Martian grammar

This is a unit about the grammar of an invented language, ‘Martian’. It uses students’ (often subconscious) understanding of morphology to help them uncover the ‘rules’ of a made-up language. To ‘crack’ the language, they will need to break down the words into meaningful parts.

The lessons that follow are aimed at different levels. Activity 1 is probably best used with Year 9 or 10 students, and Activity 2 with Year 12 or 13 students. The feedback for the activities, and further discussion about the grammatical concepts covered, can be found in the Teacher feedback resource. This can be used as a basis for discussion in class. It is designed to work with either of the activities.

These lessons are designed to be used in different places, depending on the nature and level of your classes. You might choose to use the first lesson as an introduction to grammar activity at the start of this course, or use it later on as a means of introducing particular grammatical concepts such as tense, aspect, plurals or person. Meanwhile, the second lesson is more advanced and would probably best work at the end of the course.

The tasks are designed to make pupils think about the elements of words that help to create grammatical meaning (part of what is called morphology in linguistics). While checking for correct answers is obviously one way of evaluating pupils’ understanding of grammatical concepts, the discussion of the problem can also be revealing:

Also, if you video the groups working together in this problem-solving task, you’ll have some useful data to study as a class when you explore spoken language during another part of the course.

If you want to see the full solution for Activity 1 or Activity 2, you can consult the Word document attached at the end of this page. As well as the answers to the translation questions, it gives a list of all the Martian words and word-parts with their English meanings, and a brief description of the rules for putting together Martian words and sentences. It is best not to look at the solution until after attempting the activity (by trying to break the sentences and words down into their meaningful parts). However, you can use it to give a helpful clue if students are stuck, or as a final check on the solutions found.

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Martian grammar: Activity 1

Aliens have landed on Earth, but don’t worry: they come in peace. Or at least, we think they do, but we can’t quite understand what they’re talking about.

Their language is not familiar and even highly trained experts are struggling to work out what they are saying. Your job is to work with the Martian examples that they have translated and work out some of the rules of their language. In doing so, you might even learn something about your own language.

The following are examples of English clauses translated into Martian.

Read the examples and then try to work out the answers to the questions asked at the end.

  English Martian
A. I am happy osaveb joffo
B. I was not happy onixsavex joffo
  1. What is the difference between the English examples in A and B?
  2. Can you see any parts of the Martian that are different between examples A and B?
  3. What might joffo mean, based on the differences you have seen between examples A and B of the English and Martian?

  English Martian
C. We are eating oomangixereb
D. He was eating umangixerex
E. He ate umangex
  1. What is the difference between the English examples in C and D?
  2. Can you see any parts of the Martian that are different between examples C and D?
  3. What might ixer mean, based on the differences between examples D and E of the English and Martian?

Looking at the five examples you now have, do you think you can start to see any ‘rules’ for constructing Martian language?

Do you think you could explain at least one of the rules?

What would help you explain more rules?

Now for the tricky part. Your challenge is to use this next set of translations, along with what you have already learned about Martian, to solve the puzzle on the next page:

English Martian
I am happy osaveb joffo
I will be eating omangixeret
He had a friend ukalex makky
They were not happy uunixsavex joffo
We have friends ookaleb makkyz
She will eat a meal umanget akky
You did not sleep (where you is one person) enixzizex

Here is your puzzle. These English sentences need to be translated into Martian:

English Martian
He is happy  
You ate a meal  
We will have friends  
They will not be sleeping  
You (plural) were not happy  
She was sleeping  

Now for a further challenge. Someone has recorded the following examples of Martian, and asked you to translate them into English:

Martian English
ukaleb makkyz  
eesavet joffo  
onixzizixereb  
uumangixerex akky  
oozizet  

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Martian grammar: Activity 2

Aliens have landed on Earth, but don’t worry: they come in peace. Or at least, we think they do, but we can’t quite understand what they’re talking about.

Their language is not familiar and even highly trained experts are struggling to work out what they are saying. Your job is to work with the Martian examples that they have translated and work out some of the rules of their language. In doing so, you might even learn something about your own language.

First you will be given some examples of English clauses translated into Martian. You will then need to use these examples to solve the translation puzzle given on the next slide.

It may help to write out the Martian examples and try to break them into meaningful parts.

Note: If you have done the earlier lesson on Martian grammar, be warned that the Martian examples in this lesson come from a slightly different dialect. The rules of this dialect are slightly different.

Here are the examples of English clauses with Martian translations:

English Martian
I am happy joffo osaveb
I will be eating omangixeret
He had a friend makky ukalex
They were not happy joffo uunixsavex
We have friends makkyz ookaleb
She will eat a meal akky umanget
You did not sleep (where you is one person) enixzizex
You are not sleeping (where you is one person) enixzizixereb
He doesn’t like apples poggyz unixkimeb
They are eating a banana bluggy uumangixereb

And here is your translation puzzle. These English examples need to be translated into Martian:

English Martian
We were not happy  
They will be sleeping  
I like bananas  
I ate an apple  
She will not be happy  
You (plural) were not happy  
He was not eating apples  
You (plural) will not have friends  

Are you ready to tackle a further challenge? These Martian messages need translating into English:

Martian English
akky omangixeret  
bluggyz uukimeb  
unixzizixerex  
joffo esaveb  
poggyz oonixkalex  

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Martian grammar: teacher feedback

Once you have worked through the Martian grammar activities, you can look at some of the things you have discovered.

Let’s look at some elements of grammar that we have identified in the Martian grammar exercise:

But what do these mean and how are they shown in the examples we have looked at? If we can understand these principles then we can think about ways in which real grammars – like the grammar of English – work.

Tense and aspect

The way a verb ends often marks its tense – indicating when the action took place in relation to the present moment.

We can see this in English:

Here the present tense forms (walk, stretch) indicate actions happening ‘now’. The ending -ed marks past tense (walked, stretched), which indicates actions happening ‘before now’.

Take these examples from the Martian grammar exercise:

We can see that the first example is in the present tense (am) and the second example is in the past tense (was). In this case we don’t see the -ed ending on the past tense (be is an irregular verb in English), but we have the same contrast between ‘now’ and ‘before now’ marked by the different verb forms.

Let’s see what happens in the Martian versions of these.

The Martian versions are:

We can see that there are differences between these two sentences, but it’s the endings that we might want to look at more closely.

The present tense is marked by an -eb suffix (or ending), and the past tense with -ex.

Verb endings can also be used to mark aspect, for example to indicate whether the action of the verb is completed or ongoing.

What do you notice about these three actions?

Is each action completed or ongoing? How can we tell?

We can see that the first two examples have main verbs with -ing endings (as well as having auxiliary verb be), indicating ongoing action. They contrast with the third example, where the action is completed.

Let’s look at the Martian grammar examples of these:

If we’ve already established that present tense has an -eb suffix and past tense has an -ex suffix, how might the ongoing action (progressive aspect) of each verb be shown?

The use of the -ixer- unit seems to be the answer.

Negation

We usually turn statements into negatives with the addition of a negative word such as not or never.

In the Martian grammar examples, we had an example of negation:

Therefore we can see that the -nix- unit negates.

Person

Regular English verbs in the present tense have endings that relate to the person of their Subject:

In Martian grammar this is a little bit more complicated.

Martian grammar is a bit more mathematical than English and as Martians don’t have males and females, just one sex, they don’t bother with marking gender.

In Martian I is o- and we is oo-, marked as prefixes on the verb.

We can see that they double up the prefix to form the plural. The other person markers work in the same way:

Plurals

We have some evidence about how Martian marks plural on its nouns:

This is not too hard to work out, as it is quite similar to the English system. Martian adds a -z while English usually adds an -s (or -es).

You might notice a difference in the spelling patterns, however. What happens in English when we form the plural of a word ending in a consonant plus y, such as lady or memory?

In English we have:

 We have to change the y to i and add -es. Compare this with Martian:

The Martian spelling pattern seems easier, as they just tack on the -z without making any other change to the spelling.

Ordering rules

Did you notice some regular patterning to the order of the elements in Martian?

Let’s look first inside the Martian verbs. They are more complex than English ones as they have various different elements (inflections) that can be added to the main (or base) part of the verb to make different forms.

That is, they have a more complex inflectional morphology.

You may have noticed that the different elements are put together in a regular order.

In the Martian verbs we have seen, the person element always comes first and the tense element always comes last, e.g.:

Here mang is the base part of the verb, meaning ‘eat’; u indicates third person (‘he/she/it’); and ex indicates past tense.

The negation marker -nix- and the progressive marker -ixer- are not always added, but when they are they always come at particular positions inside the verb, e.g.:

Can you propose an ordering rule for all the parts of the verb, using labels like ‘tense’, ‘person’ and ‘verb base’?

Finally, let’s look at word order in Martian. This is different for activity 1 and activity 2 (as activity 2 looked at a slightly different dialect of Martian), so look under the relevant slide below.

Activity 1

If you did activity 1, you might not have noticed the word order rules as they are similar to English:

Here the words that mean ‘happy’ and ‘a friend’ come after the verb, as they do in English.

One grammatical difference is that English has I and He as separate words before the verb, while Martian marks these meanings at the beginning of the verb.

Activity 2

If you did activity 2, you probably noticed a difference in word order between English and Martian:

Here the words that mean ‘happy’ and ‘a friend’ come before the verb in Martian, whereas they come after the verb in English.

Another grammatical difference is that English has I and He as separate words before the verb, while Martian marks these meanings on the verb.

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