Reviving Myaamia.

I’ve had fond feelings for PRI’s The World ever since they interviewed me back in 2008; it seems like every time I listen to the show there’s something interesting, and today it was very much of LH relevance: How the Miami Tribe got its language back, reported by Carol Zall. You can listen to the show at that link, or read the transcript; here’s a snippet:

“I remember very specifically stumbling across these language materials, several pages of what I believed to be was Myaamia language,” Baldwin tells our podcast, The World in Words.

The pages had belonged to his late grandfather, and while Baldwin had no idea where they’d come from, he was intrigued. He wanted to find out more about his ancestral language, but there was a lot happening in his life at the time: After 10 years working in construction, Baldwin had gone back to school to get a college degree. And he and his wife Karen were expecting their first child.

Despite all that, Baldwin made time to travel to Indiana and Oklahoma to see if there were any remaining speakers of the Myaamia language. He couldn’t find anyone, but his curiosity had been piqued, and he decided to try to learn the language anyway.

Baldwin embarked on the challenge together with his wife, Karen. There was no dictionary or “Teach Yourself Myaamia” book, and there weren’t even sound recordings of the language. But somehow, they made a start.

They began with words — household items, animals, the names of birds — taped to their walls and kitchen counters, or carried on pieces of paper in their pockets to be consulted throughout the day.

The Baldwins’ efforts might have stalled without outside help, but in the early 1990s, Daryl Baldwin crossed paths with a graduate student from the University of California, Berkeley, who was doing research on Myaamia. The student, David Costa, was delving into archives and had uncovered a vast store of documents about the language, including dictionaries compiled by French missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries. Prior to Costa’s research, linguists had believed that there weren’t many records of the language.

After his unexpected finds in the archives, Costa went looking for native speakers.

Needless to say, I love that stuff. Thanks go to Bonnie for calling me in to listen!


  1. kimite8i8ni 8intchi kinepe – it’s his witchcraft which is killing you (useful Miami-Illinois phrase from St.Jerome French-Illinois dictionary)

  2. Great phrase! How do you pronounce 8?

  3. like English ‘w’

    So another useful phrase “kikimini8eski” (tu touche les femmes quand elles dorment) should be pronounced something like kikiminiweski.

    Oh, these French priests!

  4. In the missionaries’ handwriting, it’s more like ȣ.

  5. Ah, so a vertically stacked “ou.” Thanks!

  6. I have one significant objection to the way The World operates, and it is linguistic. They frequently take copy that was written by the BBC and read it on the air without editing it to make it idiomatic for American English. They do switch out words that simply do not exist in America, but they use a lot of British idioms that don’t work so well.

  7. So French priests were using Cyrillic letter Uk to write down Miami-Illinois Indian language!

    This is awesome!

  8. I guess influence from Cyrillic can’t be ruled out, but I think a more likely source of influence would be the Greek ligature that was the ancestor of Cyrillic Uk.

  9. I suspect SFReader was joking.

  10. marie-lucie says

    “Those priests!”

    Catholic missionaries had to learn indigenous vocabulary and sentences suitable for asking parishioners about what sins they were committing, and sample questions and answers were compiled in “confession manuals”, some of which still exist in French and Spanish for a number of Amerindian languages.

  11. 1-Some Hatters may find this dissertation, on the Myaamia spoken by Daryl Baldwin’s children, of some interest (I certainly did):

    Full disclosure: I met its author at a conference a few years ago.

    2- 8 or ȣ as /w/ or as short /u/: This is found in a number of colonial-era orthographies for Native American languages in North America.

    3-Marie-Lucie: In Carl Masthay’s Edition of the Saint-Jerome French-Illinois dictionary there is a separate section listing phrases describing various sinful activities.

  12. Stephen C. Carlson says

    8 or ȣ as /w/ or as short /u/: This is found in a number of colonial-era orthographies for Native American languages in North America.
    Could this symbol ȣ be from the Greek ligature of ου (omicron-upsilon) of similar shape that was still printed in 18th century editions of Greek texts?

    ETA: Sorry, didn’t notice Eil’s post on it. 😐

  13. Unicode considers ȣ to be a Latin rather than a Greek character because in Latin script it was sometimes considered a separate letter, whereas in Greek script it never was, merely an abbreviation. However, it can be used to represent Greek manuscript. The Cyrillic equivalent is ꙋ.


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