The 2014 Smiley Award Winner: Skerre

I am very pleased to present the 2014 Smiley Award to Skerre, an a priori language created by Doug Ball. Skerre is a language that Doug began working on as a teen, and has been working on steadily for the past 20 years. It's one of my favorite conlangs, and I'm delighted to give it the Smiley Award. Congratulations, Doug!

Smiley Award 2014

A Class Project

Most conlangs begin their existence in notebooks, and Skerre was no different. Indeed, Doug began Skerre at around the same age that Sylvia Sotomayor began Kēlen, and likely with similar motivations (Doug describes the first Skerre speakers as "space-faring elves"). Skerre's creation story would be unique, in the trivial sense, but not really noteworthy, were it not for a truly ambitious class project undertaken by Doug's eighth grade class.

Few conlangers share their work with others (though I do recognize this is becoming less and less the case as the years wear on). Fewer receive anything beyond generic, half-hearted praise from those they share their work with. Now imagine being an eighth grader with a newly created conlang and tasked with translating an entire play into your language—a play that would be performed in front of the rest of the school by your fellow classmates. That's what happened to Doug Ball with Skerre.

If you'd like to hear more about this dream project, you can listen to my interview with Doug here, read Doug's account of it here, or read the actual Skerre play here (note: .pdf), but it was an overwhelming undertaking. Aside from the fact that Doug's conlang was being taken seriously by students and faculty and given a huge public platform, Doug had to deal with translating the script of an entire play (who else could?) into a language that was probably not ready for prime time, and the frustration of actors not pronouncing the language the way he intended—not to mention that only half the audience was able to see the play's English subtitles, meaning the other half had absolutely no idea what was going on.

Even so, this was quite an introduction for Skerre. What an experience! Like most conlangs that have been around for more than a decade, though, this was just the beginning.


Doug continued working with Skerre throughout high school, but his watershed moment came when he attended college at the University of Rochester. A declared Linguistics major going in, Doug was eventually pointed in the direction of an English professor there named Sarah Higley—perhaps better known to conlangers as Sally Caves, creator of Teonaht. Sally introduced Doug to the online language creation community, and also worked with him to help him refine Skerre. It was then that Doug dropped the space-faring elf culture and began to create the current (humanoid) Skerre culture.

It's also at this time that Doug started Skerre on the road to naturalism. As he continued to work on the language, it would undergo a series of major revisions every few years. For example, you can see one evolved (though not current) state of the language in Doug's LCC1 talk. As Doug pursued his career in linguistics, he continued to find ways to improve Skerre, and so the language has continued to grow.

In 2003, when we both went to graduate school, we started corresponding via e-mail, and I got to witness the evolution of Skerre first-hand over the past 11 years. After 20 years of work, Skerre appears to finally be reaching a place of real stability, which is quite exciting.

The Basics

Skerre is a head-marking, head-initial VSO language. Independent nominals are marked with prepositional case particles, but all core nominal phrases can be marked directly on the verb. Outside of the third person, which is unmarked, the two types of marking cannot coexist. Some examples are shown below:

(Romanization note: Throughout, y = [j]; ' = [ʔ]; qu = [kw]; and a doubled vowel is long.)

  • Intransitive

    • Pronominals:
      • Wesiinha. "I slept."
      • Wesiinna. "You slept."

    • Noun Phrases:
      • Wesiin a weekii. "The turtle slept."
      • Wesiin a heyis. "The rabbit slept."
  • Transitive

    • Pronominals:
      • Rahaninanha. "I hunted you."
      • Rahaninahna. "You hunted me."

    • Noun Phrases:
      • Rahanin tsa weekii a heyis. "The turtle hunted the rabbit."
      • Rahanin tsa heyis a weekii. "The rabbit hunted the turtle."

Linguistically-inclined readers may notice that there is an interesting split evidenced in the data above. Like ámman îar, Skerre has a split-ergative system. While ámman îar's split is based on animacy, Skerre's split is based entirely on marking. In Skerre, pronominal clitics are accusatively aligned, so that verbs mark subjects and objects. The case prepositions of Skerre, on the other hand, are ergatively aligned: tsa marks an agent in a transitive clause, and a marks a patient in a transitive clause and the lone argument in an intransitive clause. In a transitive clause with mixed marking, you can see both patterns at once:

  • Pronominal Agent, Nominal Patient:
    • Rahaninanha a yese. "I hunted the dog."

  • Pronominal Patient, Nominal Agent:
    • Rahaninah tsa yese. "The dog hunted me."

Another bit of marking used on the verbs above is the perfective marker, which exhibits some interesting allomorphy. It has some predictable (i.e. phonologically-conditioned) allomorphs when the suffix follows a form ending in a consonant or a long vowel, but when it follows a short vowel, it lengthens it. Some examples are shown below:

English Skerre Verb Stem Perfective Form
hunt rahan- rahanin
hang soraa- soraayin
give yasi- yasiin
begin era- eraan
laugh orko- orkoon
crush rene- reneen

In addition, there are a small number of irregular verbs that exhibit some interesting suppletive patterns, such as aka~aye "do", quoos~woor "go/come", wina~enta "become", and hike~haye "know". As with natural languages, the truly irregular verb forms co-occur with high-frequency items.

The extended set of case marking prepositions also make a two-way distinction depending on the type of nominal they modify. The list is given below:

Case P-Prenominal C-Prenominal
Genitive i e
Locative hi te
Dative ye ya
Ablative soo sowa
Comitative ni ne

The terms P-Prenominal and C-Prenominal are Doug's invention, but in effect they stand for the types of nouns the prepositions above may co-occur with. P-Prenominals co-occur with proper nouns (e.g. names), but also independent pronouns and a few other nouns in certain instances. C-Prenominals co-occur with all other types of nouns. It's a distinction several languages make in certain parts of the grammar (Malagasy comes to mind), but this usage is a neat one. The distinction can be seen fairly easily by contrasting genitival possessors:

  • a sehan i Tsotar
  • "Tsotar's house"
  • a sehan e keriyos
  • "the man's house"

Of course, the place where Doug's most interesting work lies is the syntax.

Sneaky Subjects

One of the most interesting quirks of Skerre is what happens with the subject suffixes seen in some of the examples above. To recapitulate, this is what they look like:

  Singular Plural
First Person -ha -wo
Second Person -na -ra
Third Person -ti

In a single word, the subject suffix always comes last. The ordering goes: Tense prefix (we haven't seen these, but other tenses have prefixed forms) > verb root > tense suffix > object suffix > subject suffix. We can't see all of them on one verb, but we can see three of them, as below:

  • Sekaanona.
  • "You shunned us."

And actually since we haven't seen one yet, here's a prefix: the imperfective:

  • Hiseka'ona.
  • "You're shunning us."

Now's where it gets interesting. First, there are two types of clausal negation in Skerre: standard and imperative. The imperative form of a verb in Skerre is simply the verb stem, and to issue a negative command, a special preposed negative particle must be used, as shown below:

  • Imperative:
    • Positive: Seya! "Sing!"
    • Negative: Rone seya! "Don't sing!"

To negate a standard clause, a different word is used, as shown below:

  • Indicative:
    • Positive: Hiseya. "He's singing."
    • Negative: Koni hiseya. "He's not singing."

Now notice what happens if we use a non-third person singular subject instead:

  • Indicative:
    • Positive: Hiseyaha. "I'm singing."
    • Negative: Koniha hiseya. "I'm not singing."

The subject marker jumped off the verb and got added to the negative word koni! Now one might say this is simply a negative auxiliary, and so it's inflecting instead of the verb. But if so, why does the verb still display the tense information? Also, consider these examples:

  • Indicative:
    • Positive: Wentorinanha. "I attacked you."
    • Negative: Koniha wentorinan. "I didn't attack you."

Basically, the only thing that jumps ship is the subject suffix. This would be a little odd, if it were just a quirk of negation (we'll never know if it'd affect the imperative negator, since commands don't appear with subject suffixes), but it actually pops up elsewhere. For example, consider the pair of sentences below:

  • Wentorinanha. "I attacked you."
  • Kootha wentorinan. "How did I attack you?"

(Note: The th above is pronounced like the th in pothole, e.g. "The pots don't go in the dishwasher—it ruins them—so when they get dirty, I throw them in the pothole out back and buy new ones online.")

But that's a WH-word, and WH-words and negators are highly grammatical little bits, so they're not just like any old word—i.e. not like this:

  • Wentorinanha. "I attacked you."
  • Haasosha wentorinan. "Twice I attacked you."

(Note: The sh above is pronounced like the sh in mishamper, e.g. "I wish you would at least try not to mishamper my darks. I have to keep them separate when I do laundry or I'll rend my own flesh.")

Now we have the subject suffix attaching to some random adverb. Indeed, if you take any adverb and drag it out front, the subject suffix gets attached to the end. A reasonable guess as to what's going on might be that the subject suffix gets added to the first word of every sentence, whatever it is. This turns out not to be the case, though:

  • Woorha ya toora. "I went to the market."
  • Ya tooraha woor. "To the market I went."

In effect, what we're seeing here is grammaticalization in action. The tense/aspect affixes are the oldest bit of morphology, and the object suffixes the second oldest. The subject suffixes are the new kid on the block, and they still exhibit some of their independent nature by fastening onto words other than the verb. Give this another couple generations and the subject suffixes would probably fuse to the verb. You can also see their relatively young age by the fact that they don't assimilate the way the other affixes do. Compare the subject and object suffixes for the same person/number categories when attached to stems that end in a consonant and stems that end in a vowel:

  Object Suffixes Subject Suffixes
C-Final Stem
wanet- "worship"
V-Final Stem
hani- "gather"
C-Final Stem
aris- "stand"
V-Final Stem
nesi- "continue"
First Person Singular wanetah hanih arisha nesiha
Second Person Singular wanetan hanin arisna nesina
Third Person Singular wanet hani aris nesi
First Person Plural waneto hani'o ariswo nesiwo
Second Person Plural wanetar hanir arisra nesira
Third Person Plural wanet hani aristi nesiti

Notice that the object suffixes exhibit phonologically-conditioned allomorphy, whereas the subject suffixes do not. This is because the subject suffixes are young and haven't yet been fully grammaticalized—and it's for that same reason that they're not anchored down to the verb.

Naturalistic details like this emerge when a master of the craft is at work, and over the years that's precisely what Doug has become.

How Skerre Has Made Me Smile

How about the fact that there is no word skerre in Skerre! The name of the Skerre people in Skerre is Tanok, and the name of the language is Iresa i Tanok, or Iresa for short. And furthermore, Doug pronounces Skerre like the English word scare!

But man, Skerre is so far up my alley it pays me rent every month.

Seriously, it's got everything I love: a minimal phonology; head-initial ordering; head-marking; deceptively simple TAM marking... Sometimes it feels like I created it.

Nah, it's got Doug written all over it. But its influence on me—and on Dothraki in particular, whether consciously or unconsciously—is evident. Skerre is one of the first languages that caught my attention on the Conlang-L when I joined almost fifteen years ago, and since I've been friends with Doug, I've been privileged to see it grow and evolve. In particular, corresponding with Doug has helped me to be the conlanger I am today. Doug takes the craft very seriously, and brings all his knowledge as a linguist to bear on each aspect of the language.

I should also mention that the name he uses for all his examples—Tsotar—has to be one of my all-time favorite names. If I have a son, I probably...won't get to name him. (My wife's made that quite clear.) But if I have five sons, I'm sure by then my wife won't care, so rest assured, my fifth son shall be named Tsotar!

Also, in a bit of random trivia, Doug was actually the inspiration for this award—the Smiley. After LCC1, I did a write-up on the conference, and gave Doug a made-up award designed in my AppleWorks paint program for finishing his talk on time (everyone else ran over). It was shortly after that that I thought I might as well give out a conlang award, since no one else was going to do it, and the hard, creative work conlangers do deserves to be recognized, at least once. It's only fitting that Doug should also take home a Smiley Award.

And so, congratulations, Doug! Thank you for Skerre, and thank you for our decade-long conlang correspondence. You're the best!

A picture of me and Doug as I presented him with the 2014 Smiley Award.

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