Ske language

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Native to Vanuatu
Region Pentecost Island
Native speakers
300 (2011)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 ske
Glottolog seke1241[2]

Ske (or Seke) is an endangered language of south-western Pentecost island in Vanuatu. Ske belongs to the East Vanuatu languages, a branch of the Austronesian languages family.

The Ske area comprises fourteen small villages centred on Bwaravet in south-western Pentecost, from Levizendam in the north to Hotwata in the south and extending inland to Vanliamit. Historically the language's area extended to parallel areas of the east coast, but this part of the island is now depopulated.

Due to intermarriage between language areas, an increasing number of people in Ske-speaking villages now speak Apma, Sa or Bislama as a first language, and local chiefs fear for the future of Ske. A closely related neighbouring language, Sowa, has already been totally displaced by Apma.

The number of Ske speakers was estimated at 600 in the year 2000, although this may be an overestimate, since not everybody in the Ske area is fluent in the language.

There is no significant dialectal variation within modern Ske, although there are noticeable differences between the Ske of older and younger speakers. Doltes, the extinct dialect of Hotwata village, is sometimes regarded as a Ske dialect, but appears to have been closer to Sa.

There is no local tradition of writing in Ske, and until recently the language was virtually undocumented. However, linguist Kay Johnson of SOAS is currently studying the language. Prior to her arrival, the only records of Ske were short vocabulary lists collected by David Walsh in the 1960s, Catriona Hyslop in 2001 and Andrew Gray in 2007.


Following the orthography developed by linguist Kay Johnson in consultation with the Ske community, the consonants of Ske are b, d, g, h, k, l, m, n, ng (as in English "singer"), p, q (prenasalized g, written ngg or g-macron in some sources), r, s, t, bilabial v, w, z, and labiovelar bw, mw, pw and vw.

Geminate consonants occur where two identical consonants have been brought together by the historical loss of an intervening vowel, for example in -kkas "to be sweet" (compare Sowa kakas).

Prenasalization of consonants occurs, so that b is pronounced mb, and d is pronounced nd.

Unlike neighbouring languages such as Apma, Ske permits a variety of voiced consonants to occur at the end of syllables, although when they occur at the end of an utterance they are often followed by an 'echo' of the previous vowel. Thus iq "you", for example, is often pronounced iqi.

In addition to the five standard vowels (a, e, i, o and u), Ske has mid-high vowels é (intermediate between e and i) and ó (intermediate between o and u), like in Sowa and Sa languages. Vowels do not appear to be distinguished for length.

Stress typically occurs on the final syllable of a word.

A notable characteristic of Ske is the dropping of unstressed vowels. For example, the word "its eye" is usually realized in Ske as mzan (although in some phrases it is mezn). Dropping of vowels in Ske has resulted in a language rich in consonants, in contrast to related languages such as Raga.

Due to the presence of consonant clusters within syllables and other phonological features not typical of East Vanuatu languages, speakers of neighbouring languages consider Ske difficult to speak and learn.


Basic word order in Ske is subject–verb–object.


Personal pronouns are distinguished by person and number. They are not distinguished by gender. The basic pronouns are:

Person Ske English
1st person singular "me"
2nd person singular iq "you" (singular)
3rd person singular ni "him / her / it"
1st person dual (inclusive) idaru "us" (you and me, two of us)
1st person dual (exclusive) qmwamaru "us" (me and another)
2nd person dual qmiaru "you (two)"
3rd person dual nieraru "them (two)"
1st person plural (inclusive) id "us" (you and me)
1st person plural (exclusive) qmwam "us" (me and others)
2nd person plural qmi "you" (plural)
3rd person plural nier "them"


Nouns in Ske are generally not preceded by articles. Plurality is indicated by placing the pronoun nier ("them") or a number after the noun.

Nouns may be either free, or directly possessed. Directly possessed nouns are suffixed to indicate whom an item belongs to. For example:

dloq = my voice
dlom = your voice
dlon = his/her voice
dlon subu = the chief's voice

Possession may also be indicated by the use of possessive classifiers, separate words that occur before or after the noun and take possessive suffixes. These classifiers are:

  • no- for general possessions (noq tobang, "my basket")
  • blie- for things that are cared for, such as crops and livestock (blied bó, "our pig")
  • a- for things to be eaten (am bwet, "your taro")
  • mwa- for things to be drunk (mwar ri, "their water") and for buildings (mwan im, "his house")
  • bie- for fire (biem ab, "your fire")
  • die- for fruits that are cut open (dien valnga, "his bush nut")
  • na- for associations, over which the possessor has no control (vnó naq, "my home island")

The possessive suffixes are as follows:

Person Ske English
1st person singular -q "of mine"
2nd person singular -m "of yours" (singular)
3rd person singular -n "of his/hers/its"
1st person dual (inclusive) -diaru "of ours" (yours and mine, two of us)
1st person dual (exclusive) -mwaru "of ours" (mine and another's)
2nd person dual -miaru "of yours" (two of you)
3rd person dual -raru "of theirs" (two of them)
1st person plural (inclusive) -d "of ours" (yours and mine)
1st person plural (exclusive) -mwam "of ours" (mine and others')
2nd person plural -mi "of yours" (plural)
3rd person plural -r "of theirs"
Generic -qze -

A verb may be transformed into a noun by the addition of a nominalising suffix -an:

vwel = to dance (verb)
vwelan = a dance (noun)

Modifiers generally come after a noun:

vet = stone
vet alok = big stone
vet aviet = four stones


Verbs are preceded by markers providing information on the subject and the tense, aspect and mood of an action. In idealised form, these verb markers are:

Person Subject marker -
imperfective (present tense)
Subject marker -
perfective (past tense)
Subject marker -
irrealis (future tense)
1st person singular mwa ni mwade "I"
2nd person singular kmwe ki ti "you" (singular)
3rd person singular m or mwe a de "he" / "she" / "it"
1st person dual (inclusive) ta kra tra "we" (you and I, two of us)
1st person dual (exclusive) mwamra mwara mwadra "we" (another and I)
2nd person dual mwira or mwria kria dria "you" (two)
3rd person dual mra ara dra "they" (two)
1st person plural (inclusive) pe kve tve "we" (you and I)
1st person plural (exclusive) mwabe mwave mwadve "we" (others and I)
2nd person plural bi kvie dvie "you" (plural)
3rd person plural be ave dve "they"

In practice, speakers' usage of certain markers may differ slightly from this paradigm, with ti "you" often being used in the past tense as well as the future, for example.

There is a pattern of verb-consonant mutation whereby v at the start of a verb changes to b, and vw to bw. This mutation occurs in imperfective aspect (present tense), and in irrealis mood (future tense):

ni va = I went
mwa ba = I am going
mwade ba = I will go

(Among a few older speakers there is also mutation of z to d, but most Ske speakers today use only the d forms.)

Hypothetical phrases are marked with :

ni umné = I should do it

Negative phrases are preceded by kare ("not"), or a variant:

kare ni umné = I didn't do it

Transitive and intransitive verb forms are distinguished. Transitive verbs are commonly suffixed with -né:

mwa róh = I move
mwa róh vet = I move the stone

Ske makes extensive use of stative verbs for descriptive purposes.

Ske has a copular verb, or .

Verbs in Ske can be linked together in serial verb constructions.

Sample phrases[edit]

English Ske
Where are you going? Kmwe ba ébeh?
I'm going to... Mwa ba...
Where have you come from? Ki me ébeh?
I've come from... Nime...
Where is it? Mdu ébeh?
It's here Mdu ene
Come here! Ti me ene!
Go away! Ti suk!
What's your name? Siam ne sien?
My name is... Siaq ne...
Where are you from? Iq azó ze ébeh?
I am from... Nó azó ze...
How much? / How many? Avih?
one alvwal
two aru
three aziol
four aviet
five alim
Thank you Kmwé bariev
It's just fine Abis qe


  1. ^ Ske at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Seke (Vanuatu)". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  • Gray, Andrew. 2012. The Languages of Pentecost Island.
  • Lynch, John and Crowley, Terry. 2001. Languages of Vanuatu: A New Survey and Bibliography.
  • Tryon, Darrell, 1976. New Hebrides Languages: An Internal Classification: Series C - No. 50. Pacific Linguistics.

External links[edit]