Of the approximately 7,000 languages in the world, many are endangered. An endangered language is one that is at risk of losing all of its native speakers. Some estimate that half of the world’s languages may become extinct within the next century. What’s more, many of these languages are vastly different from English and most are understudied. One example is Cheyenne, an Algonquian language indigenous to North America, now spoken predominantly in Montana and Oklahoma.
Sarah E. Murray, Linguistics, has worked with the Cheyenne in Montana since 2006. She spends her summers on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation doing linguistic fieldwork, helping to document the language, and working on various language projects through the tribal college, Chief Dull Knife College.
Murray’s research is at the intersection of two emerging areas of linguistics: formal semantics and pragmatics, and the documentation of understudied languages. The former is the study of how meaning is encoded in language and how to build formal representations of the meaning of sentences as well as how they are affected by, and affect, the context of what is said. She specifically brings data from Cheyenne to bear on the field’s theoretical questions and proposals.
“A lot of study in formal semantics is English-based, though that’s rapidly changing,” says Murray. “Bringing in data from understudied languages can make us challenge previous theories. It can affect how we view meaning and the tools that are needed to account for various linguistic phenomena.”
“It’s Raining, I Saw It.”
Murray's book The Semantics of Evidentials ties both of these research elements together. Every sentence in Cheyenne needs to be marked with how information is learned, the source of your information.
For example, you cannot just say, “It’s raining” or “Sandy won the race.” You have to say something like, “It’s raining, I saw it,” or “Sandy won the race, I hear.” The marking of source of information is called evidentiality. Since every sentence in Cheyenne has an evidential, understanding how they work is crucial to understanding the language. Through studying the evidential system of Cheyenne, Murray puts forth a new theory of how language, including English, works.
“If we want to understand the semantics of evidentials, we have to understand the semantics of sentence meaning in general,” says Murray. “Looking at how the particular sentence mood, like the difference between an interrogative and a declarative, interacts with evidentiality leads us to a novel theory of how all sentences are interpreted.”
Murray proposes a theory that each sentence makes three semantic contributions: 1) a main proposition; 2) background propositions, which may be comments related to the main proposition; and 3) the purpose of the main proposition, for example, is the speaker asserting it, asking about it, and so forth.
Murray spends summers on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation doing linguistic fieldwork. . . . She specifically brings data from Cheyenne to bear on the field’s theoretical questions and proposals.
“The theory I propose is really about how to encode the different statuses of the different propositions a sentence might communicate, and what effect they have on the conversation,” says Murray. In English, you could say, “Sandy won the race.” This would be a fine declarative sentence. But you could also say, “Sandy won the race, I hear.” The main proposition is the same, but there is a secondary proposition, “I heard that Sandy won,” that alters the meaning of the sentence and changes the purpose of the main proposition, that Sandy won the race. The sentence is still declarative, but it is hedged, as Murray puts it.
The book further explores the semantic contributions of evidentials and the mood of the sentence, as well as related phenomena from the English language.
In another project, Murray examines the sentential connectives of Cheyenne. Connectives are words like “and” (conjunction) and “or” (disjunction) in English. These English words are monomorphemic, meaning they are composed of one morpheme, or meaning unit. They cannot be broken down into smaller parts. In Cheyenne, the conjunction is monomorphemic but the other connectives are polymorphemic, meaning they are built from the conjunction.
“The meaning of disjunction is logically weaker than the meaning of conjunction,” says Murray. “How you get the meaning of something weaker when it contains something stronger is a really interesting puzzle.” Murray is documenting the connective system in Cheyenne and analyzing how it fits into current theories of the meaning of sentential connectives across languages.
By studying a language so grammatically different from English, Murray has been able to discover new empirical patterns and to put forth new linguistic theories, which also shed light on English and other more well-studied languages.
The Genesis of Inspiration
Murray first became interested in linguistic fieldwork during a field methods course at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, during which she studied Ottawa, another Algonquian language. In graduate school, she decided that she wanted to explore the Cheyenne language in part because of its relation to Ottawa. She ordered all the material available on Cheyenne, which wasn’t much—mainly a grammar, a dictionary, and a few collections of stories. With the encouragement of Wayne Leman, a linguist who has worked with the Cheyenne for more than 30 years and the author of several Cheyenne books, Murray drove out to Montana to begin fieldwork.
On researching Cheyenne in a linguistic context, Murray says, “people have been working on English for hundreds of years and we still make new discoveries about English. There’s definitely plenty of work to do.”