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…