The Kiowa Language

by Edith Crowell Trager

The Kiowa have lived near the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma for one hundred and fifty years. Although the northern origin of the tribe is fairly certain, there seems to be nowhere any language closely related to Kiowa, except Taos and other Tanoan languages spoken in some of the pueblos of New Mexico. Kiowa-Tanoan, along with Zuni, and Uto-Aztecan languages spoken in the United States, Mexico, and Central America constitute what linguists who work with American Indians call the Azteco-Tanoan group of languages.

Nearly all the Kiowas, except some members of the youngest generation, speak their language, and probably all of them understand it. There are differences of vocabulary and of phonetic detail between the speech of the different generations, as is the case for every language we know about, although the structure of Kiowa is the same for all speakers.

The generational differences in vocabulary are due partly to changes in culture. Oldsters, for instance, know words that the younger speakers do not – like the word for hair on the back of a baby buffalo's knee. This natural obsolescence of words is reinforced by a cultural habit which ties in with the Kiowa attitude towards death, requiring that the words that make up the name of a person who has just died become taboo, and be replaced by synonyms or circumlocutions.

No matter what the changes in vocabulary, the patterns of the sounds in a language, the patterns of words and of sentences stay pretty much the same for generations. It is those patterns we want to talk about now. No language has sounds exactly like the sounds of any other language, but it is possible to use our alphabet in a way that will suggest some of the sounds of Kiowa to an English-speaking person and serve as a point of departure for the unfamiliar sounds. The letters we will use are: a, b, d, e, g, h, k, 1, m, n, o, p, s, t, w, y, z.

There are six vowels in Kiowa that we will write this way: ee as in deep, ey as in they, a as in pat, ah as in bah, oo as in moon, oh as in go, and aw as in law. There are also six nasal vowels. Using ng to represent the nasalization, we shall write eeng, eyng, ang, oong, ohng, awng, for those.

The consonants written h, m, n, s, y, z are almost exactly like the English sounds represented by those letters. The same is true of w which, although not native to Kiowa, is heard a lot in songs (originally borrowed-now an authentic part of Kiowa lore). There is an I which sounds something like an English I except at the end of a word. There it sounds almost like the -dle in idle.

The letters b, d, g, and p, t, k, are used for six more of the Kiowa consonants. These sound a lot like the first sounds in the English words bet, debt, get, pick, tick, and kick. The p, t, and k all have a slight puff of breath after the sound is released. You can test this easily by holding a lighted match in front of your lips, The flame will not waver when you say bet, debt, or get, but will flicker noticeably when you say pick, tick, or kick.

Kiowa has two more sets of sounds that will be a little harder for the speaker of English. One set that will be written pb, td, kg is pronounced without that puff of breath – a good deal like the French or Spanish sounds written p, t, c. The other set will be written p' t' k' because each sound is closely followed by a glottal stop. The glottal stop is a full-fledged consonant in Kiowa. It occurs only incidentally in English, for instance when we pronounce "A.A.A." In our Kiowa-style alphabet, we would write this: 'ey'ey'ey.

The last two items in the repertoire of Kiowa phonemes require us to say a word about what a phoneme is. A phoneme is a structure-point in the sound pattern of a language. We use the letters p, b, v, and f to represent four of the phonemes we have in English, and we know that they are structure-points because there are many, many examples of groups of words like pat, bat, vat, and fat which are entirely different words. In Kiowa, p, pb, p' and b are separate phonemes for the same reason, although we may find it very hard at first to detect the differences between them. No native speaker of Kiowa would ever confuse these words: paw 'receive', pbaw 'hair' or 'buffalo', p'aw 'moon', river' or 'month', the syllable baw, similarly for kee 'day', kgee 'meat', and k'ee 'wood'. To return to the last of the Kiowa sounds, let us say that we are going to write, for mnemonic convenience, a single phoneme with two letters – ts. There is also a glottalized sound, ts'.

To sum up our survey of the vowel and consonant phonemes of Kiowa, here is a table which lists the phonemes, classified according to their phonetic similarities.

Most languages that we know about have, in addition to vowels and consonants, phonemes of stress or of pitch, or both, and/or intonation patterns. Kiowa has a stress phoneme that works partly like our English stress phoneme. The noun export is stressed on the first syllable; the verb spelled the same way is stressed on the second syllable. Similarly in Kiowa, adaw means "I am," and adaw means "they are." Kiowa also has a kind of pitch accent. One of the "tones" is a rising-falling contour that we shall write with a circumflex. One of many sets of words in which this makes a difference is talí, which means "boy" and tálí, which means "maternal grandmother."

No two languages have the same sound-system, and no two languages have identical grammatical systems. Kiowa, for instance, has noun stems, verb stems, prefixes and suffixes of different kinds, and particles. What we translate into English by adjectives are really verbs, because they are stems that can be preceded by pronoun prefixes and followed by suffixes of tense and aspect, exactly like the words we translate as verbs. The pronoun prefixes have person and number-dual forms in addition to singular and plural. There are also some convenient forms which allow you to make a difference between we meaning "you and I" and we meaning "I and some other person, but not you."

Categories like the dual pronomial forms, the treatment of "adjectives" as verbs, and the countless vocabulary items like sawhey 'blue-green', 'sky-color', 'grass-color' put a very different cast on the world for Kiowa speakers.

In a brief sketch like this one, it is not possible to do more than suggest that each language is like a different filter through which experience can be observed and analyzed with only an approach to true objectivity.