Katie McGhee has always been fascinated with language – with the many ways that cultures make meaning among themselves and with others. McGhee’s interest in the Mvskoke language was sparked when Katie started studying Spanish at school in Texas. McGhee hadn’t realized, until their father David McGhee mentioned it, that the Poarch Band of Creek Indians from which they descend, had their own language. McGhee went in search of a Mvskoke dictionary and began researching whatever background information could be found.
At first there wasn’t much. But a fascination with Mvskoke continued to build over time and into McGhee’s current undergraduate studies at the University of Texas, Austin, where Katie is majoring in linguistics. Decoding the language became an important and meaningful part of McGhee’s studies, and the subject of an exciting undergraduate thesis.
There are about 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, and experts believe that 90 percent of them will disappear in less than a century as cultures blend and indigenous tribes diminish in numbers. Half of the United States’ indigenous languages are already extinct, and others are classified by UNESCO’s Atlas of Endangered Languages in five degrees of endangerment from “safe” to “extinct.” With about 5,000 native speakers, Mvskoke falls in the middle range as “definitely endangered.”
Mvskoke originated in the Southeast across the Creek Confederacy and has been vulnerable to the same forces that have threatened or extinguished other tribal languages in the U.S. For generations, English-speaking settlers barred tribal practices and relegated indigenous children to boarding schools, where they were required to speak English exclusively and to assimilate into “mainstream” culture. In the process, these children lost touch with their native tongues, rendering many of them unable to speak to or even understand their parents.
Today, more and more indigenous people are seeking to reclaim their tribal languages and they are finding increasingly more expansive and accessible resources to help them do so. “People have all sorts of reasons for learning [the languages],” says linguist Ruth Rouvier of the University of California, Berkeley. “But it’s all about making their own choices. And for most of these communities, the loss of their language was not a choice they made. It was imposed on them. And so this is just one of the steps in reclaiming their sovereignty and self- determination.” McGhee felt this same call to action, not just as a Poarch Creek Indian but also as a social scientist.
The study of linguistics is not the same as the learning of a language, however. A broad field with many sub- disciplines, linguistics focuses on the science of language, the investigation of the properties of various tongues. Linguists like McGhee and Rouvier study not just sound, grammar, and meaning, but also the history of languages, how languages are acquired, and how language is processed.
Entwined with the humanities and natural and social sciences, applied linguistics complements many other disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, biology, and even computer science, while also helping students better communicate in their own and different tongues.
Driven by an interest in both the culture and the science that underpins language, McGhee recently completed an internship that combined the two at the American Philosophical Society (APS) in Philadelphia, where Rouvier is a Native American scholar. The oldest learned society in the United States, the APS was founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin to “promote useful knowledge.” Today the society carries out that mission by engaging scholars in interdisciplinary intellectual fellowship, supporting research, and maintaining a library of historically valuable manuscripts and other collections.
It was at the APS library that McGhee found an archival treasure trove, one that brought deeper insights into the linguistic interpretations of Mvskoke over the years.
What McGhee found were scores of old notebooks written in the early 20th Century in the hand of such notables as Franz Boas, the German-American scholar known as the father of American anthropology; Edward Sapir, a renowned linguistic scholar who was inspired by Boas to study Native American languages; and the noted America linguist Mary Haas. “American anthropology was basically synonymous with documenting indigenous people at the time,” says McGhee. APS’s mission has been to include more indigenous voices, languages and cultures and to improve access to these important documentary archives.
“It was really interesting to look into these materials and fall down the rabbit hole of learning,” says McGhee, “to see that other linguists had done work on this, and to realize the complexity of the situation, and the documentation, and how everyone has their own spin on how they believe [the language] should be spoken and how they can best represent that.”
McGhee is not fluent in Mvskoke but is able to discern the meaning of many words and embraced the challenge of trying to decipher others. “I was able to make out a lot of nouns,” they said. “I can tell if they are talking about clouds or rain or the color red, but I wouldn’t know exactly what’s happening because I’ve missed some of the verbs.”
Mvskoke has an alphabet of 20 letters similar to those of English, but most have distinctly different sounds. The letter r, for instance, is pronounced “thle” as in athlete. The letter c is pronounced not as an s or a k, as in English, but as “che.” And v, which is a consonant in English, is a vowel in Mvskoke, pronounced “uh.” (This is why English speakers pronounce Mvskoke as Muscogee.) At the same time, many concepts in English don’t directly translate. For example, there is no direct translation of “good morning.” Instead, a Mvskoke speaker might greet you with “Estonkon cukhayvtikv,” which translates roughly into “Did you make it through the night alright?”
“It’s very, very different from Romance languages and from English,” McGhee says. “It’s really just a different way of looking at the world that you have to train your brain to cope with. It’s also subject-object-verb, which is different from the English subject-verb-object, so you have to open your perspective to allow that.”
Despite the obstacles, scholars have long understood the importance of learning endangered languages. “It presents a way of seeing the world and the ways the brain or a culture can work and parse things around them,” says McGhee. “Languages preserve this really interesting aspect of humanity. And when you have people who are no longer speaking that language you lose that aspect of humanity and the human experience.”
McGhee explains that language is an essential part of one’s sense of self: “For a lot of tribes in the U.S., being able to speak your language is a marker of your tribe’s identity and its survival. It’s incredibly important to maintain.”
Despite the wealth of information the APS internship and university studies provided, McGhee still had to confront a significant barrier on the road to mastering Mvskoke: linguistic notation. Phonetic linguistic notation is a standardized alphabet of symbols that can represent all sounds in the human language. The current standard is the International Phonetic Alphabet, but another system, Americanist Notation, was commonly used in the 20th Century in the U.S. Both are products of their times, McGhee says, with earlier versions accounting only for sounds common in European languages.
To compensate for these gaps, McGhee explains, early anthropologists often created new symbols for the languages of the communities they studied. Although this practice resulted in more accurate transcriptions, it also created countless different notation systems. So, when searching through archives, English speakers will find notes that not only look nothing like their own writing system, but also look very different depending on their source. This was what McGhee was trying to decipher when researching Mvskoke heritage at the APS.
To make the materials more accessible, McGhee has begun to create a program to decode the work of various linguists into a standard Mvskoke orthography. Using Jack Martin and Margaret Maudlin’s “The Dictionary of Creek/Muscogee” as the guide for common spellings. To create the cipher, or code, McGhee collected word lists (from the APS archives) that have similar entries but were made by different linguists. For instance, the Mvskoke word for “bird” is fóswa in the orthography of linguist Mary Haas (1910-1996), fuswv in that of Martin’s, and Фošəwa in that of William Sturtevant’s (1996-2007). McGhee has written a code to compare each symbol in each word to create patterns.
This work has sparked an even deeper passion for Mvskoke culture and language. “It was incredible to be going through the archives and to pull out a notebook and to have it be entirely in Mvskoke,” McGhee said. “It has given me a lot more pride and connection to my ancestors and to my culture.”
Artwork combines various Mvskoke language interpretations by linguists Vic Riste (1931), Mary Haas (1940), William Sturtevant (1951) and Jack Martin (2000).