Putting the Antics in SemAntics Transcript

Megan Figueroa:  Hi, and welcome to the “Vocal Fries” podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.

Carrie Gillon:  I’m Carrie Gillon.

Megan:  I’m Megan Figueroa. We got to see each other this weekend.

Carrie:  Yes, we did.

Megan:  Yeah, it’s really cool because that’s not normally how it goes.

Carrie:  No.

Megan:  We don’t see each other often anymore since I moved to Tucson. It’s funny because casual listeners, or maybe just people who listen all the time but didn’t realize, we don’t record in the same room.

Carrie:  No. Many people have commented that they think we sound like we’re in the same room, which is a nice compliment.

Megan:  Yeah.

Carrie:  No, we’re not usually. Every once in a while we are, but it’s rare.

Megan:  It’s rare. We had a couple of interviews. We got to interview our friend, Dr. Ersula Ore, in the same room and that was fun.

We’re mostly on Skype which is a testament to technology, I guess, but also, we’ve know each other for years so it’s not awkward. That probably could be a thing, too.


Carrie:  I guess so. I used to find it kinda awkward but now, it’s like, whatever, I don’t know you but we’re talking on Skype, it’s fine. [laughs]

Megan:  Oh yeah. I’ve had to get over a lot of reservations about [laughs] meeting people via Skype and then diving in and asking them personal questions.


Carrie:  Well, we don’t ask them super – well I guess it’s somewhat personal. [laughs]

Megan:  It’s true though. When you think about it, I’ve said it so many times, when we interview people, sometimes I get chills or start having feels because language is so personal for people.

Carrie:  It is personal, it’s true, but we don’t normally ask them a super personal question. It usually just comes up.

Megan:  It’s true just because it’s so inherent in the topic. It’s pretty natural thing to talk about how it makes you feel. Even more coincidentally, [laughs] the fact that I saw you this weekend is that we saw our cast. [laughs]

Carrie:  Yes. [laughs] Just happened to be the case that Dr. Andrew McKenzie was giving a talk at Arizona.

Megan:  It was really cool.

Carrie:  It was really cool

Megan:  He’s been your friend since way back, right?

Carrie:  Yeah, for over a decade now.

Megan:  I met him about a decade ago, almost, in Portland.

Carrie:  Almost, yeah. It’s funny, I said to him…I was with him and Dr. Robert Henderson who’s at University of Arizona. There were three semanticists hanging out, which I know scared you.


Carrie:  I said, in front of Robert, to Andrew, “Hey, we should get a selfie.” For the podcast, obviously. Robert didn’t really put that together and he’s like, “Oh, did you guys go to school together or something or do you just like each other?”

I’m like, “Yeah we’re friends but…” [laughs] “No, it’s for the podcast.” I don’t just randomly ask for selfies.

Megan:  Well, a lot of people do so I’m not completely…

Carrie:  Yes, yes, yes. Well, but he wouldn’t need an excuse for it, right?

Megan:  Sure. Yeah.

Carrie:  Yeah. [laughs] Anyway, interesting.

Megan:  That’s funny. Yeah, it’s funny because I heard that you were with two other semanticists. I was like, “You know what? I’m going to stop.” I saw a person wearing a linguistic shirt. I’m going to ask if they’re a linguist because I want to avoid getting to that conversation of three semanticists.


Carrie:  Somewhat ironically, we barely touched on semantics. It was only at the very end of the conversation that we did.


Carrie:  Then he gave a talk about formal semantics with lots of lambdas.

Megan:  Lots of lambdas, lots of mus. I actually don’t know if that’s true.

Carrie:  There’s no mus. Well, there might have been a mu. I don’t think so though. I I’d be very surprised if there was a mu.

Megan:  I say this only because Carrie’s cats are Lambda and Mu like the true nerd that she is.

Carrie:  [laughs] Yeah, but we read as lambda calculus and semantics. There’s also a lambda‑mu calculus which I don’t think I’ve ever even seen. I also just called her Mu because it sounds like mew. [laughs]

Megan:  Oh, it does.


Megan:  I mean, it’s a cute cat name. An A‑plus job.

Carrie:  It is a very cute cat name. At vets, often the first time they meet her they’re like, “Oh, is her name Moo?” Because it’s just spelled M‑U. I’m like, “No, the Greek letter.” Then one time one of them asked me, “Oh, were you in a sorority?” [laughs]

Megan:  Oh, no.

Carrie:  Like the only reason you would know Greek letters.

Megan:  Yeah and you were like, “You don’t know how untrue that is or not true that is.”

Carrie:  Yeah, kind of the opposite.

Megan:  That’s so funny. Well, it’s also a testament to just…Was this in America?

Carrie:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Megan:  Yeah, because you got them when you were here. The only reason that Americans would know Greek letters.


Carrie:  It did feel kind of like an American question to me.

Megan:  Oh, absolutely, yeah. We don’t learn things unless we have to know them for some reason.

Carrie:  Well, or you’re super into it.

Megan:  Exactly.

Carrie:  Yeah. Maybe I should bring up, this is not really at all about America, but hey, let me teach you a thing that exists outside of America. [laughs]

Megan:  Yeah, I mean, I often…No, I never forget that you’re Canadian. It’s just thrown in my face at all times when I’m…

Carrie:  At all times. I always make sure people know. That’s not true. There’s some times where I just don’t say anything because I’m like, “This person does not need to know.”

  1. There’s been a couple of things going on in Quebec recently that are language related. Probably you could say that all the time [laughs] because Quebec is fiercely protective of French. That is absolutely legitimate but sometimes it leads to weird results.

Here’s the headline from The New York Times. “For Quebec, A French Woman May Not Be French Enough.”

She was denied a certificate that she needs before she can settle permanently in Quebec to become a permanent resident, on the grounds that she has not demonstrated sufficient proficiency in French because she wrote one chapter of her doctoral dissertation in English rather than in French. One chapter.

Megan:  There must have been a reason for it but that’s beside the point. I’m guessing that there was a reason for it.

Carrie:  It had already been published in a scientific journal. It was already in English so that’s why she kept it in English.

Megan:  Ah‑ha. See, there you go. The headline, I’m thinking, it always goes back to the fact, “Are you French enough? Are you Latinx enough?” Anything.

Carrie:  Are you American enough?

Megan:  How integral language is to identity and how that’s very, very important. You have every right to protect your identity if it’s linked to your language, obviously. Then you have people like me who have such a complicated history, where I could break out in tears thinking about how language is actually making my identity, or people try to take away my identity because of language.

What a topic.

Carrie:  What a clusterfuck. [laughs]

Megan:  All the feels.

Carrie:  All the feels. Yeah, it’s terrible.

Megan:  It’s just another example of how we weaponize language against people. Another thing where it’s like language is always in the news.

Carrie:  Language is always in the news. I’m always like, “What are we going to talk about? Oh yeah, there’s this thing.”

Megan:  There was that thing.

Carrie:  [laughs]

Megan:  Then we’re like, “OK, well, this one isn’t as depressing as the other one so let’s talk about this one this week.”


Megan:  Well, it’s a fun interview because we’re talking with someone we’ve known or know IRL. We’re also keeping with the Year of Indigenous Languages. We’re talking about Kiowa.

Carrie:  Which has a different name that I do not know how to pronounce because I have only heard it once. When Andrew said it on Friday, I was like, “Wait, what? There’s a different word for it?”

Megan:  Yes.

Carrie:  I apologize to all Kiowas that I don’t know how to say the Kiowa people and language name properly. Hope you enjoy.

[background music]

Megan:  Today, we have Dr. Andrew McKenzie who is an associate professor of semantics and Native American languages at the University of Kansas and former guest.

Carrie:  Is this a repeat offender? Our first repeat offender.

Megan:  I think it’s our first repeat offender, yeah. We’ve asked to come back because we wanted him to talk about Kiowa because he works on Kiowa. He’s a citizen of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma. His great‑grandfather, Parker McKenzie, created one of the Kiowa alphabets and he got an NSF/NEH grant to document and revitalize the language.

Welcome, Andrew.

Dr. Andrew McKenzie:  Thank you for having me back.

Carrie:  Of course.

Megan:  I didn’t realize that bit about your grandfather. That’s really cool.

Andrew:  My great‑grandfather.

Megan:  Your great‑grandfather.

Andrew:  In the Kiowa term, he would be my big brother because we kind of repeat the terms after three generations.

Carrie:  I didn’t know that.

Megan:  Very cool.

Andrew:  I guess the way you would say it nowadays is that he was a nerd.


Andrew:  I mean that in the most positive way.

Megan:  Of course.

Carrie:  Of course.

Andrew:  What he would do is just kind of document things that came to him and try to work things out. This includes lists of thousands of different words organized by syllable, content, or by other means. Sometimes, he had some documents written about the grammar of the language. The way that he writes is very… He’s not a trained linguist, but he had the linguistic mind. He was very attuned, phonologically aware, grammatically aware, and that sort of thing. You can read his stuff, and it sounds like a linguist. It’s better than some linguists today.

Carrie:  Yeah, yeah, yeah. Of course.

Andrew:  I won’t name names but…


Carrie:  Better than Jeff. No, I’m just kidding.

Andrew:  Oh, well. That goes without saying . When I do fieldwork, I like to hit the archives in Oklahoma City. There’s an archive where his papers are. I like to read his papers because you get the sense of working with him almost. His judgments and his commentary is extremely helpful.

He worked with linguists going back 80 years. He lived a very, very long time, which is good to hear. He worked with John Harrington, who was one of the early ethnologists.

Carrie:  Oh, wow.

Andrew:  Who is now probably the subject of many a podcast. He worked with him on all of his projects, and they even co‑wrote a very small reference, like a sketch of a reference grammar sort of thing in the ’40s. Then Harrington ghosted on him, you know, as Harrington was wont to do. It’s really interesting.

He developed this writing system in part to pass notes to its girlfriend at school because…

Megan:  Aww. That’s so cute.

Carrie:  Yes, I know, that’s adorable.

Andrew:  Because if the teacher catches the note, he reads it in front of the class. It’s embarrassing but then if it just looks like gibberish, then whatever. He kind of eyeballed it, and then it worked. It did work. They ended up together and were fruitful and multiplied.

Megan:  Here you are.

Andrew:  Yes. It all led to this moment right here.


Andrew:  This is what he had in mind.

Carrie:  When he was he was creating this alphabet, this writing system, were there a lot of speakers at the time of Kiowa?

Andrew:  Yeah. Most of the tribes spoke Kiowa pretty routinely. There weren’t a lot of members. The earliest census numbers at the turn of the century, it was maybe 1,000 people. Kiowa was pretty routinely spoken, and it wasn’t until the ’20s and ’30s that you start getting generations not raised in Kiowa at all.

Since then, it’s been tailing off and the people I work with were typically born in that last generation. They’re pushing 80, 90 years old now. Although, I will say that they are pretty active. I feel like a lot of the stuff that they do for cultural and language revitalization keeps them going. I think that adds to their lifespan quite a bit.

The oldest person I worked with was 95. Parker himself, my great grandfather lived to 101, and he was typing letters right up to the end. I have his typewriter.

Carrie:  Oh, very cool.

Megan:  Oh, cool.

Andrew:  I noticed I noticed your typewriter in the Skype video.

Carrie:  Oh, no, I feel so typewriter‑less.

Andrew:  The listeners don’t see that.


Andrew:  My wife got some ribbon off the Internet somewhere and it works out pretty well.

Megan:  That’s really cool.

Andrew:  I find that it’s actually easier to type glossing on a typewriter than in Word.

Carrie:  Oh, wow.

Megan:  Ah, because you can move the paper, right? Right where you need it to be?

Andrew:  Exactly. Yeah. It doesn’t try to help you.

Megan:  Yeah, exactly.

Carrie:  I know.

Megan:  I remember when Word used to not try to help you, and then I wanted to throw my computer across the room.


Megan:  Did Parker then pass on Kiowa to his children?

Andrew:  No. He and his wife would speak to each other in Kiowa, but not to their kids. They spoke English to their kids, and none of their kids grew up Kiowa‑speaking. One of those ironies of life, I guess.

Megan:  That’s interesting because you might think that he would be the one of the few people who like, “No, I got it. I created an alphabet.”

Andrew:  I mean that was the time, right?

Megan:  Yeah, no. It was definitely the time.

Andrew:  Everyone was raised to not be Indian. Parker was very much one of the Kiowas who was happy to have a foot into the modern way. He went to college. He worked at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the money ‑‑ he helped handle the accounts for the trust money and that sort of stuff.

At the same time, he had a foot on the traditional ways, and he was one of the first organizers of the American Indian Exposition in Anadarko, which is one of the first intertribal fairs that really got going the a modern pow wow circuit sort of thing.

Carrie:  Wow.

Andrew:  He was also really interested in genealogy. He’s actually the best genealogist for the tribe as well. He would trace people’s histories back, and he had file cabinets full of people’s genealogies.

Carrie:  Wow.

Andrew:  People would come to him. Just drive out to his farmhouse and try to see what their ancestry was. His own ancestry, which I guess would make mine as well, he was able to trace back to the mid‑1600s or so. The dates are obviously approximate.

Carrie:  But still.

Andrew:  Still, yeah. According to his chart, I am one five‑hundred‑and‑twelfth Crow.


Andrew:  There you go.

Carrie:  Now you’re sounding like a white person.

Andrew:  It’s funny. That’s the thing. There’s a lot of intertribal marriage.

Carrie:  Of course, of course. Tons.

Andrew:  The Kiowas were allies with the Crow for a long time. It’s not really a surprise, but it’s just it’s one of those things that’s funny. No, the thing that makes me sound white is that his grandfather was a Mexican captive. Then whatever you want to do the math, I’m part Mexican in that sense.

Now, that actually was a ding against him when he was alive that he was descended from a captive.

Carrie:  Oh, yeah.

Andrew:  That’s a bit of a snobbery issue with that. He and his wife didn’t speak Kiowa with their kids. Any of us who’ve learned it since then had to learn it as a second language.

Carrie:  Did you start doing that when you became a linguist or did you become a linguist because you were learning? How did that go?

Andrew:  I guess it’s a trick question because they’re not quite related in that sense.

Carrie:  Ah, OK.

Andrew:  I got into linguistics because I was into languages in high school. I was teaching myself languages that my school didn’t offer, which is most of them.

I had an older brother in college who was like, “Oh, I took a linguistics course. I bet you’d like that.” I checked it out. I was like, “Yeah, I do like that.” I was one of those rare weirdos who was a linguistics major when they started college.

Megan:  Yeah. That is rare and weird.

Carrie:  Wow. I didn’t even know it existed. It took me a whole year to find it. Well, I guess, yeah half a year, I guess, to find it.

Andrew:  That’s faster than most people.

Carrie:  Yeah, yeah, yeah. It is.

Andrew:  For Kiowa, I started learning that. I was always aware of Kiowa because when we’d go to Parker’s house for Christmas, or holidays, or other things like that, then he would always teach us a Kiowa lesson.

Carrie:  Oh, I love that.

Andrew:  In fact, he wouldn’t let people leave his house without a [laughs] Kiowa lesson.

Carrie:  That’s awesome. I’m so jealous.

Andrew:  He would just grab either a piece of paper and write stuff out for us, or use his chalkboard and stuff like that. My older brother found this ancient home video of me, looking up rapt in attention to this language lesson. Which I don’t remember, but it is clearly me on the video with my bowl haircut.


Andrew:  There’s always a little bit of that, a little of that, but I didn’t really get into it until I was at OU, at Oklahoma, for college because they offer courses in several Indian languages.

Carrie:  That’s great.

Andrew:  Now you can take them for your language credit instead of Spanish or French or whatever.

Carrie:  That’s awesome. Yeah.

Andrew:  Although I say that with feint disdain. I was a French major, too.

Carrie:  Your wife is French. [laughs]

Andrew:  My wife is French, right. That’s true.


Carrie:  Sounds like you forgot that for a second. Who is teaching Kiowa at Oklahoma?

Andrew:  At the time, it was Gus Palmer who’s…Actually, he was an anthropology professor. He’s written a lot of books about storytelling and native modes of storytelling, especially in Kiowa, and how the line that in Western culture is clear between the real and mythical isn’t quite so clear in Indian storytelling. That sort of thing.

He was teaching those classes, and he was friends with Parker. The materials built a lot out of that, and they were actually very linguistically oriented. They also developed out of Laurel Watkins’s reference grammar, which Parker helped with a lot.

The materials were pretty complex. For a linguistics major, they were awesome. It was like, “Yeah, we’re going to talk about aspect today.” I’m like, “Yeah, I know what aspect is.”


Carrie:  Maybe explain what aspect is, just in case people don’t know.

Andrew:  Aspect is an inflectional category on verbs that is actually more important than tense, but less well taught because people teach words wrong.


Carrie:  Yes, they do. Oh, my God, yes.

Andrew:  Aspect, the term is confusing because it covers a lot of things. The one I’m talking about is what’s sometimes called the viewpoint aspect where we’re talking about essentially the nature of the event as it relates to the time in question.

If I say, “When I was taking a shower, Carrie called,” then you get the sense, when I said I was taking a shower, that I was in the midst of doing this.

If you say, “When I took a shower, Carrie called,” you get the sense that there’s a sequence at play. All of those are in past tense so tense isn’t that issue. What’s issue is the aspect of whether we’re talking about a slice of the event that could continue or not, or whether we’re talking about the entire event as a whole.

Now as it happens, this aspect, this viewpoint aspect is crucial for language to the point that every language I’ve ever heard of, with maybe one exception, marks aspect in some way.

Megan:  Even English.

Andrew:  Definitely English.

Carrie:  Of course, English.


Megan:  English barely marks things like overtly.

Andrew:  Whereas maybe half of the world’s languages do not mark tense at all, including Kiowa. 99 percent of the time tense is completely superfluous because it tells us the relationship between the topic time, what we’re talking about, and the utterance time, when we’re talking, so the past tense says I’m talking about this time that’s before today.

The first thing we do in conversations, almost every time, is establish the topic time. We almost never don’t know. The tense is telling us nothing we don’t already know, almost every time, so you can dispense with it.

It is a superfluous category, but our grammar makes us do it in English and Kiowa does not. There is no tense marking so aspect is really important. The materials in the course really had these terms because it was just how do you talk about aspect? How do you talk about the ejectives, right?

Megan:  Oh, you have to describe what is, too. Just in case. [laughs]

Carrie:  You said it.

Andrew:  Ejectives are basically pop sounds. They’re made by a really cool articulation where you make the sound, you make a consonant, but while you’re making the consonant, you also close off your vocal folds, and then when you release them together, you make this super pressure chamber that pops really loud. In Kiowa, you could say something like, /pʰɔ́ː/ or you could say /p’ɔ́ː/.

So /p’ɔ́ː/ is the ejective. You can hear that difference. You can take a word or a stem like /tʰɔ̀ː/, which means ‘sitting down’, if its in a certain form, and then /tʰɔ̀ː/, the ejective, which means ‘stay’. It’s a different word that sort of thing.

Kiowa is peculiar because amongst Plains languages, it’s the only one with ejectives like that.

Carrie:  Oh, I didn’t know that.

Megan:  Some other Plains languages are like Creek.

Andrew:  Creek, no. Creek is an eastern language.

Megan:  Oh. What are some other…?

Andrew:  They got removed to Oklahoma. Other Plains languages would be like the Siouan languages, like Lakota. Crow is another one. Cheyenne, Arapaho, Pawnee, that sort of thing. Kiowa’s not linguistically related to those languages anyway. Kiowa’s actually related to the languages spoken in the pueblo areas of New Mexico.

Carrie:  Oh, wow. I had no idea.

Andrew:  Neither did anyone else until linguists were like, “Hey, these are similar languages.”

Carrie:  Yeah. Is that just a migration thing?

Andrew:  Yeah. They migrated north, and then migrated south. They’re associated with the southern plains, the Kiowas. Historically, we’re by the Yellowstone area as late as the 1700s or so. Then the Kiowas just drifted their way down the plains.

They lived in the Black Hills until the Sioux pushed the Cheyenne to push them and so forth. It was quite a mess. Once on the southern plains, the Kiowas allied with the Comanches, and then entered this era people are more familiar with.

At some point in the past, they would have been together. We don’t know how long ago or what happened or why. It was long enough ago that neither Pueblos nor Kiowas have any oral history about being together.

Megan:  Wow.

Carrie:  An oral history tends to survive pretty well, so it’s remarkable.

Megan:  Quite a long time.

Andrew:  There are kind of some Southwestern elements in Kiowa religion. Like the Taime and that sort of thing, but which are like little bundles, medicine bundles. There’s also diffusion so who knows.

Essentially though, all this to say the ejectives, Kiowa ejectives are something that’s noticeable about Kiowa. Even amongst different Indians in the area, the Kiowa language is known for having these ejectives.

Megan:  They were talking about this. As non‑linguists, they giving you material, and they were using these words to teach you about how to speak Kiowa in your classes.

Carrie:  The anthropologist.

Andrew:  Yes.

Megan:  The anthropologist and Parker was using these kind of words as well or no?

Andrew:  Lets see. Parker would sometimes use those words but usually he preferred to just describe it his own way. For instance, there’s a common palatalization process, by which certain consonants are pronounced more towards the middle of the mouth in certain phonological environments.

For instance, for you linguists out there, velars become palatals before /a/.

This applies for all of the velar consonants so /g/, /k/, /kh/, and /k’/. They are more pronounced more like /gj/, /kj/, /khj/, /kj’/You get this /j/ sound. Most people write that with a yuh. Parker, I don’t know if he had this Volopukian resistance to the Y, or if he just thought what’s the point, but because this is a regular alternation, he wouldn’t write that.

He wouldn’t talk about palatalization. He would just say that /g/ becomes… But he would talk about it in… You would find the generalizations. He would say, “Well, these sounds turn into these sounds in these environments.” If you read it, it’s a wordy description where a linguist would just say palatalization.

Megan:  It’s almost…Well, I think of it as refreshing because anyone can pick up what Parker is writing and understand it.

Andrew:  In theory. Well, anyone could but not everyone would.

Megan:  Sure.

Carrie:  Yeah.

Megan:  But when you get a linguist writing some of these things, it becomes inaccessible. It reminds me of…It’s so great to have community members working on their language because…I don’t know. We need more linguists that are also community members or tribe members. Access, I think about access all the time when I think about these things.

Andrew:  Right. With my NSF grant and that, I’ve done

[31:37] as well. That’s an increasingly important aspect of research now is making sure that community members can access your results, not just academic.

Megan:  Speaking of your grant, can you explain it for us? What are you trying to do with your grant?

Andrew:  It’s the greatest grant in human history.


Carrie:  I mean everything did lead to this point.

Andrew:  Right. Exactly. There there’s some NIH grants for studying childhood cancer but by comparison…That was a joke, listeners.


Carrie:  You can’t see his face but, really it actually did not change between the joke and the…

Megan:  No.

Andrew:  Send your letters to Carrie and Megan.


Andrew:  I’ll forward your letters to them.

The basic idea is to write a semantic grammar of Kiowa. What do I mean by that? Essentially, it’s a sort of reference grammar that is focused on the semantics, and driven by theoretical questions and semantic questions, and also includes methodological discussion for people who don’t know what I’m talking about.

I work in formal semantics and you guys know what that is, right? Using math, and logic, and very intricate formalism, to see how language organizes meaning and how that interacts with structure.

Megan:  That’s what most of us are non‑semanticists hate about linguistics is formal semantics.


Carrie:  I love it seriously but…

Megan:  Because it’s so hard.

Andrew:  It is hard until…

Megan:  Until it’s not. Yeah, exactly.

Andrew: There’s no gradient. It’s just flat, cliff, flat.

Megan:  Yeah.

Carrie:  Yeah. It’s true.

Andrew:  I never had imposter syndrome until I was doing formal semantics because I never felt like I got it. Even as I was getting A’s in class, and writing papers, and teaching courses, [laughs] I was like, do I even know what I’m talking about. Everyone I’ve talked to, senior people and stuff, have felt the same way. This is just a normal way to feel.

Carrie:  Yeah. We need to tell younger linguist more often that that’s how we felt.

Andrew:  Yeah. I tell my students that in semantics ‑‑ if you don’t feel like you get this, that’s normal.

Megan:  In fact, you probably should feel that way for a bit. [laughs]

Andrew:  You do get it. I see that they get it and that makes me happy.

Carrie:  Part of your grant is making sure that a layperson can come and read the semantic grammar or no?

Andrew:  Not quite a layperson, but at least a language teacher and definitely other linguists. The part for the laypeople is another stage and we’ll get to that. Reference grammars are a document of a language that tells you about the structures of the language and how it works in a surface way, a structuralist tradition.

They’re written for other linguists so they’ll say these are the consonants, and here are the ejectives, and whatnot. Most of them were written before the rise of formal semantics. They don’t talk about these questions at all.

Major questions like scope ambiguity, or modal base, or quantifiers, besides listing a few, it turns out quantification is a major component of a lot of interpretation. It’s just not talked about because most of the stuff was done before we knew anything about that.

Most of the stuff since then has been done by linguists who weren’t trained in semantics anyway. It’s not their expertise and they don’t really talk about it.

There are a handful of exceptions. I found that there are some reference grammars that at least give enough information that you could as a linguist formulate a sense of it, even if they don’t have a section called modal base.

It turns out these are important questions for different kinds of issue. Even just typology. Carrie, you know this first hand, about the typology of modal expressions.

Megan:  Maybe explain what a modal expression is.

Andrew:  Modals are ways of talking about the world not as it is, but as it could be or might be or so forth. It turns out that’s one of the most important aspects of human language as far as evolutionary strategy goes because it allows us to plan.

Not just to plan but to communicate plans to each other and we can talk about what if we did this when we circle the wall the next time so Bill doesn’t get bitten again. That sort of thing.

It turns out that modals are also highly dependent on the context. If I say, “Bill has to be home by 8:00,” then it turns out that there is ambiguity based on why he has to be home.

Is it because he’s on parole and he’ll run afoul of the law? Is it because his favorite show is on and you can’t record it so he’s got to be there and so forth? Is it just my supposition? Based on what I know about Bill, I’m deducing this. This has to be the case.

It turns out, in English, a verb like “have to” be is ambiguous. It doesn’t mention which one of those it is and you don’t have to say that. It turns out there’s a lot of confusion in that realm because of that. Yeah, I remember on the Internet I got chewed out once.

Megan:  Just once.

Andrew:  Well, there was some heinous crime, and I was being cynical about the justice system working and I was like, “Oh, well this guy should only get a few years in prison.”

Carrie:  Ah.

Megan:  Oh. Yeah, I see.

Andrew:  “Should,” like “have to,” doesn’t specify why things should be that way. My thought was what we call epistemic was deduction. Well, based on how the justice system works, I predict this is going to happen, but I didn’t say that. People interpreted that as what we call deontic where based on the way things…the moral or legal rules and so forth, this is the way better way for things to be.

They rightly chewed me out for that, but they wrongly chewed me out in the sense that that’s not what I said, but it is what I said. This kind of modal base ambiguity turns out to be very messy, and in a lot of languages things work completely different.

Instead of saying, “Bill has to go home,” and it’s not clear why he has to go home, your modal will instead specify why he has to go home but it doesn’t specify whether he needs to, or might, or has to. It’s just a completely different way of organizing the information. A lot of American languages especially do this.

The Salish languages in the Pacific Northwest are famous for it but we see it in other areas, too. In Kiowa, there’s this inflection you can put on the verb, and it can be translated as should, will, may, might, up to, because it doesn’t specify any of them. It just says that based on the facts of the world, this is a modal possibility.

That kind of thing isn’t really described in these languages in very much detail. There is a lot of information that’s in different verticals in different books that are trying to answer theoretical questions. There’s not really a reference grammar where these are all put into one spot. That’s what I’m doing for Kiowa.

The closest thing I’ve seen to it is actually not in linguistics at all. It’s in the classics literature. There’s a couple of classicists whose last names are Devine and Stevens. I don’t know their first names. In the last 15 years or so, they’ve been writing books analyzing ancient Greek and Latin from a generative perspective.

Looking at the syntax because we have a lot of corpora, they can draw pretty good conclusions. They go through the formal semantics of Latin. How does the number system actually work? How does tense and aspect get marked and that sort of thing. Their book is of limited usefulness because it’s written for classicists so the examples aren’t glossed. There’s a lot of stuff like that.

Now, I’m good enough at Latin. They do have translations so I’m good enough at Latin that I can piece those apart when I want to. Fair enough. For the Kiowa one, and we’ll have these discussions, the location system, which overlaps with the temporal marking system, the quantification, modals, evidentials, and so on and so on.

Megan:  You have to explain what those are, too.

Andrew:  No, I don’t.


Andrew:  I’ll come back to that. One way that will differ from other reference grammars though, is that other reference grammars just tell you what the results are. These are the structures. They don’t really tell you how they arrive at that except maybe at the beginning section or something.

This reference grammar specifically will discuss ways of finding out these things, especially if you can’t find them in texts, and so there’s a lot of walking through different contexts. It’s not just going to be Kiowa can use this marker for strong epistemic modals. How can you tell that that’s a strong epistemic modal? Give examples that go through that.

There’s an analysis in there. The idea is that people who aren’t trained in formal semantics, which is still most linguists, sadly, can take these questions and these methods and ask the same kinds of questions in communities they work with.

For Creek, for instance, is a beautiful reference grammar of Creek from 2011, which Jack Martin wrote, but it doesn’t go into a lot of scope ambiguity. It’s not his area. If I can put tests that he could replicate in Greek, then maybe the next version will have that sort of thing.

You can even see from the examples I’ve mentioned, this kind of thing is important for teachers and learners in the language because it’s really that element of meaning that learners really attach to anyways, but also which is hard to teach because it hasn’t been documented. That’s what that’s what my grant is about.

Evidentials, coming back to evidentials.


Andrew:  Evidentials are morphemes that indicate the source of your information. In Kiowa, it’s not very complicated. If you heard about something secondhand, then you have to mark the verb a certain way.

If you say /à-bɔ̃́ː/, “you saw him,” then I have kind of firsthand evidence of that, but if I only heard about it from someone else, I’d have to say /à-bɔ̃́ː-hêl/, with /hêl/ at the end. Then you get this hearsay notion.

Now, it’s not hearsay in the English sense where I heard this but I don’t really believe it. It’s true. I say it is as true. It’s just that I’m telling you I also heard it from someone. In English, we have to mark tense whether we like it or not. In Kiowa, you have to mark evidentials, whether you like it or not. It’s just the feature of the grammar.

Megan:  What part of your grant is for the layperson, then?

Andrew:  In addition to making this reference grammar, and articles and such for publications and whatever, there are two things I’m doing with teachers. One is organizing a summit of Kiowa teachers where the idea is to get everyone together, talk about different issues. For instance, which writing system are we going to use? Which is actually a major issue.

Talk about strategies for what kinds of materials they’re missing or that they feel they’re missing because that’s really the thing I can help with the most. Also, making some materials. One of the things I’ve been making are little mini zines. Well, it is little one page things you fold up into a booklet. You can cover a little bit in each one.

For instance, one that talks about the evidentials. What is an evidential? How do you use it? Then with little pictures to illustrate. Then it fits into a little booklet that people can take with them. I’m working on one right now with some idiomatic expressions. Things like that where you can make little materials.

I’m not really making materials directly for classroom use. I’d rather let the teachers do that, and I work with them, and talk with them. How do we turn this into something you can actually use? Things like how do you take postpositions and attach them to things? That sort of thing. I talk with all the teachers. I work with them about distilling this information but I don’t like to do that myself.

I guess what I don’t want to do is make a bunch of materials for people, and then just throw them at teachers and say hey, use this. Because people have done that in the past, A, unsuccessfully, and B, even as a teacher, I know that I like to teach in my own voice. I think it fits. It’s easier that way. It’s kind of this delicate political balance where you want to do things that help people generally.

That’s what these kinds of zines are for. Things like this verb conjugation book that I put together. Some of those are for learners. Some of those are just for ordinary people.

One of the things I’ve done ‑‑ this is completely to the side ‑‑ is taken a bunch of Kiowa hymns. There’s a well‑known book of Kiowa Christian hymns, where everyone knows. They’re really popular and have broken them down into a gloss for linguists.

Also, in a way that learners can see how words get put together. They know the sentence in Kiowa from singing it and they know the translation in English, but it’s that bridge. How did these parts get put together? It shows them this with materials that I already know people want to have.

Little things like that. It’s a lot of little things that pool up together that way. That works out pretty well for them.

Megan:  You mentioned at the beginning of the interview that the folks that you talked to, the generation that speaks Kiowa natively ‑‑ I hate that word ‑‑ that grew up speaking it instead of having to go back and learn it. They’re 80, 90, but you said that they’re in good health.

You also mentioned how it’s like having this language work, or having your language, and doing this stuff is like ‑‑ I don’t know ‑‑ a buffer against aging in a way. Because it’s so important emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, for some people to have this and have this work. Do you see that with most of the speakers that you work with?

Andrew:  Yeah, even the pessimistic ones. [laughs] Yeah. There’s a lot of joy in getting or even in just hearing an old recording. A lot of people, even younger people, will just play the language in their car or something. Even younger people who have no idea what anyone’s saying, or just even hearing the language, it adds this intangible positivity.

I suppose psychologists are looking at…I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not, actually. You have to leave your college campus to figure this out. It’s a very positive sort of thing.

I think there’s also the social aspect of it. People are working together, meeting regularly, and if I don’t call frequently enough, I hear about it. There’s a lot of pride that comes out of doing language work. Just to be able to be proud of who you actually are is something that fuels people.

Carrie:  Do you find that ‑‑ I don’t know, maybe it’s just people that are monolingual in English, that grew up with English ‑‑ maybe some people, as an example, don’t understand how important it is to have that home or heritage language? I find that that’s the case with some people that they don’t quite understand why a language matters so much to someone.

Andrew:  Right. Yeah. You hear that. We have to make that case often, with lawmakers, with policy leaders. The head of the NSF, depending on the administration, that sort of thing. Usually, once you talk about it, then it becomes pretty clear

It’s just one of those things I think a lot of it never occurs to people or it’s the idea of having your heritage be sidelined in the first place is a foreign concept to a lot of people. Especially English speakers in the US, notably. You get it a little bit with dialects. People speak a non‑prestigious dialect, but not quite to the same extent.

Especially since, at least for different Indian cultures, it wasn’t just with the language, it was across the board. The religions were banned. Their clothes were replaced. Their property systems were thrown out the window, and all this…every aspect of society was really changed and really pushed off to the side. People were made to be embarrassed to be Indian.

After a generation or so, they didn’t really have to teach people not to use their language. They just do it themselves. I think that kind of oppression is something that we don’t even think of as happening in the US, just generally. It’s like, “Other countries do that.”

Megan:  We’ve told ourselves a good story here.

Carrie:  Yeah.

Andrew:  It doesn’t happen like that. It’s like, “Yeah we took their land and then history ended,” sort of thing. Right? That’s the mindset that most people have.

Carrie:  Yeah, exactly.

Andrew:  In a way that’s really where the history began rather than ended. For that it’s always a struggle because you’re always having to educate people. Not just what the history is but that there’s even a question to ask. The short answer was yes, I think, to that question.

Megan:  Yeah, exactly.


Carrie: Relatedly, why does documenting language, especially a language like Kiowa, matter?

Andrew:  Documenting the language, for one, it keeps it from dying. In language, if you take a linguistics course you’re probably familiar with concepts of language. Languages having this life cycle, and then when nobody speaks them anymore, they’re extinct or dead.

In the last 20 years, the concept of death has really been I guess in a way? replaced with this other concept called dormant, or sleeping, if you don’t want to use SAT‑level words. If you wanted to sound less academic you can say sleeping, which is what dormant means.

I guess you could draw an analogy to a volcano, which is probably of why it’s called that, where an extinct volcano will never erupt again. A dormant volcano hasn’t erupted in a long time but it’s still on the table. With a language that’s documented, then you can do that. It would take a lot of community effort, a lot of political will, and a lot of resources, but the door isn’t closed.

I think about a language like Aranama, which are spoken in the Houston area, way back in the day, and all we know about that language is one two‑word phrase ‑‑ /hiriana tsayi/, which means ‘give me water’.

It was remembered by the speaker of a different language, who was remembering this from years ago, so who knows how accurate that sentence even is. That’s literally all we know of this language. That language cannot be brought back.

When people ask me what the hardest language to learn is, that’s what I give them. It’s Aranama because where are you going to learn it?

Carrie:  [laughs] That’s a great answer. Oh, my God.

Andrew:  There’s nothing for you to learn it from. It’s hard. Documentation is really that. It’s really this preservation effort of figuring out exactly how this language works. Then with that conscious awareness, you can overcome the lack of subconscious transmission from one generation to the next, which is why these languages get dormant in the first place.

Semantic documentation fills in this gap that may be the last gap because we really know how phonology works. We really know how syntax works every 20 years.


Andrew:  Theories come and go but we do have a better idea of how syntax works, all joking aside. We document languages really well in those ways now but we don’t for semantics. Part of that is because semantics arose recently, focusing on semantics arose recently, but it also goes all the way back to this documentary tradition.

The documenting of languages really got going with the American anthropologists and ethnologist in the late 1800s, early 1900s. They were heavily influenced by Bloomfield. Leonard Bloomfield and Edward Sapir, and folks like that.

What they did was, for Bloomfield especially, the concept of semantics was weird because they were empiricists. They only focused on things that could actually be observed physically. Sounds can be observed physically but meanings cannot. For them, the idea of trying to figure out what the semantics of a language is would require a mind reading, so there wasn’t a point.

That said, they encountered these morphemes in these languages, like evidentials, and switch‑reference, obviation, and I could name a whole bunch of things that I won’t define.


Andrew:  The point is they had to figure out what these morphemes are because morphemes are forms tied to meaning. They had to figure out what these meant. In doing so, they basically were doing semantics. They just didn’t call it that. Because they were focused on morphemes, then they organize their information by form. That’s affected the way that these languages get documented.

It shows us what’s missing from that documentation. A lot of that is crucial because it ties in to the aspects of language that are communicative. I know that communication is not the only purpose of language, but it is up there on the list. Understanding how these meanings work, it turns out to be a really important issue.

How these meanings interact with the structure is also an important issue. I think it’s time to really start documenting those so that they can be preserved and passed on.

Carrie:  That was going to be my next question. Why does formal semantics matter? Because a lot of people do ignore it. Obviously, that was my passion. Feel like I’m always pushing against this idea that it doesn’t matter. I think you did a pretty good job of answering that, but is there more you want to say about that?

Andrew:  Formal semantics is valuable for several reasons. One of them is that it is precise. It allows us to make very clear observations about linguistic meaning, and suss out when things are clear and when things are not. This helps us understand why things are clear and why things are not.

I mentioned with these modals earlier, we know what parts of the modal is very clear, the quantificational aspect of it, and we can tell now which parts are very context‑driven. You can separate those out and you can tell which parts interact with the rest of the sentence and which parts don’t, etc.

It also gives us a sense of these different kinds of meaning. There’s assertive meaning. There is presupposition. There is implicature.

I like to tell people that when we’re talking, there’s more information in what we’re not saying than in what we are saying. A lot of that comes from these elements of meaning that are just not pronounced. So if they’re not pronounced, how do you find them?

There’s a methodology for that. We know how this works. Formal semantics allows us techniques to figure out when we encounter a morpheme, what parts of its meaning are asserted as true? What parts of its meaning are assumed to be true? What parts of its meaning are implied, but you can let it go if you question it.

These things turn out to be important, too. They’re important to document, not just for individual morphemes but even just the idea that the meaningful parts of language are complicated. They fit into different categories and they can be organized.

Formal semantics lets us do that in precise ways that we can test, in ways that other methods of analyzing linguistic meaning don’t do as well.

Megan:  Y’all are nerds.

Carrie:  Yeah we’re very nerdy. We’re very nerdy.


Andrew: Oh yes. Hey. It’s a family tradition.


Carrie:  There’s a million more questions that we have but it’s an hour. Thanks again for coming on.

Megan:  Yeah, thank you so much.

Andrew:  Thank you for having me back.

Carrie:  Is there a way to say “don’t be an asshole” in Kiowa?

Andrew:  There’s not really a word for asshole, in that sense…

Carrie:  Or jerk, or whatever.

Megan:  Don’t be a jerk. Be nice.

Andrew:  Yeah, there’s a word for the actual physical body part, but it’s not a taboo word. You can say don’t be… Wait, how many people are we talking to here?

Carrie:  Let’s say everybody who’s listening, so a lot of people.

Andrew:  /pòj bà-k’ɔ̃́ːdè-t’ɔ̀ː/

Megan:  Don’t be a what?

Andrew:  /k’ɔ̃́ːdè/ is just like bad.

Carrie:  Don’t be bad.

Megan:  Don’t be bad?

Andrew:  Like bad, offensively bad person.

[background music]

Carrie:  Thank our newest patrons for this month, Adam Benkato or Benkato, please let me know how to say that. Zoe Catherine, who told me how to pronounce her name. Thank you Zoe. Inge Stockburger.

Megan:  I recognize that name from Twitter.


Carrie:  …and Jon Henner.

Megan:  I recognize that name from Twitter, too. Thank you so much everyone.

Carrie:  Thank you.

Megan:  And thank you to Carrie for being the one that pronounces the names.


Carrie:  Luckily there was only one that I was like maybe I’m going to say this wrong.


Megan:  Again, we’re laughing at ourselves not at the fact – it’s very important to say people’s names correctly and how they want you to say it. Thank you.

Carrie:  If you want to become a patron, you can join us at patreon.com/vocalfriespod and you can join us at the one or three or five dollar level.

Just as a reminder, we can cover the transcriptions for this month thanks to Jamie Thomas, a special donor on the side. But if you want to help us be able to do it for the future then you can become a patron and help us become more accessible.

Megan:  Thank you so much for helping an indie podcast.

[background music]

Carrie:  The vocal for this podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio, theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @vocalfriespod. You can email us at vocalfriespod@Gmail.com and our website is vocalfriespod.com.

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