Solving the Chickasaw puzzle

I posed a linguistic puzzle about the Chickasaw language, and I owe you the answers.  By process of comparison and contrast based on the data given, here are my translations of the six sentences presented in the challenge:

  • The man loves the woman. → Hattakat ihooã hollo.
  • The cat stinks. → Kowi’at shoha.
  • I love him/her. → Holloli.
  • Ihooat sahollo. → The woman loves me.
  • Ofi’at hilha. → The dog dances.
  • Kowai’ã lhiyohlili. → I chase the cat.

If you want to know my approach to solving the puzzle, read on. (Check the original puzzle through the link to related articles below.) And if you’re wondering about the artwork in this post, it’s a picture of Chickasaw performer, Te Ata. Stunning, isn’t she?

Although our task in this challenge is easier than it would have been for the original linguist investigating a new language — the stream of speech has been converted into discrete, written words and presented to us as complete, individual sentences — I’m still not sure how you could solve this type of puzzle without using some scratch paper to track your guesses.  Obviously, you begin by studying the data. In this case, we were given seven Chickasaw sentences with their English translations. We have to analyze them to determine how to translate the six sentences in the puzzle.

Looking at sentences #1 , #2, and #3, I saw two similar words translated as “dog”: ofi’at in #1 and #3 and ofi’ã in #2. The translations show that “dog” functions as grammatical subject in #1 and #3, but as grammatical object in #2 so I guessed the suffix -at designates nominative case while designates accusative case. Applying these rules helped me identify which word should be translated as “the woman” in #4: ihooat (ihoo + –at for nominative case).

When I got to #5, I realized Chickasaw pronouns were not designated by discrete words. I knew lhiyohli meant “chases” based on #1 and #2. The only addition in #5 was the suffix -li, which could have referred either to “I” or “her/him” based on the English translation. Before making a guess, I looked at #6, which included the same verb with the addition of the prefix sa-. The translations of #5 and #6 included the same subject and object, but in the inverse order: #5 had a first person subject and third person object, while #6 had a third person subject and first person object. So the puzzle I faced was

  • Is the suffix -li translated as “I” (first person nominative) or “her/him” (third person accusative)?
  • Is the prefix sa- translated as “she/he” (third person nominative) or “me” (first person accusative)?

I couldn’t resolve this until I looked at #7, which presented a single word translated as “she/he dances” without either -li or sa-. At that point, I guessed that the base form of a verb assumes a third person subject, which meant first person subjects and objects must be designated with affixes. Thus, the verb suffix -li should be translated as “I” and the verb prefix sa- as “me.”

You simply cannot study a new language without recognizing how highly structured or predictable or rule-governed it is in its natural state. In other words, the Chickasaw language, like all human languages, requires no authority figure to keep it from devolving into chaos. Language is highly structured because it’s a product of human cognition. (See yesterday’s post about the cognitive revolution.) And identifying linguistic patterns is a joyful experience for nerds like me.

Thanks for playing along! This puzzle is considered the lowest level of difficulty — a green circle challenge. Blue square puzzles are for those who need a little more challenge; and black diamond puzzles are the most challenging.  If you’re hooked, try some others at the Linguistics Challenge site.

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