spoken in isolation or spoken following another word within a sentence. For example, words like chad ‘person’ or chull ‘rain’ are pro­nounced as [ɂað] and [ɂul:ǝ], respectively, both when spoken alone and when preceded by another word in simple sentences like

(14) a. Ng chad ȩr a Siabal. [ŋɂaðǝrasyabal]3
    ‘He’s Japanese.’
  b. Ng chull. [ŋɂul:ǝ]
    ‘It’s raining.’

On the other hand, there are some words which have an initial glottal stop when spoken in isolation, but lose this glottal stop when preceded by another word. For example, words like oles ‘knife’ and omes ‘see’ are [ɂolεs] and [ɂomεs], respectively, when uttered in isolation. Note, however, that the initial [ɂ] disappears in simple sentences like11

(15) a. Ng oles. [ŋolεs]
    ‘It’s a knife.’
  b. Ak mla omes ȩr ngii. [akmlaomεsǝrŋiy]
    ‘I’ve seen him.’

As the Palauan spelling of the words under discussion in­dicates, a word is always spelled with initial ch if the [ɂ] pronuncia­tion is maintained within sentences; on the other hand, if no initial [ɂ] is pronounced when a word appears in a sentence, then no initial ch is ever included in the spelling. When you are in doubt about whether or not to spell a word with an initial ch, you can easily test it by using it in sentences like 14–15.

1.3.2. Fricative

We have seen in 1.3.1. above that the stop consonants of Palauan are characterized by complete stoppage or interruption of the outward air flow; this is achieved by placing some articulator tightly against some point of articulation. It is also possible to produce consonants by forming a partial closure or constriction between articulator and point of articulation. When the outward flow of air is forced through such a narrow passage, audible friction is heard. For this reason, such sounds are called fricatives. Palauan has only one fricative, the phoneme s. This sound, which can be identified by a strong “hissing” quality, is produced by touching the sides of the blade of the tongue against the teeth and part of the alveolar ridge, which is the bony protrusion above the teeth. Because the alveolar ridge is involved in its pronuncia­tion, s is classified as an alveolar fricative in the chart in 1.3. Palauan s is always voiceless and usually sounds as if it is some­where between English sh (as in she) and s (as in see). It does not show any allophonic variation and is pronounced as [s] in all positions. Some words containing s are now given:

(16) sils [sils] ‘sun’
  sers [sεrs] ‘garden’
  mȩsilȩk [mǝsilǝkh] ‘wash’
  mȩngiis [mǝŋiys] ‘dig’

1.3.3. Nasals

In Fig. 1 you will notice that the outward air flow from the lungs can escape either through the mouth or the nasal passage. In most languages, either one or the other of these “escape routes” is 12closed off during the production of consonant sounds. All of the Palauan stops and the fricative s, for example, involve air passing through the mouth only; during the pronunciation of these sounds, air is prevented from entering the nasal passage by raising the velum against the back wall of the throat (see Fig.1). On the other hand, Palauan nasal sounds are made by forming a closure somewhere in the mouth and leaving the velum at rest so that the air flow can pass freely through the nasal passage.


Bilabial nasal m. The nasal sound m is produced simply by holding the lips tightly closed and letting the air escape through the nose. Because the two lips are used to make the closure, this nasal is identified as bilabial. (What is the other bilabial consonant of Palauan?) The bilabial nasal m has no allophonic variants and is pronounced [m] in all of its occurrences:

(17) mad [mað] ‘die’
  omoes [omoεs] ‘shoot’
  blim [blim] ‘your house’

Velar nasal ng. In articulating the nasal sound ng, the speaker blocks off the passage of air through the mouth with a closure between the back of the tongue (articulator) and the velum (point of articulation), while leaving the nasal passage open. Since the air is prevented from entering the mouth at the velum, this nasal is classified as velar. (What is the other velar consonant of Pal­auan?)

Though represented in Palauan spelling with a sequence of two letters, the velar nasal ng is one single sound. It has two principal allophones, whose distribution is specified as follows:


a. Before t, d, s, and r, ng is pronounced as a dental nasal (phonetic symbol [n]). Because this allophone is a nasal, the out­ward air flow passes through the nose, but the closure in the mouth is made by placing the tongue tip against the back of the upper teeth (cf. the articulation of t and d). Some examples containing the [n] allophone of ng are now given:

(18) iungs [yuns] ‘island’
  mȩrangd [mǝranðǝ] ‘(a kind of) coral’
  sȩngsongd [sǝnsonðǝ] ‘stick’
  ngduul [ṇduwl] ‘clam’
  ngriil [ṇriyl] ‘place near beach’
  ng til [ṇtil] ‘it’s her purse’ 13

The dot in the phonetic representation [ṇ] means that the dental nasal allophone of ng is pronounced as a separate syllable—see 1.3.5. below.


b. In all environments distinct from those described in the preceding paragraph, the consonant ng is pronounced as a velar nasal (the phonetic symbol for this sound, which is found at the end of English words like sing, is [ŋ]). In other words, the allo­phone [ŋ] appears before vowels, in word-final position, and before consonants other than t, d, s, and r. Some examples are listed below:

(19) ngau [ŋaw] ‘fire’
  ngor [ŋor] ‘mouth’
  reng [rεŋ] ‘heart, spirit’
  bung [buŋ] ‘flower’
  ngklem [ŋklεm] ‘your name’
  nglim [ŋlim] ‘drunk (up)’
  ng chȩtik [ŋɂǝtikh] ‘I don’t like it.’

Is there any good explanation we can give for the distribution of the allophones of ng? Notice that the dental nasal allophone [n] occurs only before sounds which are dental or alveolar; in other words, this allophone precedes sounds whose point of articulation (dental or alveolar) is close to its own. On the other hand, the velar nasal allophone [ŋ] has a less restricted distribu­tion, since it occurs before all vowels, in word-final position, and before consonants such as k, ch, and l. If we assume that because of this less restricted distribution the allophone [ŋ] is somehow more “basic” than [n], we can say that [ŋ] changes to [n] before t, d, s, and r because speakers move the point of articulation of the nasal forward (from a velar to a dental position) in anticipa­tion of the pronunciation of the following consonant. This process, which is very common in languages, is called assimilation. In the case under discussion, we say that [ŋ] has assimilated to (or has become similar in pronunciation to) a following t, d, s, or r, there­by becoming [n].

The only exceptions to the above-mentioned distribution of the allophones of ng are found among words which have been borrowed into Palauan from Japanese and English. In such words the allophone [n] appears in environments other than before t, d, s, and r. Some examples are nas [nas] ‘eggplant’, niziu [niǰuw] ‘twenty (used often when counting change)’, John [ǰan], etc. In 14spelling these words, Palauans use the single letter n rather than the letter sequence ng. Note, further, that in spelling a word of Japanese origin such as sensei ‘teacher’ the single letter n is used instead of ng, even before the dental consonant s.

Special mention needs to be made about when and when not to spell ng at the end of one and the same word. Quite a few Palauan words end in a, o, or u when pronounced within a sen­tence, but they have a word-final ng when spoken in isolation or at the end of a sentence. This common rule of Palauan pronun­ciation is illustrated in the sentences below, where the words mȩnga ‘eat’ and mo ‘go’ are spelled in two different ways:

(20) a. Ak mo mȩngang.
    ‘I’m going to eat (it).’
  b. Ak mo mȩnga ȩr a ngikȩl.
    ‘I’m going to eat the fish.’
(21) a. Ng mong.
    ‘He’s going.’
  b. Ng mo ȩr a skuul.
    ‘He’s going to school.’

The rule for spelling words of this kind is simple to remember: if word-final ng is pronounced and heard, as in 20a and 21a above, we also spell ng; if, however, no ng is pronounced or heard, as in 20b and 21b, it is omitted from the spelling. When words like mȩnga ‘eat’ and mo ‘go’ are cited for discussion in this text, they will be cited in the shorter form.

In addition to the above, there are many Palauan words which are always pronounced with a final ng, even within sen­tences. Words of this type, which of course are always spelled with word-final ng, include native Palauan words like bung ‘flow­er’, bang ‘goatfish’, ding ‘ear’, reng ‘heart’, and chȩdeng ‘shark’, and borrowed words like hong ‘book’ and blatong ‘plate’.

1.3.4. Liquids

The Palauan consonants which we have already discussed exhibit three different types of articulation. The non-nasal consonants involve either complete closure (the stops b, t, d, k, and ch) or narrowing (the fricative s) of the speech tract. The nasal con­sonants m and ŋ are characterized by closure in one part of the speech tract (i.e., the mouth) and free passage in the other (i.e., the nose). In this section we will examine a fourth type of Palauan 15consonant—the liquids l and r. Both of these consonants are articulated by making a partial closure in the mouth.


Liquid 1. The consonant l is made by touching the upper surface of the blade of the tongue against the top teeth and alveolar ridge and by allowing some air to escape over the sides of the tongue. It has no significant allophonic variations and appears as [l] in all environments. The following are some examples containing l:

(22) lius [lius] ‘coconut’
  luut [luwth] ‘return’
  mȩlai [mǝlay] ‘take’
  rael [raεl] ‘road’

Liquid r. The consonant r is called a tapped r because it is made with a quick tapping movement of the tongue tip against the alveolar ridge above the upper teeth. Though there is a special phonetic symbol for this tapped r, it will be adequate for our purposes to use [r]. This sound appears in all environments, as in the words below:

(23) rakt [rakth] ‘sickness’
  rȩkas [rǝgas] ‘mosquito’
  bȩras [bǝras] ‘rice’
  kar [kar] ‘medicine’ The Sequences ll and rr

In some Palauan words, two identical liquid consonants occur next to each other. The sequence ll differs from l in that it is held about twice as long as the single consonant. The phonetic repre­sentation for this long l is [l:], where the colon [:] indicates the extra length. The sequence rr differs from r in that it is pronounced as a trilled r rather than a tapped r. A trilled r (phonetic symbol [r̄]) is composed of two or three tapped r’s pronounced in rapid succession. The words below illustrate the Palauan sequences ll and rr in various positions:

(24) llel [l:εl] ‘its leaf’
  kall [kal:ǝ] ‘food’
  rrom [r̄om] ‘liquor’
  kȩrrȩkar [kǝr̄ǝgar] ‘tree’
  rruul4 [r̄uwl] ‘made, done’ 16

1.3.5. Syllabic Consonants

The words of Palauan can consist of different numbers of syl­lables, or pulses of air. It is fairly easy to count syllables: for example, kar ‘medicine’ has one, elii ‘yesterday’ has two, mȩ­dȩngȩltȩrir ‘knows them’ has five, and so on. When any consonant occurs before a vowel, it is pronounced along with that vowel as part of the same syllable. In bilek ‘my clothing’, for instance, b is part of the first syllable and l is part of the second. When certain types of consonants—specifically, nasals and liquids—occur before other consonants in word-initial position, they become syllabic—that is, they are pronounced as separate syllables. To indicate this syllabic quality in the phonetic transcription, a dot is placed under the regular phonetic symbol for the nasal or li­quid—i.e., [ṃ], [ŋ], [ḷ], and [ṛ]. These syllabic consonants appear in cases like the following:

(25) ng boes [ṃboεs]5 ‘it’s a gun’
  mchiiȩlak [ṃɂiyǝlakh] ‘wait for me!’
  Ngchesar [ŋɂεsar] (village name)
  nglim [ŋlim] ‘drunk (up)’
  ngduul [ṇduwl] ‘clam’
  lmangȩl [ḷmaŋǝl] ‘cry’
  ltel [ḷtεl] ‘his return’
  rsȩchek [ṛsǝɂεkh] ‘my blood’
  rtangȩl [ṛtaŋǝl] ‘is to be pounded’

Syllabic r ([ṛ]) is pronounced as a trilled r by some speakers and with considerable friction by others. The only exception to the analysis given above concerns the sequence ml, as in mlai [mlay] ‘canoe’. Here, the m is not syllabic but is pronounced along with the other sounds in the word as a single syllable.


The vowels of Palauan are summarized in the following chart:

  Tongue advancement
Tongue height front central back
high i   u
mid e ȩ o
low   a 17

Along the left side of the chart, three levels of tongue height are shown, while along the top, three degrees of tongue advancement are indicated. These terms will be explained in detail below. Unlike consonants, which involve closure or narrowing of the speech tract, vowels allow relatively free, unrestricted passage of the outward air flow. The different vowel sounds (or vowel qualities) are produced by changing the shape of the mouth cavity; this is accomplished by holding the tongue in various positions, each of which can be described in terms of tongue height and tongue advancement. All Palauan vowels are automatically voiced (i.e., the vocal cords vibrate during their production) and are pro­nounced with the velum raised to shut off the nasal passage (i.e., they do not have a “nasal” quality).

Palauan vowels distinguish three degrees of tongue height—high, mid, and low. High vowels are pronounced with the tongue raised high in the mouth and very close to the palate; low vowels are articulated with the tongue low in the mouth, relatively dis­tant from the palate; and mid vowels are pronounced somewhere in between. To get some idea of the “distance” between high vowels and low vowels (which are at the “extreme” ends of the series), simply watch what happens to your mouth during the pronunciation of pairs of vowels like i-a and u-a. When you move from the high vowels i and u to the low vowel a, your mouth opens widely; here, the jaw is lowered in order to get the tongue into a low position. Now try to pronounce the vowel sequence i-e-a; you should be able to recognize three different positions of vowel height as your jaw moves progressively lower. For further practice, move in the opposite direction from low to high—i.e., a-e-i.

1.4.1. High Vowels i and u

Differences in tongue height are not sufficient to distinguish all of the Palauan vowels from each other. For example, the chart in 1.4 above shows that Palauan has two high vowels—i and u. While both of these vowels are articulated with the tongue in a relatively high position, they differ from each other with respect to tongue advancement. In pronouncing i, the blade (or front) of the tongue is advanced and raised towards the alveolar ridge and the front portion of the palate. In pronouncing u, however, the tongue is retracted and the back of the tongue is raised towards the back portion of the palate and the velum. Because the tongue is ad­vanced 18towards the front of the mouth for i, this vowel is identi­fied as a high front vowel; and because u involves a retraction of the tongue towards the back of the mouth, it is labelled as a high back vowel. It is not all that easy to observe or feel the difference in tongue advancement between i and u. However, if you try to repeat these vowels in succession (i-u, i-u, etc.) you may be able to feel the tongue retract as you move from i to u. One further difference between these two vowels is easier to recognize. Notice that when you pronounce u, your lips become rounded as if you are going to whistle; this rounding is absent for i, where your lips remain spread apart, as if you are beginning to smile. Thus, we say that u is a rounded vowel while i is an unrounded vowel.

Although vowels, like consonants, can have allophones, the vowels of Palauan in general show little allophonic variation. Therefore, as the words below illustrate, i is pronounced [i] (similar to the vowel sound in English heat) and u is pronounced [u] (similar to the u in English rude) under all circumstances:

(26) sils [sils] ‘sun’
  kim [kim] ‘large clam’
  chisel [ɂisεl] ‘news of him’
  mȩtik [mǝtikh] ‘find’
  btuch [ptuɂ] ‘star’
  bung [buŋ] ‘flower’
  kȩruk [kǝrukh] ‘my medicine’
  subȩlek [subǝlεkh] ‘my homework’

1.4.2. Mid Vowels e, ȩ, and o

While the high vowels show two degrees of tongue advancement, the mid vowels show three. In addition to the mid front vowel e and the mid back vowel o, we have the mid central vowel ȩ. In the pronunciation of this vowel, the tongue is neither advanced (as for e) nor retracted (as for o); rather, the tongue remains flat and at rest. The mid central vowel ȩ and the mid front vowel e are quite different in pronunciation: ȩ sounds something like the weak vowel “uh” in English words like “about” and “again”, while e sounds like the vowel in English “bed.” The phonetic symbol for the mid central vowel ȩ is [ǝ] (commonly referred to as schwa), and that for the mid front vowel e is [ε]. As you know, the Pa­lauan spelling system uses only one letter—namely, e—to spell both of the sounds [ε] and [ǝ]. Although speakers of Palauan will not find this confusing, non-native speakers may have trouble 19deciding when to pronounce the letter e as [ε] and when to pro­nounce it as [ǝ]. To assist non-native speakers, in this text we shall use the special symbol ȩ (e with a comma under it) to represent [ǝ]. As you will see later, it will be handy to have the two symbols e and ȩ in order to make certain discussions clear.

In the list below, you will find some common Palauan words containing the mid vowels e and o. (Further discussion of ȩ will continue below.)

(27) sers [sεrs] ‘garden’
  ngklel [ŋklεl] ‘his name’
  elii [εliy] ‘yesterday’
  ngor [ŋor] ‘mouth’
  oles [olεs] ‘knife’
  mȩlȩcholb [mǝlǝɂolbǝ] ‘bathe’

There is one important difference between the pronunciations of e and o which we have not yet mentioned: o is a rounded vowel, while e is not. Recall that among the high vowels, u is rounded, while i is not. What similarity of pattern can you identify?

The Palauan vowel ȩ has a very restricted distribution, since it occurs only in unstressed syllables. Every Palauan word of two or more syllables has just one stressed syllable, with the remaining syllables unstressed. It is usually not too difficult to identify the stressed syllable in such words, since this syllable tends to be louder and stronger than the nearby syllables. For practice, com­pare the stressed syllable with the unstressed syllables in words like klúkuk ‘tomorrow’, mȩngȩlébȩd ‘hit’, ngklém ‘your name’, and chillȩbȩdák ‘hit me’. To identify the stressed syllable, a stress mark (') has been placed over the vowel which is found in it; this stress mark, however, is not used in the Palauan spelling system. Until now, we have not identified the stressed syllables in our phonetic transcriptions of Palauan multisyllabic words, although a completely specified phonetic transcription would have to take account of them.

The list below contains words of two or more syllables which have already appeared in this chapter. The stressed syllable has been identified with a stress mark. Notice that every ȩ (schwa = [ǝ]) which occurs is found in an unstressed syllable.

(28) chȩlat [ɂǝláth] ‘smoked (fish)’
  tȩchang [tǝɂáŋ] ‘who?’
  rȩktel [rǝktέl] ‘his sickness’
  eangȩd [yáŋǝð] ‘sky’ 20
  kmarȩd [kmárǝð] ‘light’
  olȩkiis [olǝgíys] ‘wake up’
  mȩsilȩk [mǝsílǝkh] ‘wash’
  lmangȩl [ḷmáŋǝl] ‘cry’
  mȩngȩlebȩd [mǝŋǝlέbǝð] ‘hit’

Note further that since the great majority of Palauan one-syl­lable words are stressed, there are almost no Palauan one-syl­lable words containing ȩ.6

1.4.3. Low Vowel a

The only low vowel in Palauan is a (phonetic symbol [a]), which is classified as a low central vowel. There is no contrast between front and back low vowels in Palauan. Several words containing this vowel are listed below:

(29) chad [ɂað] ‘person’
  mȩlat [mǝláth] ‘tear, rip’
  ngak [ŋakh] ‘I, me’

1.4.4. The Vowel ȩ and the Process of Vowel Reduction

The six vowels listed in the chart in 1.4 above are among the significant sounds (or phonemes) of Palauan. It is possible to find minimal pairs which show how the various vowels contrast with each other in otherwise identical environments. Note, for example, the minimal pairs kar ‘medicine’—ker ‘question’, char ‘price’—chur ‘laughter’, kid ‘we’—ked ‘hill’, and delék ‘my nail’—dȩlék ‘my abdomen’. In the last minimal pair cited, the vowels e and ȩ contrast in an unstressed syllable. Since ȩ occurs only in unstressed syllables, it is extremely difficult to find minimal pairs which show ȩ to be contrastive with other vowels. For this and another reason to be explained below, many linguists would not recognize the mid central vowel ȩ as a separate phoneme of Palauan, but would consider it an allophone of some other vowel phoneme or pho­nemes.

When we compare related forms of certain words, we can see a close relationship between ȩ and various other vowels. In the list below, the left column gives the simple form of a word, while the right column gives one of its “possessed” forms:

(30) Simple form Possessed form
  bsibs ‘drill’ bsȩbsék ‘my drill’
  chur ‘laughter’ chȩrík ‘my laughter’ 21
  sers ‘garden’ sȩrsék ‘my garden’
  ngor ‘mouth’ ngȩrék ‘my mouth’
  kar ‘medicine’ kȩrúk ‘my medicine’

The words in the left column contain instances of the vowels i, u, e, o, and a. In each of the corresponding possessed forms, the mid central vowel ȩ appears where we would expect the vowels i, u, e, o, or a. The possessed forms have two syllables (you will notice that one of the endings -ek, -ik, or -uk has been added to each of them), of which the first is unstressed and second is stressed. Since the vowel ȩ appears in an unstressed syllable where we would expect some other vowel, it seems as if i, u, e, o, and a have changed to ȩ in this environment. This kind of process, which is called vowel reduction, is observed in many languages of the world: commonly, certain full vowels reduce to the “weaker” or more “neutral” mid central vowel schwa under certain conditions. We shall now explain this statement further.

If we rewrite the chart of vowels given in 1.4 as a kind of “vowel triangle”—namely,

—we can see that ȩ is more or less in the middle while the other vowels are at the edges or extremes. From the point of view of tongue height and tongue advancement, the mid central vowel ȩ is least extreme or deviant in its articulation: it is neither high nor low, nor is it front or back. For this reason, the mid central vowel ȩ may be described as a neutral vowel, while i, u, e, o, and a are referred to as full vowels. In Palauan, then, as in many languages, the full vowels lose their basic qualities (i.e., no longer sound like [i], [u], etc.) and reduce to a neutral vowel (i.e., ȩ [a]) in unstressed syllables. Because ȩ therefore results from (or is derived from) any of the full vowels, some linguists would argue that it is not a separate phoneme but merely one of the allophones of each of the full vowels. The process of vowel reduction introduced by the examples of 30 above will be presented in greater detail in 3.4. 22

1.4.5. Other Occurrences of Schwa

You may have noticed that our phonetic transcriptions for certain words show word-final schwas which are not reflected in the Pa­lauan spelling. A few of these words are repeated, along with new examples, in the list below:

(31) bsibs [psípsǝ] ‘drill’
  kbokb [kpókpǝ] ‘wall’
  mȩkeald [mǝkεálðǝ] ‘warm’
  dȩngchokl [ðǝŋɂóklǝ] ‘sit’
  mȩrangd [mǝránðǝ] ‘(a kind of) coral’
  mȩlȩcholb [mǝlǝɂólbǝ] ‘bathe’
  ralm [rálmǝ] ‘water’
  diall [ðiál:ǝ] ‘ship’

The appearance of word-final [ǝ] in the examples of 31 illustrates a very general rule of Palauan pronunciation: whenever a word ends in a sequence of two consonants, this cluster of consonants is followed by a schwa release (which is of course unstressed). Because the schwa release is predictable and speakers always pronounce it automatically, it does not need to be indicated in the spelling.

In some instances, a word-final u preceded by a consonant also results in a schwa release; here, too, the schwa is not re­flected in the spelling. Some words which fall into this category include the following:

(32)   Palauan spelling7    Phonetic transcription   English gloss
          omdasu         [omðáswǝ]   ‘think’
          ochadu         [oɂáðwǝ]   ‘something to cut with, tongs’
          kuoku         [kwókwǝ]   ‘skin which is shed’

Sometimes a schwa is predictably added to break up a parti­cular cluster of consonants. For example, sequences of the form dental consonant + l (i.e., tl, dl, and sl) never occur in Palauan. It is also impossible for ch to be directly preceded or followed by another consonant. When such “impossible” combinations result from certain types of word formation, a schwa must be inserted to separate the consonants. The words below, for example, are formed by inserting an l after the first consonant; the resulting consonant cluster must be broken up with an intervening schwa, which is also indicated in the Palauan spelling.23

(33) Palauan spelling8 Phonetic transcription English gloss
        tȩlub       [tǝlúb] ‘spat’
        dȩlangȩb       [ðǝláǝb] ‘covered’
        sȩlesȩb       [sǝlέsǝb] ‘burned’
        chȩlat       [ɂǝláth] ‘smoked’

Schwa often occurs next to or between vowels which are not stressed. In such cases, it is indicated in the spelling, as the fol­lowing examples illustrate:

(34) Palauan spelling9 Phonetic transcription English gloss
        chuiȩuíi       [ɂuyǝwíy] ‘reads it’
        kiiȩsíi       [kiyǝsíy] ‘digs it’
        kiuȩtíi       [kiwǝtíy] ‘cuts it’
        siuȩsíi       [siwǝsíy] ‘cures it’

1.4.6. Long Vowels

All the full vowels of Palauan except a can occur long. These long vowels are spelled simply by doubling the letter—i.e., ii, uu, ee, and oo. Phonetically, Palauan long vowels are indeed greater in length (i.e., time it takes to say them) than the corresponding short vowels, but they also have some additional features. All of the long vowels contain a gliding articulation. The front vowels i and e are followed by a y-glide when long, while the back vowels u and o are followed by a w-glide. The glide sounds y and w involve movement of the tongue towards a high front or a high back position, respectively. In forming ee, for example, the tongue makes a smooth transition from the mid front position of e to a high front position; similarly, in articulating oo, the tongue begins at the mid back position for o and then moves towards a high back position. In this text, long vowels are indicated in the pho­netic transcriptions as sequences of vowel + glide, and we will use the phonetic symbols [y] and [w] to stand for these glides. The list below contains words with long vowels:

(35) diil [ðiyl] ‘abdomen’
  ngii [ŋiy] ‘he, she, it’
  buuch [buwɂǝ] ‘betel nut’
  ngduul [ṇduwl] ‘clam’
  deel [dεyl] ‘nail’
  kmeed [kmεyð] ‘near’
  dȩkool [dǝgowl] ‘cigarette’
  sȩkool [sǝgowl] ‘playful’ 24

The difference between short vowels and long vowels in Palauan is phonemic because it can serve to distinguish between otherwise identical words. This phonemic difference means that we can find minimal pairs in which a short vowel contrasts with a long vowel in exactly the same environment—e.g., buch ‘spouse’—buuch ‘betel nut’ and chis ‘depression in the sea floor’—chiis ‘escape’.

1.4.7. Vowel Clusters

As many of the words in this chapter illustrate, Palauan con­sonants can occur in different combinations or clusters; such clusters are found in words like mlai ‘canoe’, tkul ‘its edge’, brer ‘raft’, and rakt ‘sickness’. It is also possible for the full vowels of Palauan to appear in various kinds of clusters. Of the two ad­jacent vowels, one or the other may be stressed, or—less frequently—neither may be stressed. Given only the Palauan spelling of words containing vowel clusters, it is very difficult to predict the correct pronunciation. This is because some of the (spelled) vowels are pronounced in different ways, depending on whether or not they are stressed and whether they precede or follow the adjacent vowel. Before formulating some of these very complicated rules of pronunciation, let us list a representative number of Palauan words which contain vowel clusters. Stress marks are indicated in the Palauan spellings and in the phonetic transcriptions be­cause we will need to refer to stress in the rules of pronunciation.

(36)   1. eángȩd [yáŋǝð] ‘sky’
    2. eólt [yóltǝ] ‘wind’
    3. iédȩl [yέðǝl] ‘mango’
    4. iúngs [yúns] ‘island’
    5. eungél [εuŋέl] ‘under it’
    6. oách [wáɂ] ‘leg’
    7. uél [wέl] ‘turtle’
    8. uingȩl [wiŋǝl] ‘tooth’
    9. soál [soál] ‘his wish’
  10. cháus [ɂáws] ‘lime’
  11. ngáu [ŋáw] ‘fire’
  12. kléu [klέw] ‘young coconut’
  13. udóud [uðówð] ‘money’
  14. klóu [klów] ‘big’
  15. suélȩb [swέlǝb] ‘noon’
  16. suóbȩl [swóbǝl] ‘study, homework’ 25
  17. báil [báyl] ‘clothing’
  18. róis [róys] ‘mountain’
  19. búil [búyl] ‘moon’
  20. chúi [ɂúy] ‘hair’
  21. blái [bláy] ‘house’
  22. tȩkói [tǝgóy] ‘word’
  23. sȩchȩléi [sǝɂǝlέy] ‘friend’
  24. díak [ðíakh] ‘isn’t’
  25. líus [líus] ‘coconut’
  26. diáll [ðiál:ǝ] ‘ship’
  27. ráel [ráεl] ‘road’
  28. bóes [bóεs] ‘gun’
  29. táoch [táoɂ] ‘channel’
  30. díong [ðíoŋ] ‘bathing place’

In order to account for the phonetic transcriptions of 36, we need to formulate rules of pronunciation like the following:


a. Word-initially before any stressed vowel, the unstressed front vowels e and i are pronounced as the glide [y] (see items 14 in the list above). If word-initial unstressed e precedes another unstressed vowel, however, as in item 5, it is pronounced [ε].


b. Word-initially before any stressed vowel, the unstressed back vowels o and u are pronounced as the glide [w] (see items 68). Word-internally before a stressed vowel, however, unstressed o is pronounced [o], as in item 9.


c. Word-internal or word-final unstressed u’s are pronounced as the glide [w], regardless of whether a stressed vowel precedes them (as in items 1014) or follows them (as in items 1516).


d. Following a stressed vowel word-internally and word-finally, i is pronounced as the glide [y] (see items 1723). Pre­ceding a vowel word-internally, however, i is pronounced [i], whether it is stressed (as in items 2425) or unstressed (as in item 26).


e. Word-internally following stressed vowels, e is pronounced [ε], as in items 2728, and o is pronounced [o], as in items 2930.


We must give special attention to the problem of when and when not to spell a word with a final vowel cluster ei. A good number of Palauan words which end in e when pronounced within a sentence take a word-final i when spoken in isolation or at the end of a sentence. The sentences below, which contain me ‘come’ 26and che ‘fishing’, illustrate this variation in pronunciation:

(37) a. A Droteo a mei.
    ‘Droteo is coming.’
  b. A Droteo a me ȩr a blik.
    ‘Droteo is coming to my house.’
(38) a. Ng mo ȩr a chei.
    ‘He is going fishing.’
  b. Ng mo ȩr a che ȩr a klukuk.
    ‘He is going fishing tomorrow.’

The rule of spelling involved here is similar to that observed for word-final ng at the end of 1.3.3 above: in other words, if word-final i is pronounced and heard, as in 37a and 38a, it is also spelled; if, on the other hand, no i is pronounced or heard, as in 37b and 38b, it is not included in the spelling. When cited for discussion in this text, words like me ‘come’ and che ‘fishing’ will be cited in the shorter form.


In this section we will list various spelling rules of Palauan which have not been covered in the sections above. Most of the rules below concern the proper spelling of individual words and phrases. Often, the decision to spell something as a separate word is based on a grammatical analysis of the item in question. Such analysis allows us to identify or isolate one and the same word as it appears in different, though related, constructions. Our understanding of many aspects of Palauan grammatical structure will be facilitated if we spell a particular word in the same way in all of its occur­rences, even though there might be some differences in pronuncia­tion from one occurrence to another. In the discussion which follows, we will try to keep references to grammatical terms and concepts at a minimum; however, any terms or concepts which do need to be introduced for purposes of identification will be given thorough treatment elsewhere in the text.

a. The relational word ȩr, which has a wide range of English equivalents such as ‘in, at, to, from, out of, of, because of’, etc., is always spelled as a separate word. Furthermore, the word a, which precedes all verbs and nouns (but not pronouns or demon­stratives), should be spelled as a separate word. Observe the following examples: 27

(39) a. Ak mo ȩr a skuul.
    ‘I’m going to school.’
  b. Kȩ mo ȩr ker?
    ‘Where are you going?’
  c. Ak mȩsuub a tȩkoi ȩr a Merikel.
    ‘I am studying English.’
  d. Ak milsuub ȩr a blik.
    ‘I was studying at home.’
  e. Ak mȩrael ȩr a klukuk.
    ‘I am leaving tomorrow.’
  f. Ng hong10 ȩr a Droteo.
    ‘It’s Droteo’s book.’
  g. Ng hong ȩr ngii.
    ‘It’s his book.’
  h. A Droteo a milil ȩr tiang.
    ‘Droteo is playing here.’

The word ȩr is not pronounced identically in all the examples of 39. If the preceding word is vowel-final, as in 39ac, the ȩ of ȩr is dropped; thus, for example, the three words mo ȩr a of 39a are pronounced [mora]. On the other hand, if the preceding word is consonant-final, as in 39dh, the vowel of ȩr is retained, giving [ǝr].

In certain cases, we know from the grammatical structure that we have a sequence of the form ȩr + a + noun, even though the a is not pronounced. The following expressions fall into this category:

(40) er a elii [εrεlíy] ‘yesterday’
  er a elȩchang [εrέlǝɂaŋ] ‘now, today’
  er a Belau [εrbέlaw] ‘in/of Palau’

In the examples of 40, the vowel of ȩr is usually not reduced and is therefore pronounced as [ε].

The word ȩr is spelled as a separate word in the following special expressions:

(41) ngar ȩr ngii [ŋarŋíy] ‘there is’
  mla ȩr ngii [mlarŋíy] ‘there was’
  mo ȩr ngii [morŋíy] ‘there will be’
  mochu ȩr ngii [moɂurŋíy] ‘there is about to be’

In the first two expressions of 41, we find the very common Palauan verbs ngar ‘is (located)’ and mla ‘was (located)’. These verbs also appear in sentences like the following: 28

(42) a. A Droteo a ngar ȩr a stoang.
    ‘Droteo is at the store.’
  b. A John a mla ȩr a Guam.
    ‘John was in Guam.’
  c. A Droteo ng ngar ȩr ker?
    ‘Where is Droteo?’
  d. A Toki ng mla ȩr ker?
    ‘Where was Toki?’

b. In order to show that a noun refers to more than one human being, we attach to the beginning of that noun. For example, while chad ‘person’ refers to one human being, rȩchad ‘people’ refers to two or more. Other examples of this contrast include ngalȩk ‘child’—rȩngalȩk ‘children’, sensei ‘teacher’—rȩsensei ‘teachers’, sȩchȩlik ‘my friend’—rȩsȩchȩlik ‘my friends’, and ekȩbil ‘girl’—rekȩbil ‘girls’. As the last example shows, if the word in question begins with a vowel, then we simply attach r instead of rȩ. Some sentences containing plural words like rȩchad ‘people’ are now given:

(43) a. Ak ulȩmes ȩr a rȩngalȩk.
    ‘I was watching the children.’
  b. Ng delmȩrab ȩr a rȩsensei.
    ‘It’s the teachers’ room.’
  c. A rȩlluich ȩl chad a mlad.
    ‘Twenty people died.’
  d. Ak milstȩrir a rua Toki.
    ‘I saw Toki and her friends.’

c. The word ȩl is used in many kinds of constructions to relate one word to another. Some of the most common usages are illustrated below.


1. With demonstratives, which are used to point out people, animals, or things:

(44) tia ȩl klalo ‘this thing’
  se ȩl hong ‘that book’
  tirka ȩl chad ‘these people’
  aika ȩl charm ‘these animals’

In all of the examples of 44, we do not pronounce the ȩ of ȩl because a vowel-final word precedes. Where have we seen a similar rule of pronunciation?


2. With numbers, which occur in many different series, de­pending on what is being counted: 29

(45) ta ȩl chad ‘one person’
  chimo ȩl kluk ‘one dollar’
  eru ȩl klok ‘two o’clock’
  tȩluo ȩl oluchȩs ‘one pencil’
  tȩruich mȩ a ta ȩl chad ‘eleven people’
  dart ȩl kluk ‘one hundred dollars’
  euid ȩl klok ‘seven o’clock’
  tȩruich ȩl oluchȩs ‘ten pencils’

In some of the examples of 45, the ȩ of ȩl is not pronounced, while in others it is. What factors determine this rule of pronunciation?


3. With various kinds of modifiers, which describe or qualify some other word:

(46) elȩcha ȩl sils ‘today’s weather’
  mȩkȩlȩkolt ȩl ralm ‘cold water’
  bek ȩl tutau ‘every morning’
  mȩkngit ȩl chad ‘bad person’
  ungil ȩl chad ‘good person’

In the expressions of 46, the modifying or qualifying word pre­cedes the modified word. As we might expect, the ȩ of ȩl is not pronounced when it follows a vowel-final word; the ȩ is pro­nounced, however, after a consonant-final word. If the word preceding ȩl ends in an l, as in the case of ungil ȩl chad ‘good person’, then ȩl is completely omitted from the pronunciation: [uŋil?að].

In addition to the expressions of 46, it is possible to have ex­pressions in which the modifying or qualifying word follows the word modified, as in

(47) chad ȩl mȩngitakl ‘person who sings’
  soal ȩl mo ȩr a chei ‘his desire to go fishing’
  sensei ȩl ungil ‘teacher who is good’
  Droteo ȩl sensei ‘Droteo, who is a teacher’

You should have no difficulty predicting how the word ȩl is pro­nounced in the examples of 47.


4. With various types of complex constructions:

(48) dirrek ȩl sensei ‘is also a teacher’
  di tȩlkib ȩl kukau ‘only a little taro’
  mo mȩrek ȩl mȩsuub ‘finish studying’ 30
  omȩngur ȩl oba a taod ‘eat with a fork’
  blȩchoel ȩl mȩsuub ‘always studies’
  mo ȩl ngar ȩr a mlai ‘go in a car’
  omuchȩl ȩl mȩsuub ‘begin studying’
  mo ȩl obȩngkel a Toki ‘go with Toki’

Again, the correct pronunciation of ȩl in the examples of 48 can be easily predicted.


d. Palauan has several sets of pronouns, which are short words referring to various persons such as ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘he’, ‘they’, etc. Some Palauan pronouns are spelled as separate words, while others are not. A brief summary is given below.


1. The non-emphatic subject pronouns ak ‘I’, ng ‘he/she/it,’ ‘you’, etc., are spelled as separate words, as in

(49) a. Kȩ mo ȩr ker?
    ‘Where are you going?’
  b. Ak mȩnguiu ȩr a hong.
    ‘I’m reading the book.’
  c. Tȩ di mililil.
    ‘They just fooled around.’
  d. Ng kmal ungil.
    ‘It’s very good.’

2. The pronouns ngak ‘I’, ngii ‘he/she/it’, kau ‘you’, etc., which are used after the relational word ȩr or as emphatic subjects, are also spelled as separate words, as in

(50) a. Ng hong ȩr ngii.
    ‘It’s his book.’
  b. Ak ulȩmes ȩr kau.
    ‘I saw you.’
  c. Ngak a sensei.
    I’m a teacher.’
  d. Ngii a lilȩchȩsii a babier.
    He wrote the letter.’

3. The object pronouns -ak ‘I’, -ii ‘him/her/it’, -au ‘you’, etc., are written as part of the action verb which accompanies them. The hyphen in our notations -ak, -ii, -au, etc. indicates that these pronouns are not independent words but must be attached to the end of other words.

Some examples containing these pronouns (italicized) are given below:31

(51) chillȩbȩdak ‘hit me’
  chillȩbȩdii ‘hit him/her/it’
  chillȩbȩdau ‘hit you’
  sosȩbii ‘burns it’
  milstȩrir ‘saw them’

4. The possessor pronouns are added to nouns to indicate the owner or possessor of something. These possessor pronouns have many forms, even for the same person, of which only a few are illustrated below. As you can see, these pronouns (italicized) are always attached to the word indicating the thing possessed.

(52) bilek ‘my clothing’
  blik ‘my house’
  ngȩrem ‘your mouth’
  mlirir ‘their car(s)’
  sȩbȩchel ‘his ability’
  soam ‘your desire’

5. The hypothetical pronouns ku- ‘I’, lo- ‘he/she/it’, chomo- ‘you’, etc., are attached to the beginning of verbs in a large variety of complicated constructions. A few sample sentences containing these hypothetical pronouns (italicized) are given below:

(53) a. Ng diak kusuub.
    ‘I’m not studying.’
  b. A John a diak loilil.
    ‘John isn’t playing’.
  c. A hong a longuiu ȩr ngii a John.
    ‘The book is being read by John.’
  d. Kȩ mȩkȩra a chomoruul a mlai?
    ‘What do you do to make a canoe?’
  e. Ng chȩtik a Droteo a lolamȩch.
    ‘I don’t like Droteo to chew (betel nut).’
  f. Ng soal a kbo kusuub.
    ‘He wants me to study.’

e. Palauan has many word sequences which function to ex­press a single meaning or idea and which often have single English words as their equivalents. Even though we might want to spell these sequences as single words, detailed grammatical analy­sis leads us to conclude that they actually involve more than one word and should therefore be spelled as in the examples below: 32

(54) e le ak [εlεkh] ‘because I…’
  e le ng [εlεŋ] ‘because he…’
  mȩ a [ma] ‘and’
  mȩ ak [makh] ‘so I…’
  mȩ ng [mǝŋ] ‘so he…’
  e ng di [εndi, ǝndi] ‘but’
  er se ȩr a [εrsεra, ǝrsεra] ‘when’
  el kmo [εlkmo, ǝlkmo] ‘[say] that…’
  el ua se [εlwasε, ǝlwasε] ‘[say] that…’
  ng diak [ṇdiakh] ‘isn’t’
  ng di kea [ṇdigεa] ‘no longer is’
  di mle ngii [dimlεŋiy] ‘by himself’
  ko ȩr a [kora] ‘kind of, like’
  a lȩko (ak) [alǝgo(k)] ‘(I) intended to…’
  a lsȩkum [alsǝgum] ‘if, when’

f. Numerous exceptions to all of the Palauan spelling rules explained above can be found in two classes of words, personal names and words of foreign origin. First of all, many Palauan personal names—e.g. Francisco, Polycarp, Hermana, etc.—are borrowed from other languages and therefore contain certain sounds which are not native to Palauan. In order to spell these sounds, it is necessary to use non-Palauan letters such as p, f, j, y, and w. Furthermore, the spelling of many native Palauan names, including personal names like Yaoch, Polloi, etc. as well as place names like Peleliu, Kayangel, etc., does not conform exactly to the rules presented above. We should not be surprised or disturbed that Palauan personal names in particular show so much deviation from the “standard” rules of Palauan spelling. This is perhaps as it should be, since names are very individual things.

Second, words of foreign origin—especially technical terms—often appear in Palauan speech. Since these words contain sounds which are not native to Palauan, it becomes necessary in some cases to use non-Palauan letters. If the word is borrowed from Japanese and contains no sounds strange to Palauan, it should be possible to spell this word only with Palauan letters, as in basio ‘place’ and iasai ‘vegetables’. If, however, the Japanese word con­tains sounds which do not occur in Palauan, then it is necessary to use non-Palauan letters such as z and h.11 Words of this type in­clude daiziob ‘all right’, skozio ‘airport’, benzio ‘toilet’, hutsu ‘common, usual’, kohi ‘coffee’, and keizai ‘economies’. If the borrowed word comes from English—e.g. government, post office, 33party, etc.—it is usually spelled as in English, unless a native Palauan spelling has become commonplace, as in the case of skuul ‘school’.


Although we have examined the most important features of the Palauan sound system, there are many details which we have had to omit. Furthermore, our descriptions of the articulation of Palauan sounds and our phonetic transcriptions of Palauan words have been rather rough and oversimplified. For these reasons, this chapter should not be thought of as a guide to learning the correct pronunciation of Palauan. Such a goal can only be achieved with the assistance of a native speaker. If you are interested in looking at the sound system of Palauan in greater detail, you can consult such technical works as Carlson 1968, Flora 1969, and Wilson 1972, which are mentioned in the bibliography.


*2. Some speakers pronounce final k as a voiceless velar fricative [x] if a vowel precedes and if the syllable is stressed—e.g. chȩrmek [ɂərmέx] ‘my animal’. This phenomenon appears to be more com­mon among younger speakers.

*4. In this word, the second r actually comes from the infix -l-, which forms resulting state verbs (see 7.7 for a complete explanation). The form rruul ‘made, done’ is derived from r-l-uul by a process of total assimilation: when l follows r, it changes to r, resulting in the sequence rr [r̄]. Resulting state verbs in which the infix -l- does not change include kla ‘eaten’ and nglim ‘drunk (up)’.

496analysis of Palauan it is necessary to set up underlying forms containing w and y and that, ideally, the orthography should reflect these forms.

*8. The words under discussion are resulting state verbs (see 7.7 and cf. note 4 above). They are formed by infixing -l- after the first consonant of (verb) stems like tub ‘spit’, dangȩb ‘cover’, sesȩb ‘burn’, and chat ‘smoke’. While the resulting state verbs given in 33 require a schwa to intervene between the t, d, s, or ch of the stem and the following l, this is not necessary in other resulting state forms like kla ‘eaten’, nglim ‘drunk (up)’, and bloes ‘shot’.

*9. The actual pronunciation of these examples could be explained more clearly if the Palauan spelling system used w and y in addition to u and i. These words would then be spelled as follows: chuywiy ‘reads it’, kiysiy ‘digs it’, kiwtiy ‘cuts it’, and siwsiy ‘cures it’. The appearance of [ǝ] would be due to the fact that consonant clusters like yw or y/w+ C could not occur and would have to be broken up by an intervening schwa (cf. the nonoccurrence of tl, dl, sl, etc. illustrated in 33). To take a further example, note how the current Palauan spelling of mȩchiuaiu ‘sleep’ gives us little clue to the actual pro­nunciation of the word—namely, [mǝɂiwáyǝwǝ]. This pronunciation could easily be predicted if the spelling were mechiwayw: the final schwa release would be due to the (underlying) final cluster -yw, while the schwa between y and w would serve to break up a non-permissible consonant cluster.

1. The symbol ȩ is used in this text to identify one of the ways in which the Palauan letter e is pronounced. See 1.4.2. below for a complete discussion.

3. The phonetic symbol [ŋ] represents a velar nasal pronounced as a separate syllable. See 1.3.5 below.

5. In this example, which is actually a two-word sentence, the pro­nunciation of the word ng ‘it’ changes to (syllabic) [ṃ]: in other words, the pronunciation of ng ‘it’ assimilates to that of the initial bilabial consonant b [b] of the following word (cf. ng bilis [ṃbilis] ‘it’s a dog’). Another case in which the pronunciation of ng ‘it’ assimilates to that of the initial consonant of the following word was observed in 18—namely, ng til [ṇtil] ‘it’s her purse’.

6. A few one-syllable words which always or nearly always occur unstressed are found to contain ȩ—e.g., ‘they’, and ȩr ‘of, to, at, in.’

10. The letter h, as in hong ‘book’, is found almost exclusively in words borrowed from Japanese or English (see 1.5.f below and note 11).

11. The letter h is used only very rarely in the spelling of native Palauan words. The most obvious examples are found in the unusual pair of words hngong (exclamation to draw attention to a pleasant smell) and hngob (exclamation to draw attention to an unpleasant smell). Another possible example is hal ‘stop!’, but this word might be bor­rowed from German Halt ‘stop, halt’.

Previous Chapter


Next Chapter

2 Palauan Nouns

Additional Information

MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Creative Commons
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.