Notes on the practical Kiowa orthography by Olli Salmi

I must first stress that this Kiowa orthography is in no way official or endorsed by the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma or any Kiowa. It is a system I developed to be able to write Kiowa for a BASIC vocabulary quiz program. It can be freely used if you want to write Kiowa and I'm convinced it would be good enough to serve as a practical orthography for Kiowa.

There is no official orthography for Kiowa. I have seen Kiowa written in at least seven ways, not including this one. The most important systems of writing are Mr. Parker McKenzie's system and the Redbird system developed in cooperation with the Summer Institute of Linguistics. A list of the letters of both alphabets can be found in "A Grammar of Kiowa" by Laurel Watkins.

My proposal resembles an earlier version by McKenzie and Harrington (1948). It can be regarded as a simplification of their system, although that is not how I got the idea. They use vowel doubling and a separate letter (N) for nasalization like the present system.

In designing an alphabet I think the most important thing is that it reflects all the sounds of the language. It should also be easy to write. Mr. McKenzie's alphabet can express all the sounds of Kiowa, but it uses underlining and the macron (line over the vowel) in addition to three tone marks. This is not difficult if you write by hand, but for use on a computer 60 extra characters are needed (underlining is possible if you write on a word processor, but it cannot be used with other programs). Some of these extra characters are not included in Unicode.

The present system can be typed on an ordinary keyboard with the ISO-Latin-1 character set. With Windows you have to have the English International Keyboard installed or use MS Word. On a US keyboard the diacritics can be entered with the following dead key combinations:

        Windows          Mac
´ CTRL-"' option-e followed by the vowel
^ CTRL-SHIFT-^6 option-i followed by the vowel
~ CTRL-SHIFT-~` option-n followed by n

More information on entering accents at this site:

Another design goal is that the alphabet should have a familiar look. In America this usually means that letters should have their English values. I do not think this is the most important thing however. Native American languages are languages on their own right and very different from English, so their orthographies can also be different.

The key idea in this system is that "o" is used for the sound in the word "off". This has not been tried before in Kiowa. Doubling the vowel to indicate long vowels and a separate letter for nasalization makes it possible not to have too many diacritics on one letter. Most single letters still have sounds that occur in English.

Because "e" does not occur alone, it is not necessary to use the combination "ey". "E" (pronounced like in café) could be used instead of it, and "ee" for the long vowel. I have however decided to keep "ey" because it is symmetrical with "ow", it is usually diphthongized, and it gives the combination "eey" instead of "ee", which one might be tempted to read in the English way.

You could go even further and write "u" for my "ow" and "wu" for my "u" (and "e" for "ey"). This would give the best balance between the available letters and the vowel system of the language. "Wu" only occurs after "g" and "k" and the combinations "gw" and "kw" are very natural. However, "u" for the sound of "ow" looks so alien that I decided not to use it.

For 7-bit e-mail (US ASCII) you can write the diacritics after the letter: ku^y for wolf and tse´eyn~ (or tse´ey~) for horse. The character ´ does double duty then. I believe 8-bit mail (Mime version 1.0 and Quoted Printable) is becoming commoner so e-mail is not a problem.

Laurel Watkins uses the hyphen after prefixes so I thought that is a good idea. The middle dot is the best character for making clear what letters belong to different syllables, because it is less obtrusive than the hyphen, so I've revised the proposal in this respect. The hyphen can be used if the middle dot is not available. A period may be even better.


McKenzie, Parker and John P. Harrington. 1948. Popular Account of the Kiowa Language. Santa Fe: University of New Mexico Press.

Meadows, William C. 1999. Kiowa, Apache, and Comanche Military Societies. Austin: University of Texas Press

William C. Meadows and Parker P. McKenzie (posthumously). 2001. The Parker P. McKenzie Kiowa Orthography: How Written Kiowa Came Into Being. Plains Anthropologist, vol. 46, no 176:233–248.

Watkins, Laurel J. 1984. A Grammar of Kiowa. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.