Preserving Kiowa.

Joanna Hlavacek reports for on a heartening development:

[Andrew] McKenzie, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Kansas, recently secured a grant from the federal government that will allow him to continue his great-grandfather’s work in preserving the Kiowa language — a pressing need, McKenzie says, as the number of fluent Kiowa speakers dwindles by the year.

“Languages only exist in our minds, so once those speakers leave us, they take the knowledge with them, essentially, unless that knowledge is preserved through documentation,” says McKenzie, who began formally studying Kiowa about 20 years ago. “In that sense, the documentation becomes essential because it would allow the language to survive into the future.” […]

Earlier this month, McKenzie learned he’d won a three-year grant from the Documenting Endangered Languages program of the National Science Foundation. The $112,000 award will allow him to “fill a gap” in the study of Kiowa grammar, work his great-grandfather started as a kid passing notes in his native tongue — speaking Kiowa was strictly forbidden at the boarding school he and other Native Americans were forced to attend — during class to his girlfriend, funnily enough.

That early system devised by Parker McKenzie became the basis for methods still used today, though there’s no consensus on the matter, McKenzie says. The Kiowa tribe has never voted to designate an official writing system.

I’m glad the NSF has gotten more sensible about how they spend their money; forty-five years ago, they blew a bunch of it sending me to grad school in linguistics, and all they got for it was this blog. (Thanks, Trevor!)


  1. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say we are very grateful to the NSF, though perhaps some might feel that they should have spent a little more on the Hat and a little less on Noam-ero Uno and friends.

  2. What ever happened in those grad school days? I’ve read this blog for 10+ years and feel I have only one or two paragraphs of LanguageHat bio 🙂 Weren’t you in math, once, too?

  3. I was! I was a math major in college (at Occidental) and expected to be a mathematician, but (as I’ve said somewhere) math is a mountain that is easy to climb until suddenly it isn’t, and I’d had an easy ascent until somewhere in sophomore year when a) it started getting hard (this is the point in letters home from would-be ballplayers when they say “Today they started throwing curve balls”), and b) the math department insisted on my taking more and more calculus courses, which I hated but which were supposedly practical, and fewer courses on supposedly useless things like number theory, which I loved. So since I liked languages and had gotten to know people in the Languages and Linguistics department, I switched majors and never looked back. (Indeed, I now find specialized math articles pretty much as impenetrable as if I’d never taken a course.)

    In grad school I had a ball studying languages (Homeric Greek! Gothic! Old Irish!!), but when it came time to stop taking courses and start writing my dissertation, the fun stopped and the hell began. I sweated out a couple of years of it and, after spending a year teaching linguistics and English at the college level and realizing I hated teaching, I dropped out and never looked back. After several years of crappy minimum-wage jobs (during which I never once regretted leaving academia — that’s how hellish it was), I got into proofreading and then editing and then learned about blogs and here we are.

  4. I love both calculus and number theory, but I have to concur that the former is far, far more useful than the latter.

  5. Yeah, but usefulness has never meant much to me. In fact, I naturally gravitate to the most useless topics (Old Irish!).

  6. You need both (and many other things) to study the Riemann hypothesis, the Holy Grail of mathematics (at least since Fermat’s last was proven, but likely even before that).

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    I read “McKenzie” and immediately wondered if he was related to Parker (having read Laurel Watkins’ grammar); then read great-grandfather and thought “Eheu, fugaces labuntur anni,”

  8. You need both Gothic and Old Irish to work on the Riemann hypothesis? I can understand needing Old Irish, but as far as I know Gothic is only required for working on the Documentary hypothesis.

  9. Jim Parish says:

    The Riemann Hypothesis is much more important than Fermat’s Last; the main importance of the latter was the amount of machinery that was developed by people trying to prove it. (The machinery turned out to be useful for lots of other things.) There are quite a number of theorems which begin, “Assuming the Riemann Hypothesis is true, …”.

    Me, I do classical Euclidean geometry. It’s a quiet place, but there’s still some interesting stuff to find.

  10. Marja Erwin says:

    You can use ‘Ellenic, Hebrew, or many others instead of Gothic. The important thing is that you avoid losing and/or transposing digits, which is a problem with Roman and/or Arabic numerals.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    Just to make sure everyone reads this 30-page paper on “The Linguistic Genius of Parker McKenzie’s Kiowa Alphabet”:

    We present a linguistic analysis of the Kiowa writing system invented by the untrained Kiowa linguist, (Dr) Parker McKenzie, revealing he designed his alphabet around such core linguistic concepts as place of articulation, glottalic manner of articulation, allophony and phonotactics. Despite his substantial contribution to Harrington’s understanding of Kiowa phonetics, he rejected the extreme phoneticism of Harrington’s orthographies and instead independently developed a system that is phonemic, except for very minor rule-governed deviations that reflect his personal normative concerns.

    “(Dr)” would be Dr. h. c. in German usage for example.

    The tables illustrate the phonemes of Kiowa and their representation in McKenzie’s orthography. The challenge that Kiowa presents to any such system based on the Roman alphabet should be obvious: Kiowa possesses 22 (or, non-phonemically, 24) consonants, including a four-way contrast for stops (voiceless unaspirated, voiceless aspirated, ejective, and voiced), and 6 basic vowels, which, contrasting two-way for length and for nasality and three-way for tone, yield an inventory of 72 non-diphthongal distinctions. To capture all this in an alphabet equipped with 21 consonantal and a mere 5 vocalic symbols is no mean feat.

    And in the end it all fits on an English typewriter, except for the macron for vowel length.

  12. That’s ‘Ebrew nowadays (cf. Ivrit not *Hivrit; written in Hebrew script with an ayin /ʕ/, the historic voiced pharyngeal fricative). But thanks for the clarifications.

  13. This bein’ a heducated blog, comments are velcome in ’Ellenic, ’Ebrew, or of course the King’s Hinglish.

  14. Heggzackly.


  1. […] Language Hat takes</a. note of an effort to preserve the Kiowa language. […]

Speak Your Mind