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:

  • Tense and aspect
  • Negation
  • Person
  • Plurals
  • Ordering rules

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:

  • I walk – I walked
  • I stretch – I stretched

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:

  • I am happy
  • I was not happy

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:

  • osaveb joffo – ‘I am happy’
  • onixsavex joffo – ‘I was not happy’

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?

  • We are eating
  • He was eating
  • He ate

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:

  • We are eating = oomangixereb
  • He was eating = umangixerex
  • He ate = umangex

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.


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:

  • I am happy = osaveb joffo
  • I was not happy = onixsavex joffo

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


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

  • The form used with some Subjects is the same as the base form (e.g. I walkyou walkwe walkthey walk – with no ending added to the base form walk).
  • But in the third person (he, she or it) the verb adds an -s ending (he walks, etc.).

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:

  • you (singular) = e- 
  • you (plural) = ee-
  • he/she/it (singular) = u-
  • they (plural) = uu-


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

  • a friend (singular)= makky
  • friends (plural) = makkyz

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:

  • lady – ladies
  • memory – memories

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

  • makky makkyz

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.:

  • umangex = u + mang + ex

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.:

  • unixmangixerex = u + nix + mang + ixer + ex
  • enixzizixeret = e + nix + ziz + ixer + et

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:

  • osaveb joffo = I am happy
  • ukalex makky = He had a friend

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:

  • joffo osaveb = I am happy
  • makky ukalex = He had a friend

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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