As a kid, Andrew McKenzie had an unusual affinity for languages.
He took French in high school (because everyone else was taking Spanish). But that wasn't enough.
"I started to teach myself different languages, like Latin and Greek and Basque and Turkish," he remembers. "I would drive into the city to a bookstore, and they’d have a section with language books. I'd say, 'I'm just going to learn this language because the book has the prettiest font.'"
So it's not surprising that McKenzie ended up as a professor of linguistics at the University of Kansas. But it turns out there's another reason why he's uniquely qualified for his area of research, which involves documenting the endangered language of Oklahoma's Kiowa people.
A languages dies when children stop learning it naturally (as opposed to being taught at school) and when there's no documentation. But if it's been documented, a language can be revived (the best example of this is Hebrew).
The Kiowa tribe is small, with only about 12,000 members, many of them spread out around the country. Most of the native speakers are in Southwest Oklahoma.
“There are only a few dozen speakers, and some people would even estimate fewer," McKenzie says. "And a lot of them are in their 80s and 90s.”
By one estimate, Kiowa is among 165 endangered languages in the United States; thousands of languages around the world are also in danger of extinction.
“It wasn’t until we could see it slipping it away that people started saying, 'Oh, we should start doing something,'" he says. "That’s a story you see with languages all over the world. It’s not often until a late stage that preservation efforts are seen as required.”
Kiowa, he says, is known for peculiarities such as distinctive popped "p" and "k" sounds.
Also, subtle differences in tone can create words or phrases with drastically different meanings. Linguists have been struck, for example, by the difference between two words, each one spelled, roughly, "a ho," but with different punctuation.
One means "thank you" (àhô!). The other (à hó:!), spoken with an ever-so-slightly different inflection, means "kill him.”
Kiowa speakers just knew these things, because like many native languages, Kiowa had no written tradition. Nearly a century ago, however, one man set out to change that.
It was McKenzie’s great-grandfather.
The Parker McKenzie system
Parker McKenzie was the oldest living Kiowa when he died at 101 in 1999. He spent most of his life working on a Kiowa alphabet.
"I guess nowadays you would call him kind of a geek when it came to language," Andrew McKenzie says. "He tried to come up with something even as early as high school, when he was in these boarding schools where they weren’t allowed to speak anything but English on pain of severe punishment. To get around that, they would sneak off and speak to each other in their own languages."
McKenzie says Parker figured if he could write notes to his classmates, he wouldn't have to sneak around.
"So he cobbled it out, sounded it out. He would write notes and pass them to his girlfriend, that sort of thing. Thinking about teenagers sending notes to each other, it should probably be easy to figure out what they were saying."
Parker McKenzie used the English alphabet because, as he refined his system, he wanted to be able to type it. He swapped out some letters for the sounds that Kiowa has and English doesn’t have. It looks a little like English in code.
And in the decades that followed, Parker worked with federal ethnographers and others who were interested in documenting the language; he collaborated with anthropologist Laurel J. Watkins on a Kiowa grammar book published by the University of Nebraska Press in 1984.
Parker was already in his 80s when Andrew McKenzie was born. Andrew grew up in the suburbs outside of Oklahoma City, but whenever he went out to western Oklahoma to visit, Parker wouldn’t let him leave until he’d learned a little Kiowa.
“Had a chalk board in his living room,” McKenzie remembers.
He had chalk boards lots of places. Gus Palmer, a retired linguistics professor at the University of Oklahoma, remembers meeting Parker McKenzie in the 1980s when he worked in an office serving elderly Kiowas.
“One day this little man came walking through the door. He had on a hat and a briefcase. I thought, 'Wow, this is an interesting Kiowa,'" Palmer says. "He walked up to me and introduced himself. And lo and behold, he was writing Kiowa. He put it on a chalkboard and I was completely amazed. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I struck on something very exciting. This is a gold mine!'”
Parker's system was extremely accurate, but gained a reputation for being difficult. Other people came up with different Kiowa writing systems, and the tribe has never decided which one is official.
"There’s nothing in my mind that compares with Parker McKenzie’s system," Palmer says. "It's a very exacting sound system, and it's easier to learn, I think. People complain about it, but once you get a hold of it and open your mind to it, it’s quite logical. It falls into place."
And more younger people are learning Kiowa through Parker's system.
“Right now we have a lot of Kiowas across the country who are members of the tribe and they know nothing about it," says Antonia Hudson, who helps teach Kiowa at community classes in Tulsa. "When they look up the Kiowa tribe, the language is first thing that’s interesting to the younger generation because we don’t speak like any other people.”
Hudson is just 25. She learned Kiowa at the University of Oklahoma (which also offers Cherokee, Choctaw and Creek as foreign languages), where her teachers used Parker McKenzie’s writing system. Recently, she says, the tribe received a cultural revitalization grant from the state of Oklahoma, and enrollment in the Kiowa classes has more than doubled.
"I believe the younger generation wants that sense of identity, wants to make that connection to who they are and who their people are," Hudson says, "and who their people were, since they were not raised around the language. It’s that coming back of trying to identify and find themselves."
Andrew McKenzie recently got a grant, too: nearly $15o,000 from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities' Documenting Endangered Languages program to spend the next three years writing a book about Kiowa grammar and making teaching tools such as games and flash cards.
In a very practical sense, he’s passing on his great-grandfather’s work.
“When I go down to Oklahoma, the first thing I usually do is go to his archives," McKenzie says. "His papers are stored at the Oklahoma Historical Society, and I look at what he did and see some of the questions that he had.”
But McKenzie's project isn't just about his heritage. It's about linguistics — what the study of languages tells us about the capacity of the human brain.
"The systems that go into a language are so complex that even for a language as well-studied as English or German or French, there are many phenomena we have no idea about, no idea how they work, or we have bitter fights about how we think they work," he notes.
"When we look at a language like English, we get a partial sense of what these minds are capable of," McKenzie says. "When we look at a language like Kiowa, we break the window open. And we realize that we don’t really know much about ourselves."
Which is all the more reason to write it down.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.