The 2019 Smiley Award Winner: Fith

The 2019 Smiley Award is presented to Fith, a truly alien engelang created by Jeffrey Henning. Congratulations, Jeffrey!

Smiley Award 2019

What If

Like any good engelang, Fith began with a "what if" question. In high school, Jeffrey Henning had a Hewlett-Packard calculator that used Reverse Polish Notation, where instead of typing in 2 + 3 you had to type in 2 3 +. This type of system employs what's known as Last In First Out (LIFO)—or stack-based—grammar. Stack-based grammar is often explained by making reference to a pile of spring-loaded plates. By adding a plate to the pile, the rest of the plates are pushed down (due to the weight of the new plate that was added), and now the new plate is on the top of the stack. To get something from the stack, you take the top plate, as it is the most easily accessible, and remove it, and then the stack moves up again, with the plate that was previously on top now being on top once again. Thus, the last plate added to the stack (the one most recently put onto the stack) is the first one to be removed (hence, last in first out).

Stack-based grammar is relevant for computer programming and several other things, but not really for language. That is, if you imagine the elements which comprise a stack as linguistic elements, you can see that at a certain depth, a human's working memory simply wouldn't be able to keep up (i.e. if you load on 30 new linguistic elements and then remove 29 of them, are you going to remember what the very first item on the stack was?).

But what if there were beings whose brains allowed them to accommodate a linguistic stack? What would their language look like? What quirks might it have? How might the stack be exploited for pragmatic reasons?

These questions are precisely what led Jeffrey to create Fifth.

Introducing Fith

Fith derives its name from the programming language Forth. Forth (without the "u") was the fourth iteration of this particular programming language, so Jeffrey named his language Fith (without the "f") as a nod to it.

Much like Sylvia Sotomayor's Kēlen, Jeffrey Henning gave Fith a backstory, making this language technically an artlang. Fith's speakers are aliens, complete with their own literature, naming traditions, and customs (and apparently two thumbs on each hand...? Am I reading that right?), though we don't know exactly what they look like (I imagine them on the taller side, for some reason). Backstory aside, though, the reason people come to Fith is the stack-based grammar, and it's important to understand it properly to be able to appreciate what can be done with it later on.

First, imagine that instead of your brain working the way it does with respect to language, that it worked thus. Imagine your brain is made of an infinitely expandable respository for linguistic elements that you can hold in your working memory. So, for example, if our brains worked like this, your working memory might look like the table below before hearing anything:

Stack Position Element

I've chosen five as an arbitrary number of potential linguistic elements just because: There could be quite literally an infinite number of them. Importantly, though, note that the number corresponds to the time depth. Thus, 1 is the oldest element, and 5 is the newest, in the table above.

So, imagining a brain like this, let us next suppose you encounter the following sentence in the wild:

  • "I went to that store you told me about the other day."

This is what would happen in your stack-based brain:

Stack Position Element
12 day
11 other
10 the
9 about
8 me
7 told
6 you
5 store
4 that
3 to
2 went
1 I

For this example, pretend that whatever you know about English (or human) syntax is null and void. Instead, the only way your brain could parse this sentence was by words that made explicit reference to a word's position on the stack, or to relative positions on the stack. So, for example, once the sentence was finished, you'd know that "day" and stack top are equivalent. You also know the relative order of each part of speech. So, for example (treating nouns and pronouns as identical), you also know that "I" is the first noun, "store" is the second, etc. Based on that information, if there were a theoretical next word—say, "blorg"—whose function was to make the third noun the owner of the noun on the top of the stack, the sentence "I went to that store you told me about the other day blorg" would mean "I went to the store the other day of yours".

So far so good? Now let's get to some actual Fith.

One of the most important elements of Fith is how words of certain classes can modify the stack. So, for example, an adjective will take the top noun on the stack and combine with it to become the new top element, thus shortening the stack. To illustrate, here's Jeffrey's opening example.

First, you have one word: A noun, zhong:

Stack Position Fith English
1 zhong nation

Next, you get a new noun: hong, "man":

Stack Position Fith English
2 hong man
1 zhong nation

At this point, there's no meaning whatsoever: Just two words in a list. But then the third noun does something, as it's a modifier. The stack first looks like this:

Stack Position Fith English
3 lin loyal
2 hong man
1 zhong nation

But then almost instantaneously collapses to the following:

Stack Position Fith English
2 hong lin loyal man
1 zhong nation

There's still no meaning. It'd be roughly like saying "loyal man nation", but with no possible association between the two nouns.

Finally, a last word comes in that allows the stack to collapse, and gives the whole thing meaning. First we get this:

Stack Position Fith English
3 lo of
2 hong lin loyal man
1 zhong nation

But that will instanteously collapse, giving us:

Stack Position Fith English
1 zhong hong lin lo loyal man of the nation

And so now we have a noun phrase. In a way, this is somewhat similar to Denis Moskowitz's Rikchik (specifically the collectors), but essentially what happens is words stack up and have no meaning until another word comes along to tell you how the previous words relate to one another. This example is fairly trivial, and superficially similar to something a natlang might do, but it's important to understand how these stacks work now so we can get into the fascinating stuff.

Mind the Stack

It's one thing to come up with a divergent type of grammar; another to do something noteworthy with it. Fith is cool in that it makes use of its stack-based grammar in some fascinating ways.

First, Fith does have verb-like elements. These are simple functions that take two (or three) previous nouns as arguments, treating the first as the subject, and subsequent nouns as objects, their functions determined by the argument structure of the verb. So, for example, Hong blanmh vlinh means "The man saw the food". [Note: there are articles and tense markers in Fith, but they're optional. It'd also be good form to end a complete declarative sentence with e. I omit it here for the sake of simplicity.] It works like this:

Stack Position Fith English
3 vlinh see
2 blanmh food
1 hong man

The verb vlinh looks for the two previous noun phrases on the stack and assigns subject to the first, and object to the second.

So, bearing that in mind, consider the possibilities that exist if one were to also use one of the following operators:

  • Shen: Flips the top two items on the stack.
  • Ronh: Moves the antepenultimate stack item to the top.
  • Lonh: Moves the top stack item to antepenultimate position.
  • Du: Makes a copy of the top stack item.
  • Kuu: Makes a copy of the top two stack items.
  • Voi: Copies the penultimate stack item to the top of the stack.

So, for example, if Hong blanmh vlinh means "The man saw the food", then Hong blanmh shen vlinh means "The food saw the man".

With two arguments, it kind of looks like a passive. With three, though, things are a little different. Consider Hong blanmh sfimnh shle, which means "The man gave the food to the fish". If you throw shen into the same pre-verbal spot, Hong blanmh sfimnh shen shle, it means "The man gave the fish to the food". Drop it one earlier, and you get Hong blanmh shen sfimnh shle, "The food gave the man to the fish". Throw ronh into the mix, and you get Hong blanmh sfimnh ronh shle, "The food gave the fish to the man". With lonh, it's Hong blanmh sfimnh lonh shle, "The fish gave the man to the food".

And, of course, you can still say "The man gave the food to the fish" with many different orderings if you use different stack opertors. All of the following translate to "The man gave the food to the fish":

  • Hong blanmh sfimnh shle.
  • Hong sfimnh blanmh shen shle.
  • Blanmh hong shen sfimnh shle.
  • Sfimnh hong blanmh ronh shle.
  • Blanmh sfimnh hong lonh shle.

But even more than ronh, lonh, et al., this operator is my favorite:

  • Dzhi: Copies the item above (or, if you prefer, after, temporally speaking) nyun to the top of the stack.

What's nyun? Nothing, really. Think of it as an anchor. You can drop it anywhere in the sentence, and then whenever you want to, you can drop dzhi in, and it will add the item after/above nyun to the top of the stack. One could, presumably, have a discourse of any length, and so long as nyun isn't used more than once, an old stack item can be brought back at will sentences later, so long as it hasn't been cleared from the stack!

Another fun set of operators are the destructive conjunctions below:

  • Frong: Removes the top item from the stack.
  • Bom: Removes the penultimate item from the stack.
  • Skuunh: Removes all items from the stack.

So if Hong blanmh vlinh means "The man saw the food", and Hong sfimnh vlinh means "The man saw the fish", then Hong blanmh sfimnh frong vlinh and Hong sfimnh blanmh bom vlinh both mean "The man saw the food". Looking at the last one, the stack first looks like this:

Stack Position Fith English
5 vlinh see
4 bom Remove Stack Item 2
3 blanmh food
2 sfimnh fish
1 hong man

But as a result of adding bom, it ends up like this:

Stack Position Fith English
3 vlinh see
2 blanmh food
1 hong man

And then, of course, it collapses to a single stack item.

The amount of raw expressive power this grammar affords you is exhilarating! Of course, humans don't really have the working memory to take advantage of such a grammar in real time, so what's the point of saying the same thing in two ways: One straightforward, the other hopelessly perplexing for a human brain?


Krefimort is a word from Sally Caves' Teonaht which means, "The thing that has escaped your mouth that cannot be taken back". Often when those who speak nominative-accusative languages are introduced to ergativity, they're taken aback by antipassives. That is, changing "He ate the meat" to "The meat was eaten by him" is of obvious utitliy to a speaker of a nominative-accusative language, but what possible use could there be for changing "He ate the meat" to "He did eating to the meat"? That is, what is the point of saying the same thing in a different way? It's questions like these to which I think the word krefimort is directly relevant.

Take the destructive conjunctions. Previously we've seen that both Hong blanmh vlinh (i.e. "Man food see") and Hong blanmh sfimnh frong vlinh (i.e. "Man food fish delete-previous see") mean "The man saw the food". Why use the latter when the former is shorter and has less extraneous information? The reason is once you've heard something, you can't unhear it. That goes for both humans and Fithians. Even though Fithian brains are attuned to stacks the way a computer may be, they're not computers. This means that a Fithian can use the stack conjunctions to say more than they're literally saying. Consider this example:

  • Hong blanmh hlonmh frong vlinh. "The man saw the food."

In the example above, frong strikes out the previous item on the stack, and the previous item is hlonmh—or "filth". This is the equivalent of the lame popular modern usage of strikethrough in internet writing. In a way, it's kind of a call back to the old Usenet custom of using ^H^H^H to "delete" text one "didn't mean" to type (e.g. I always found it incredibly annoyi^H^H^H^H^H^Hendearing when Conlang-L members would use ^H on the list).

The same concept applies to the other stack operators. Looking back at this list, all of which mean "The man gave the food to the fish"...

  • Hong blanmh sfimnh shle.
  • Hong sfimnh blanmh shen shle.
  • Blanmh hong shen sfimnh shle.
  • Sfimnh hong blanmh ronh shle.
  • Blanmh sfimnh hong lonh shle. can begin to see how a given word order might be exploited for a particular reason. It could be something as simple as "The thing I want my listener to focus on comes first". The operators give you a way to put any argument you want first, no matter its depth. Furthermore, the working memory of Fithians allows a writer to truly exploit the functionality of the stack in ways that a human simply couldn't keep up with.

Since the issue of human usability has been raised, I thought I would mention Jörg Rhiemeier's Shallow Fith. Shallow Fith is an imagined simplification of the Fith language that humans could use to communicate with Fithians. It is grammatical Fith, strictly speaking, but not the type of Fith that Fithians themselves would use. It's an auxiliary language, rather than a theoretical variant of Fith.

Still, there are those that have claimed that Fith is no more complex or unusable than a natlang, given that nothing it does isn't done in some natlang somewhere. This is demonstrably false. (And should be rather obvious, since tense elements, for example, can go literally anywhere—even in the middle of a "phrase", since, for example, a modifier will look for the previous noun on the stack to combine with, no matter what's in between.)

To demonstrate, one must remember and be quite clear about what exactly the functions that collect previous items do. For example, a modifier collects a previous noun or noun phrase and returns another noun phrase that has a modifier in it. If there happen to be two nouns prior with no other syntax, what's returned is a noun phrase comprising one adjective and one noun and then a leftover noun with no syntax. So, for example:

  • blanmh hong lo "food the loyal man"

That phrase is about as sensical in Fith as it is in English. Like English, that's fine, so long as you do something with the leftover noun eventually. The phrase "the man the woman" is rather nebulous in English, but "the man the woman saw" is fine. Something like Blanmh hong lo shen vlinh would be totally fine (i.e. "The loyal man saw the food"). In Fith, though, you can do this with any word, not just nouns. For example, you can allow a modifier to linger on the stack fairly easily and call it back much later on. To understand how, though, we have to go over the stop stack operators.

The usual way to end a sentence in Fith is with one of four stop stack operators:

  • E: Removes the top item from the stack as a declarative sentence.
  • I: Removes the top item from the stack as an introduction.
  • O: Removes the top item from the stack as an exclamation.
  • U: Removes the top item from the stack as a question.

Note that these operators remove the top item from the stack; not everything that comes before them, like skuunh. For an ordinary sentence like Hong blanmh vlinh e, "The man saw the food", that's fairly simple. What would happen if you had another modifier on the front, though? Say dzhoimh, "blue". If you had a sentence like Dzhoimh hong blanmh vlinh e, it'd mean "Blue the man saw the food", and would be fairly nonsensical. Here are the relevant iterative steps. When vlinh, "see", is first added, the stack looks like this:

Stack Position Fith English Part of Speech
4 vlinh see VERB 1
3 blanmh food NOUN 2
2 hong man NOUN 1
1 dzhoimh blue MODIFIER 1

The stack then collapses as follows:

Stack Position Fith English Part of Speech
2 hong blanmh vlinh man SENTENCE 1
1 dzhoimh blue MODIFIER 1

Then e is added:

Stack Position Fith English Part of Speech
3 e Remove Top Item As Declaration OPERATOR
2 hong blanmh vlinh man SENTENCE 1
1 dzhoimh blue MODIFIER 1

And this is what the final stack looks like:

Stack Position Fith English Part of Speech
1 dzhoimh blue MODIFIER 1

It's still there! Despite the fact that an entire sentence has gone by, dzhoimh hong blanmh vlinh e and dzhoimh are functionally equivalent, in terms of the mental stack. That means that anything that happens after will happen as if the only item on the stack is dzhoimh. Consequently, one could very well write (or a Fithian could comfortably say and understand) the following (with a middle line as a gloss):

  • Dzhoimh lu kuu yan sthingh baimnh e shen stieng ronh vlinh i lu byenmh ronh fwainh thamh pwuung e.
  • /Blue I COPY-2 PAST market travel STOP SWAP flock-of-birds PULL-ANTEPEN see INTRO I ball PULL-ANTEPEN relative for get STOP/
  • "I traveled to the market. I saw a blue flock of birds, so I got a blue ball for a relative."

[Note: If you'd like to check my work, you can view my construction notes here. The elongated acute accent marks are the equivalent of triangles in syntactic notation: They denote irrelevant or trivial portions of the sentence that I did not include in the stack for the sake of simplicity.]

This sentence starts with the word dzhoimh, "blue", to set the theme. The idea is seeing the blue birds gave the speaker the idea to get a blue ball, and to highlight this fact, they started the sentence with "blue" and arranged everything else around it—including having dzhoimh modify two separate nouns in two separate clauses. Furthermore, the use of kuu is rather interesting. It copies the top two items on the stack—in this case, dzhoimh "blue" and lu "I"—despite the fact that the two words copied don't belong to the same clause. It'd be a bit like if in English we could say "What kind of ball did he give who?", and a normal response would be, "Blue me" (as in "blue" is the type of the ball that was given and "me" is who he gave the ball).

The types of operations here do not happen in natural human languages, and likely could not. Certainly, humans can create languages that work like this (Fith was created by a human, after all), but it's doubtful that they could be used in any way other than as described in Shallow Fith. To not make use of the stack operators provided would kind of be like speaking Spanish while only using the equivalents of the English tenses (i.e. using the present progressive for non-experiencer verbs all the time in the present, and using the past progressive rather than the imperfect). Technically you'd be producing grammatical Spanish, but any native Spanish speaker would be comfortable identifying the result as, well, not Spanish.

How Fith Has Made Me Smile

Have I yet mentioned how Fith is apparently spoken by a race of centaur-like marsupials? Did that somehow slip by? If so, my apologies. That's why Jeffrey uses the word "pouch" in this translation:

As we all love the pouch that bore us, we all love the clan who raised us. As we all love the clan who raised us, so must we love this nation that sacrificed for us.

—Tsho Ming Sun Do.

Perhaps this is why one of the highest insults you can hurl at a Fithian is shi vum vai e, "You were an egg" (though, of course, if you follow it with skuunh, all is well!).

One of the best things about reading through the Fith documentation is the hints at the culture of Fithians, which is both alien and amusing. As entertaining as it is, though, it's refreshing to see someone really swing for the fences and try to create something truly non-human. Essentially, Fithians have two separate working memories: One general one, and another for this mental stack. Presumably both could be overtaxed, but since they're independent, the complexity or weight of one doesn't affect the other, in theory. That's a fascinating prospect!

I've known Jeffrey Henning for many years—first as the creator of, and then as a boss, when I worked for him on Langmaker—and I had the pleasure of meeting him by surprise in 2009 at LCC3. (Incidentally, he also kindly provided me with a Fith translation of a poem I wrote in Sheli.) He's one of the largest names in modern conlanging, yet he's rather modest—and since Langmaker has gone down, a lot of his work is falling out of the collective memory of the conlanging community. It truly oughtn't, though, as Jeffrey's work is thoughtful, innovative, and often groundbreaking. I'm hopeful that his work may be rediscovered—or perhaps discovered for the first time by a new audience—thanks to a new book specifcally on Jeffrey Henning's conlang work published by Mark Rosenfelder's Yonagu Books. If you want to learn more about Fith or any of Jeffrey's other projects, be sure to check it out!

Of his many languages, Fith is the one that most captured my imagination, and the one I find myself returning to year after year. (I also keep trying to use it for translation unsuccessfully. Hopefully I got it right this time!) When it came time to single out one of Jeffrey's languages first, it had to be Fith.

Congratulations to Jeffrey Henning! Thank you for all you've done for the community, and thank you for gifting us with Fith—one of the most talked-about engelangs of all time!

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