The Grammar of Prosody and Intonation in Kwak’wala

Emily Elfner’s research concerns the use of rhythm, pitch, and intonation in spoken language. These aspects of language—referred to as prosody—are essential to communication, and provide crucial information about sentence structure and conversational meaning.

Emily’s Banting postdoctoral research project at UBC focuses on the use of prosody and intonation in Kwak’wala, a critically endangered and understudied First Nations language spoken in British Columbia. Like many of Canada’s First Nations languages, Kwak’wala is in danger of losing its last fluent native speakers within a generation. While prosody and intonation are an integral component of learning to speak and revitalize an endangered language, these aspects of language are often overlooked in language documentation and linguistics and as a result, very little is known about how prosody and intonation are used in languages other than better-studied languages like English.

This project is the first systematic study of prosody and intonation in Kwak’wala, and furthermore, is one of the first studies of prosody and intonation for any of Canada’s First Nations languages. The results of this project will add depth to our knowledge of how prosody and intonation are used across different languages, as well as contribute to methodological research that will facilitate the study of prosody and intonation in other endangered languages. The project will also directly support and contribute to community efforts to document, teach, and revitalize the language.