• Home
  • Cherry Picked - Federal grant to help preserve endangered Kiowa language

Federal grant to help preserve endangered Kiowa language

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

LAWRENCE — As an amateur linguist growing up among the Kiowa people a century ago, Parker McKenzie devised a method of writing his native language using English letters. Now his great-grandson, University of Kansas Assistant Professor of Linguistics Andrew McKenzie, is completing a book that will go further than ever before in outlining the grammar of Kiowa.

Andrew McKenzie’s work is urgent, he said, because most of the remaining fluent Kiowa speakers (a few dozen) are quite elderly. In fact, several of those he has interviewed have subsequently passed away.

“It’s an urgent task to document the language while it’s still preservable,” Andrew McKenzie said recently. “Teachers of the language will need to know this going into the future.”

As a member of the tribe in Oklahoma, Andrew McKenzie said, “I grew up knowing bits of it. My great-grandfather wouldn’t let us visit without a Kiowa lesson.”

When Andrew McKenzie attended the University of Oklahoma, he found they offered courses in native languages, and, in particular, Kiowa. “After that, I just stuck with it,” he said.

“Like most American languages, its structures are very different from European languages. Words contain many roots strung together, so what takes a whole sentence in English can be expressed in one word; just a verb, for instance. The information in a verb tells you enough about who’s doing what … In Kiowa, the form of conjunctions will switch, so it tells you whether it’s referring to the same person or not.

“Verbs can be extremely complicated. In Kiowa, you change a bit of language, depending on who it’s being done to and who it’s done for. There are slight differences in tone and pitch that can change the meaning of a word from “thank you” to “kill him.” With subtle differences in tone and pitch, there are thousands of possible combinations.”

 

Filling a gap

Andrew McKenzie recently won a three-year grant from the Documenting Endangered Languages program of the National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities to fill in a gap on Kiowa.

For one thing, there’s no consensus on how to write it using English letters. Parker McKenzie’s method is still taught, as are a handful of others, but Andrew McKenzie says there has never been a tribal vote on the matter.

Using his ancestor’s system, Andrew McKenzie is working on a “semantic grammar” of the language.

After a dictionary, “Most languages have a reference grammar,” he said, “a book that informs linguists about the structure of the language: the sounds, how they interact, forms of words, syntax and the way sentences get built.

“With most American languages, you can do so much with verbs. There is very little about syntax,” he said.

Andrew McKenzie said he is working to document “not just what the pieces mean, but how does the meaning of a sentence get built?”

Modern linguists refer to this as “formal semantics,” Andrew McKenzie said. “With all the different aspects of semantics we’ve found in the last 30 years, no one has documented a whole language’s semantics in a textual way. The idea is it will serve as an example for other linguists, especially those not trained in formal semantics.”

During the grant period, Andrew McKenzie said, he will work on a book, associated scholarly articles and teaching materials including booklets, games and flash cards.

Images: University of Kansas Assistant Professor Andrew McKenzie has received a grant to write a “semantic grammar” of the Kiowa language. Below, a map of where Kiowa speakers live. Images courtesy of Rick Hellman.


Give to Indigenous Studies

Read the Latest ISP Newsletter
Follow Us

Local Events

Natives @ KU Social
meet others in the Native American community at KU
Tuesday, February 20 | 5-6:30 p.m.
Summerfield Hall Rm 201, 1300 Sunnyside Ave
Snacks will be provided

*Safe zone Training + Cultural Workshop + Panel 
Wednesday, February 21 | 11a.m.-1p.m. 
Curtis Hall Rose RM

Keeping Implicit Bias in Mind with Jerry Kang, Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and Professor of Law at University of California Los Angeles
Thursday, February 22 | 7-8 p.m.
Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont Street Lawrence, KS 66046

*Drag Show  
Friday, February 23 | 6-8 p.m. 
Haskell Auditorium 

*First Ever Haskell Two Spirit Powwow 
Saturday, February 24 | 2 p.m.-Midnight 
Tecumseh Hall 

*Part of Haskell Two Spirit Celebration Month. All events located at Haskell Indian Nations University and all events free and open to the public. 

Haskell Indian Nations University: 3rd Annual Celebration of Life Round Dance
Tecumseh Hall
Saturday, March 3
Dinner served at 6 p.m., Singing begins at 7 p.m. 

KU Law's 22nd Annual Tribal Law & Government Conference: Tribal-State Collaborations: Advantages & Obstacles
Friday, March 9 | 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
KU School of Law, 1535 W. 15th Street, Lawrence, KS
Free and open to the public, but registration is required.
law.ku.edu/collaborations
5 hours CLE pending in KS & MO ($50 fee)

Frank Waln, Sicangu Lakota Hip-Hop Artist, in Concert
Friday, March 30 | 7:30 p.m.
Lied Center of Kansas, 1600 Stewart Dr.
$25 adults | $14 students/youth
Tickets

KU Powwow & Indigenous Culture Festival
Saturday, March 31 | Begins at noon
Lied Center of Kansas, 1600 Stewart Dr.
Free and open to the public
Presented by the KU First Nations Student Association in partnership with the Lied Center of Kansas, Haskell Cultural Center and Museum, Spencer Museum of Art, KU Office of Diversity and Equity and KU Office of Multicultural Affairs.

Home to 50+ departments, centers, and programs, the School of the Arts, and the School of Public Affairs and Administration
KU offers courses in 40 languages
No. 1 ranking in city management and urban policy —U.S. News and World Report
One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
44 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
—ALA
23rd nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets," Military Times