A Concise Grammar of Feorran


Feorran is a language of the Ross Group of the Antarctic Language Family. Previous descriptions of it have focused on particular aspects of its grammar without attempting to offer a comprehensive study. This work presents a descriptive grammar of the language based upon fieldwork undertaken in 1995-96. Also included are concise lexicons, both Feorran to English and English to Feorran, folktales in Feorran with analysis, and a brief ethnographic sketch.


This work was funded in part by the American Science Foundation (ASF Grant:#94-184061); by a grant from the Graduate Student Research Fund of Northern Indiana University; and by a grant from the Antarctic Studies Trust Fund. I am grateful to each of these for their support.

I wish to thank my advisors, Frederic W. Gleach, Greg Anderson, and Mary Swinson. Without their advice, this work could not have been done. I also wish to thank the United States Navy for their generous support at McMurdo Station. I want to express my gratitude to the government of New Zealand for giving me permission to work with the Tôlte. I cannot fail to thank my many friends in the Tôlte nation, especially the Shaman Soqhai. All errors are my own.

Table of Contents
  1. Introduction
  2. Phonology
  3. Morphology:Introduction
  4. Nominal Morphology
  5. Pronominal Morphology
  6. Verbal Morphology
  7. Morphology: Miscellaneous
  8. Uninflected Word Classes
  9. Syntax (Incomplete)
  10. Texts (Not yet posted.)
  11. Lexicon: Feorran-English
  12. Lexicon: English-Feorran
  13. Ethnographic Sketch of the Tôlte
  14. Works Cited

Abbreviations Used;

N.B.Absolute case is not usually indicated in singular nominal examples because it is zero-form.


Feorran is one of 16 known members of the Antarctic Family of languages. Three of the others are now extinct and in each case, little more than a few words were recorded (Burrows 1953). Feorran belongs to a branch of the family called Ross Languages in reference to their proximity to the Ross Ice Sheet.

Feorran is the first of the Ross languages to be described and only the 6th of the Antarctic languages to receive a full scale description. Feorran is spoken by the Tôlte tribe who number about 1200. They primarily live in Victoria Land but range far up and down the coast. Feorran is the name outsiders have given to the language, the Tôlte themselves have no name for it and the word itself only means 'speaking clearly, understandably'. The language has no clear cut dialectal differences. The nearest thing one finds to dialects are the rare differences noted between the various bands. It has been speculated the Fission-Fusion societies common to Antarctica tend to depress linguistic drift, despite often great distances between speakers (Swinson 1981). Despite their low number of speakers, no Antarctic language is endangered today. All are spoken by primarily monolingual populations that have little contact with the outside world.

The present classification of the Antarctic Language Family (after Anderson 1992, and with estimated number of speakers in 1995);


Feorran has the following phoneme inventories;

Stop and Fricative Consonants


Liquids, Rhotics, and Semivowels



I have used standard Antarctic orthography for this work which results in the following substitutions from IPA;

Notes on phonology;

  1. Stops are not aspirated.
  2. A phonetic, but non-phonemic // occurs /V_V and /#_V.
  3. [t,d,n] are dental, pronounced with the tongue against the back of the upper teeth.
  4. Double consonants are clearly articulated twice, not simply as a 'long' consonant.


Most, but by no means all, verb and nominal roots are disyllabic. The most common syllable shapes are, CV, CVC, CVCV, CVCVC, VCV, VCCV, CVCCV, VCVC, CCVCV,CCVCCV and CVCCVC. Less common are these; VC, VCC, CCV, CCVC, VCVCV, VCVCVC, VCCVC, and CCVCCV. There are no limitations on which consonants may appear as internal consonant clusters and it is universally the norm that syllables split between internal consonant clusters. It must be noted that Feorran treats the following diphthongs and vocalic clusters as V in determining stem shapes; [ai], [au], [ei], [eo], [iu]. Homonyms are rare but do occur. Nominal homonyms are known that differ only in gender;

Root final clusters are not allowed, an epenthetic [i] being inserted between the consonants. Root initial clusters have limited distribution patterns and are relatively rare. The following appear to be the only acceptable root initial clusters;

The Question of Vocalic Harmony

Vocalic harmony remains a hotly debated topic for the Western Antarctic languages. It certainly appears in the Eastern Antarctic languages (Fubuki 1982) but Anderson was reluctant to reconstruct it for Proto-Antarctic,
          The question of vocalic harmony is cloudy for
          PA because it appears as though there might
          be two different types in operation.  The
          first requires that all vowels in a root be
          front vowels, all front vowels + [a], or all
          back vowels.  A second type seems to require
          all high vowels (or high vowels and [a]) or
          all low vowels in any given root.  Two such
          conflicting systems raise questions as to the
          possible epiphenominality of the whole
          scheme.  (Anderson 1992:147)

Feorran certainly looks as though it might retain remnants of two such conflicting systems but it is safe to say that Feorran does not now structure its roots purely according to the dictates of vocalic harmony.

Feorran Morphology: An Introduction

All Feorran words and stems fall into one of three, clearly differentiated, classes; verbs, nominals, and particles. The latter class is a collecting place for generally monosyllabic, non-inflecting words. Nominals may be derived from verbal stems but apparently no verb is derived from a nominal stem. Adjectives and adverbials derive from either verbs or nominals. There are a few which appear to have no parent form in Feorran but which have cognate verbs and nominals in other Western Antarctic Languages, for that reason, I have treated them as derived also.

Feorran is a moderately inflected language and inflections are often essential to clear understanding and transmission of information. It is also fairly regular. There are only a handful of semi-irregular verbs and only two that are truly irregular. All nominals are regular in their inflectional patterns and a few rules concerning the appearance on gender (actually animacy) cover 95% of all nominal stems.

Nominal Morphology

Feorran has 2 nominal declensions, Vocalic and Consonantal, which as their names imply, have roots ending either in vowels or in consonants. There are no apparent restrictions on which vowels or which consonants may be be root final. As noted below, each declension has its own set of case markings.

Nominals are either of Animate or Inanimate gender. Gender is not overtly marked but is indicated by the choice of Article or Pronominal. Most animals, birds, people, tools, and supernatural entities are animate gender. Most non-living entities, abstract nouns, plants, and sky/weather features are inanimate. There are exceptions to the generalizations for both genders.

Active Participles (see below) used as nouns, are always animate. Conversely, Passive Participles used as nouns are always inanimate. A few nouns are known for which gender varies from one band to another. Below are noted some cases where specific clans have gender preferences in contrast to most speakers;

Nominals are inflected for 4 Cases and 2 Numbers. The cases are Relative, Absolute, Genitive, and Prepositional. The numbers are singular and plural. The two sets of inflections are conflated together, i.e., there is, e.g., a Plural Genitive case suffix or a Singular Relative case suffix.

Case And Number Marking

Voc.Sg. Voc.Pl. Cons.Sg. Cons.Pl.
Relative -n -nta -an -e
Absolute - -mei -
Genitive -q -k -az -irin
Prepositional -lo -kyn -a -owë

In the examples that follow, the Absolute case is marked for clarity.

The relative case is used for the subject of a transitive verb.

iu  star-  an  omtan-i-s   kätir.
DET shaman-Rel find- E-PPP meteorite-Abs
'The shaman found a meteorite.'

The absolute case used for the direct object of a transitive verb or the subject of an intransitive verb.

eo  lisa-n   omtan-i-s   le- q   biti-mei
DET girl-Rel find- E-PPP 3as-Gen awl- AbsPl
'The girl found her awls.'

The genitive case is used to indicate ownership, membership, or place of origin.

no     aliup-az  mosti-       q
1s-Abs clan- Gen killer_whale-Gen
I am of the Killer Whale Clan

eo  rukan-an  kadu-s   le- q   bote
DET boy-  Rel cut- PPP 3as-Gen food-Abs
'The boy cut his food.'

The prepositional case is used following prepositions. It generally indicates locations, instruments, indirect objects and beneficiaries.

eo  lisa     satu -s   da  mo           iu  gëspu-lo.
DET girl-Abs be_sw-PPP now in_structure DET lodge- Pre
'The girl is in the stonelodge now.'

Mass nouns generally do not have plurals. Several informants accepted them but indicated they were not the usual manner of speaking, most others rejected them out of hand.

Unlike Feorran's Penninsular relatives (Anderson 1995:406), Reduplication is rare as productive element of derivation. It is occasionally used to indicate a collective group;

As can be seen there is variation in the RDP process. This is a dialectal feature. Some bands consistently chose one pattern and some the other.

Nominal Derivational Suffixes

Feorran prefers to form new words by deriving them from existing roots. A number of Nominal Derivational Suffixes are attested. They are attached immediately after the root. They may be attached to either verb or nominal roots to yield a new nominal. The new nominal becomes either Vocalic or Consonantal Declension as per the suffix. Gender of the derived nominal is indicated by An=animate, In=inanimate.
Some examples;

Nominal Compounding

Nominal compounds are relatively rare and are generally used to refer to new elements in the Tôlte environment. When two nouns are compounded in Feorran, they take the gender of the initial root in the compound.
When the root of the first ends in a vowel and the root of the second begins in a vowel, the first root loses its final vowel;

Pronominal Morphology

Personal Pronouns

Apparently all Antarctic languages use a 4 person pronoun system (Moriarity 1962:45). Feorran has retained what may be the system found in the proto-language with both 3rd and 4th persons having animate and inanimate forms (Swinson 1967:142). The 3rd and 4th persons occasionally cause some confusion. They both refer to a 3rd person but differ in being 3rd person of 1st reference and 3rd person of second reference. Feorran lacks a reflexive pronoun and some uncertainty is avoided in this manner.
dhe-n   teota-s   ko.
3as-Rel kill- PPP 4as-Abs
'He killed him (i.e. someone else).'
dhe-n   teota-s   dhe
3as-Rel kill- PPP 3as-Abs
'He killed him(self).'

Feorran pronouns use the same case markings as nouns. Complications arise because plural personal pronouns have suppletive stems, all of which are consonant final whereas the singular forms are vowel final. Thus, singular personal pronouns use the Vocalic Declension singular case inflections and plural personal pronouns use the Consonantal Declension plural case inflections.

Personal Pronouns

Singular Plural
1 no nat
2 pa pam
3a dhe zeq
3i le leon
4a ko kam
4i dy diuz

As has been noted before, Feorran personal pronouns hint at an underlying pattern of derivation but until further reconstructive work is done the problem must remain unresolved (Moriarity 1962:51).

Correlative Pronouns

Correlative pronouns are formed by compounding simple nouns with bound correlative element.
The most common nouns used with these prefixes are talan 'place, location', mërëk 'person', zaq'thing', psin 'time, occasion, occurance', nemi "cause, reason, excuse'. However, the prefixes may be used with any noun or pronoun.

gë- sora-n   zuni-s   eo  liuke-       mei
COR-man- Rel hunt-PPP DET leopard_seal-AbsPl
'What man hunted the leopard seals?'

fe- leon-e     jasu-s   iu  bote
COR-3p-  RelPl eat- PPP DET food
'They all ate the food.'

Verbal Morphology

Most Feorran verbal roots fall into 4 classes based on ablaut patterns. There is also a rare Class E with about 30 verbs in it. With a few exceptions, the class is indicated by the first vowel of the Moderate Intensity root. Ablaut acts to form 4 additional roots from it, the Rapid Intensity, the Slow Intensity, the Active Participle, and the Passive Participle.

Verbal Ablaut Patterns

Mod.Int. Rap.Int. Slow Int. Act.Part. Pass.Part.
Class A e i ë ë, -n e, -t
Class B o u y o, -n o, -t
Class C a ä ô eo, -n a, -t
Class D eo ô au y, -n au, -t
Class E i, u, y ô iu ô, -n iu, -t

Note that the participles also require suffixing /-n/ or /-t/. Below are examples of roots for each class (note, verbs are shown in their standard citation form, Positive Mode, Postpotential-Perfect, i.e. [-s]);

Participles are adjectives, adverbs and deverbal nouns. They cover, in the case of the Active Participle, the ideas of doing X and X-ing. The Passive Participle includes notions of being X- ed, X-ed and so forth. Either may be used as a noun in which case the Active is animate and the Passive is inanimate.

As noted, most Feorran verbs are regular in their ablaut patterns. Only 17 verbs are now known that are irregular in one or two forms each (only 2 verbs are known with more irregularities than that.) The two verbs which are completely irregular in their ablaut patterns are hiras 'go', and satus 'be somewhere'.

Both hiras and satus are inflected in the normal manner discussed below.

Feorran verbs inflect for Mode, Potentiality, and Aspect. These three inflectional categories conflate as a series of agglutinative suffixes in the above order. With three exceptions, all of the inflections are regular in their patterning.

Mode is the judgement of Realis/Irrealis. There are three modes; Positive, Subjunctive, Negative. Positive mode is a statement of fact, somewhat like Indicative mood in western languages. Subjunctive mode is the statement of uncertainty and is used for expressing doubt, questions, and wishes. The Negative mode is the statement of certainty that the action did not or will not occur.

Potentiality is the judgement of success or failure of the action. There are three potentialities; Postpotential, Potential, and Impotential. Postpotential is the judgement that the action was successful and carried through to its logical conclusion. Potential indicates the action might still go either way. Impotential indicates failure.

Aspect indicates how complete the action is. There are three aspects Preperfect, Imperfect, and Perfect. Preperfect marks an action that is not yet begun. Imperfect indicates one in progress. Perfect indicates a finished action. Note that aspect is independent of tense which is indicated with free particles.

Below are the inflectional morphemes for each class and following is a table showing the actual patterns. Note that Postpotential-Perfect is irregular in all modes.

Verb Inflection Marking

Positive Subjunctive Negative
Post-Prep -sim -tim -thim
Post-Impf -sir -tir -thir
Post-Perf -(i)s -(i)t -(i)th
Pot-Prep -sem -tem -them
Pot-Impf -ser -ter -ther
Pot-Perf -set -tet -thet
Imp-Prep -sum -tum -thum
Imp-Impf -sur -tur -thur
Imp-Perf -sut -tut -thut

The Feorran rule requiring the insertion of an epenthetic /i/ means that a certain amount of ambiguity arises with some verb roots;

  1. hamis 'blame'
  2. purlis 'avoid'
  3. sôdhis 'believe'
  4. holekis 'sew'
  5. omtanis 'find, discover'
  6. qeboris 'die by falling into crevasse'

All informants agreed that the /i/ in the last three was inserted epenthetically. Most informants believed that the /i/ in the first three was a part of the root. However, there was some disagreement and an informant might accept one but not another. In the attached lexicon, I have basically followed a 'majority rules' policy.

Some examples of verbs in sentences;

iu  eomë-     n   tôta-      s-  u-  t  iu  star
DET winddemon-Rel kill(rap.)-Pos-Imp-Pf DET shaman
'The winddemon tried very hard to kill the shaman but failed.'

eo  rukan-an  zuni-s-  e-  r   kemi-   mei
DET boy-  Rel hunt-Pos-Pot-Ipf penguin-AbsPl
'The boy is hunting penguins (but hasn't gotten any yet).'

Morphology: Miscellaneous

Most adverbs and adjectives are derived from nominal or verb stems. Both are inflected for 3 grades, basic, superior, and inferior. Basic grade is the simple equational, X=Y. The superior implies either 'very X' or, alternatively, 'more X' in comparison to something else although the comparison is not always stated rather being left to context. The inferior is similar but means 'less X' or 'not so X'.

Qualifer Inflection Marking

Basic Superior Inferior
Adjectives -au -oq -oz
Adverbs -ai -iq -iz

Both adverbs and adjectives insert an epenthetic [l] after vocalic stems and before the inflection.

Color Terms

Almost all Feorran color terms are derived from nominals by means of the derivational suffix, [-jin]. Feorran only has three natural color terms (all of which are abstract nouns);

Uninflected Word Classes

Feorran has many types of Uninflected Words including articles, determiners, prepositions, numerals, interjections, modals, and natural adverbs.


Feorran has 2 definite articles, eo animate, and iu inanimate. The indefinite article is lacking and the meaning is communicated by simply leaving the slot empty in the sentence structure.
eo  sora-n   teota-s   kemi 
DET man- Rel kill- PPP penguin
'the man killed a penguin'
eo  sora-n   teota-s   eo  kemi  
DET man- Rel kill- PPP DET penguin
'the man killed the penguin'


Conjunctions join clauses and words together and to a certain extent, indicate their relationships. In the list below, there are 2 with very similar meanings, ma and eota. The elderly tend to use them almost interchangeably but younger speakers rarely use ma except with numbers.


Determiners roughly correspond to English demonstrative pronouns. Unlike those of English, they can never stand alone and must precede a noun. Feorran has several demonstratives based in part upon distance from the speaker and location.

Some examples.

iuka liuka-       n   kene-s   upe kemi
DET  leopard_seal-Rel see- PPP DET penguin
That leopard seal in the water saw the penguin near the water's


Feorran has a large number of interjections as well as mechanisms for forming new ones. In common with many, perhaps all, Antarctic Languages (cf. Fondren 1977:129), Feorran has a rich set of ideophones . The latter are most often formed by adding a special derivational morpheme, wät to a verb or nominal root. A few ideophones appear to be non-derived or derived from wät and unknown root. Ideophones in general serve as a sort of verbal exclamation or reinforcement by which the speaker conveys a meaning that may be crudely summarized as 'just like the taste/sound/smell/texture/etc. of'. The list of interjections below is not exhaustive but includes the most common.


Modals are auxilliaries that clarify verbs.

Natural Adverbs

The term Natural Adverb refers to those adverbs not derived from verb or nominal roots. These include Adverbs of Degree, Place, and Time.

Adverbs of Degree

Adverbs of Location

Natural Adverbs of Time


Prepositions include those particles associated with defining spatial relations and certain syntactic relations such as indirect object, beneficiary and so on.

Prepositions of Space

Syntactic Prepositions

Prepositions may form occur in pairs, rarely in groups of three. Some examples;


The Feorran numeral system is a blend of a decimal and an older quinary system which may have been the Proto-Antarctic number system (Burrows 1938:77). During my fieldwork it became clear that many people did not have a real grasp of numbers much over 100 and the word for '1000' is used to imply a notion along the lines of 'countless X'. However, several informants were quick to supply the correct meaning and were readily able to explain the concept of 1000.

Multiples of kiu and sëq are formed by preceding the base unit by the number of units;
Complex numbers are formed by inserting ma between the elements.
Collective nouns are formed from numerals by means of the nominal derivational suffix fan. All collective nouns are animate.
Adverbial uses of numerals are indicated by a the particle .


The standard word order is S-V-O-iO. This order is normally used in all declarative.

eo  lisa-n   rega-s   eo  seken      zu   eo  sora-lo
DET girl-Rel give-PPP DET bone_knife PREP DET man- Pre
'The girl gave the bone-knife to the man'

A NP consists minimally of a single nominal. It may also include DET and Adjectives.

A VP consists minimally of a single verb. It may also include a MDL and an Adverb. MDL Adv Vb is the correct order for a maximal VP. Note that the VP is not considered to include object and indirect object NPs.

Adjective precedes and is placed between a noun and its DET (if any.)

DET precedes a noun and its adjectives (if any.)

Possessor precedes possessive

dhe ja  no-q   biti
it  CON 1s-Pos awl
'It is my awl.'

Interrogative sentences are formed in three different ways.
Those where the action is not in question but the actor is unknown, use - 'what?'.

gë-  mërëk- an  omtan-   i-s   eo  lisa
COR- person-Rel discover-E-PPP DET girl
Who discovered the girl?

Those where the actor is not in question or at least not the focus of the question, rather the action itself is the focus, i.e., did it occur? Note the use of the Subjunctive mode with the interrogative. This is the most common form but is not obligatory, the other modes may be used to shade the meaning.

eo  rukan-an  zai kene-t   soq kemi
DET boy-  Rel MDL see- SPP DET penguin
'Did the boy see that penguin?' 

Tag-like questions for reconfirmation of suspicions, guesses, etc.

pa  zai jonde-tim owa
you MDL fall- SPP yes
You fell didn't you?

Imperative fronting is the term used to indicate that certain modals used in imperative constructions trigger the movement of the verb to the left of the subject. The modals beo 'imperative', kali 'let, exhortative', yrte 'stop', and hainte 'must', are the four which trigger imperative fronting and they occur in the leftmost position. Subjunctive, Potential, Preperfective is the most common inflection set for verbs in imperative constructions. Note that imperative constructions are not limited to second person actors.

beo teota-t-  e-  m   pa-n   eo  kemi
MDL kill- Sbj-Pot-Ppf 2s-Rel DET penguin
'Kill the penguin'

Non-fronted imperative constructions occur which are identical to simple declarative sentences except for voice intonation. These forms are considered inappropriate except when speaking to children.

pa-n   sita-    s-  i-  m   na   aq
2s-Rel be_sw(R)-Pos-Pst-Ppf PREP here
You will stay here!

Prepositional phrases consist obligatorily, of a preposition and a noun in the Prepositional case. DET is optional. Prepositions precede the NP.

eo  repnu        satu- s-  i-  r   mo    iu  gëspu-lo
DET hide_scraper be_sw-Pos-Pst-Imp PREP  DET lodge-Pre
'The hide-scraper is in the stonelodge.'

Equational sentences are formed with ja which in some contexts is close to English is, be, etc.

dhe  ja  sora
3sa  CON man
'He is a man.'

Works Cited
Anderson, Greg.  1992.  The Languages of Antarctica:
     Classification and Reconstruction of the Phonological
     Systems.  Northern Indiana University Ph.D. dissertation.
-----.  1995.  Reduplication in Penninsular  Antarctic Languages
     in Linguistic Studies in Honor of William Q.    
     Burrows, pp.405-426.  Mary Swinson (ed.)  Northern Indiana
     University Press:Fort Wayne, Ind.  
Burrows, William Q.  1953.  Last Words of Three Antarctic
     Languages.  Lingua Australis 12:34-39.
-----.  1940.  A Grammar of Jalel.  Oxbridgee University Press:
     London and New York.
-----.  1938.  Number Systems of Five Antarcctic Languages.
     Antarctic Studies 8/2:77-102.
Fondren, Deborah J.  1977.  Ideophones in Queen Maudland    
     Antarctic Languages.  Lingua Australis 36:89-110.
Fubuki, A.  1982.  Vocalic Harmony Systems of Eastern Antarctic
     Languages.  Lingua Australis 41:34-67.
Gleach, Frederic. W.  1994.  Native Peoples of Antarctica. 
     Hoyt-Ross Books, Inc.:Boston.
Moriarity, Glenda.  1962.  Pronouns of Feorran.  Antarctic
     Studies 32/2:37-53.
Swinson, Mary.  1981.  Fission-Fusion Societies and the     
     Suppression of Linguistic Drift in Antarctic Languages. 
     Antarctic Studies 51/1:1-47.
-----.  1967.  A Comparative Study of Antarcctic Personal
     Pronouns.  Lingua Australis 26: 107-145.

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