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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Reviving Dead Languages

Recently, my local Columbus paper had a story on the efforts of people, especially at Miami University (of Ohio) , to revive the Myaamia language, once spoken by inhabitants of the Ohio Valley by a people forcibly moved to Oklahoma. The title of the article, "Linguist bringing back nearly dead language," is misleading since in fact the language was dead, the last speaker having died in the 1960's. Allegedly there are now about 50 speakers though no one is in a position to certify that what they are speaking is in fact what was spoken by the last people who spoke it. The tribe consists of some 3,000 members. I give the revival of the Myaamia language a 1% chance of being successful and that is being optimistic.

The article itself veers crazily from a story about a talk on The Myaami Project at Miami University (of Ohio) by a participant in the project and member of this tribe at the American Association for the Advancement of Science to a couple of paragraphs on the issue of global warming and then back to this language revival. This is a mind boggling segue. The only connection between the two is that both were topics raised at the conference. There is no connection between the survival of this language and the survival of planet Earth.

The author of the paper that gave rise to this article was Daryl Baldwin. He is referred to as a translator, and I suspect he is also a student at Miami University for there has been some effort to bring young people from Oklahoma to Ohio to study. At the project web site, the effort to recreate the Myaamia language is referred to as a reclamation project, rather than a revival, for, as I noted, the language had long since died. Baldwin is said to have claimed that "language contains ideas of a people's culture and interactions." Perhaps that is what he said but it is linguistically very naive. Yes, the referring expressions in a language give us an idea of the sorts of things that played a role in the lives of the people -- the animals they hunted, the foods they gathered, among many other things. Sometimes kinship relations may be inferable. But there is no way that the culture as a whole would be inferable from the traces of the language that do exist.

Those who are trying to reclaim the language are using written records, facts known about related languages that were spoken in the Midwest, and the memories of those elders who recall bits and pieces of the language. It is a characteristic of language death that there will be a time in which a generation of persons can understand what speakers are saying but cannot themselves speak the language. Once the speakers die out the language is dead since those who knew the language passively cannot keep it alive. From the description given, I gather that surviving members of the Myaamia tribe who retain some memory of the language represent the last stage of the death of the language.

There have been efforts to revive languages before this one of course. One of the most well-known is the Celtic Revival, which was begun in 1896. The Irish Free State made a concerted effort to assist in the revival of Celtic as part of an emphasis on developing a specifically Irish culture distinct from that of the UK. It has been met with mixed success partly it seems because time spent in school learning Celtic hindered the development of much more economically important English language skills. Indeed, I would imagine that Celtic ori8ginally died out because it came to be of little real use. Nothing in that regard has changed since then. Another point that people may miss, as may be true of those trying to bring the Myaami language back to life, is that it is not necessary to have a separate language to develop a unique culture. There are people in many countries who speak English but have different cultures.

The Hebrew language movement in Israel has been a complete success. There simply couldn't have been a viable Jewish state without a national language since there was no single other language that everyone spoke. To some degree, a Jewish culture already existed and this facilitated the development of a new state. There was no similar compelling reasons for the revival of Celtic since everyone in Ireland already spoke English. This revival was done for purely political reasons.

As I said, I give this effort to recreate Myaamia a 1% chance of success. There are only 50 speakers now and there are 0nly about 3,000 potential speakers. Moreover, there is no pressing economic or social need for the language. A member of this tribe does not have to speak Myaamia to get a job. However, study of the language and culture is of academic interest and there is no harm in teaching the children in the tribe a bit of the language to assist in preservation of at least bits of the culture. As in the Irish case, any time spent teaching the kids Myaamia that detracts from their learning to read and write English would not be time well spent.

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24 Comments:

Blogger wreckless said...

In your post, you said that the people did not need to know the language to get a job and so it would lessen the chance of it's survival. This made me curious as to your views on the seemingly increasing bilingualism of our nation (I know we as a nation are multilingual, but what I am refering to is Spanish vs. English)
Do you feel governments are obligated to print lanuguages other than the "native" language? How many businesses print bilingual things. Everything seems to be in two languages. What are your views on these things?

12:50 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

When I talk about the relationship between economics and language choice I mean to be being descriptive. If you have to know a language reasonably well to get work you want then, if that conflicts, with learning or keeping active another language, you won't do so. I would bet that but for the Hispanic case, most second and/or third generation Americans are not genuinely bilingual.

You have to remember that Hispanics have been here forever and there has not everywhere in the US that one needs to know English to get work -- S. Florida, big chunks of Texas, and perhaps elsewhere. The biggest supermarkets I have seen in Houston are the Fiesta markets. They are all over the place. This is "their" country every bit as much as it is "ours." What our governments at various levels want to do about Spanish is up to them. In some areas, the street signs are in Spanish. I have seen Thai street names in Houston. We are a multilingual country and probably always will be to some degree.

In my opinion while Hebrew was critical to the formation of Israel, English isn't critical to our sense of being part of the same nation. We share a lot more than we don't. Hispanics are as willing to fight for the USA as Anglos. This is the most telling fact. You don't fight for a country you don't consider "yours" even if your preferred language isn't English. For me national Spanish/English competence is the answer.

Maybe its just me but I don't see a sharp divide amongst Canada, the US, and Mexico. Canada and the US are culturally closer because of English and a shared origin. We fight on the same side in almost all wars (but they were too smart to get into the second Iraq war with George). There is a bigger divide between the US and Mexico obviously but I think it will diminish over time.

2:17 PM

 
Blogger wreckless said...

Thanks for your input. We need another life lesson from the Hammer? Got one?

8:01 AM

 
Blogger Colm said...

"The Irish Free State made a concerted effort to assist in the revival of Celtic as part of an emphasis on developing a specifically Irish culture distinct from that of the UK."

There is no such thing as Celtic. You are referring to Irish Gaelic, the first official language of Ireland and the ancestoral language of the Irish people.

A distinct Irish culture existed for millenia before the the establishment of the Irish Free State (now: Ireland).

"It has been met with mixed success partly it seems because time spent in school learning Celtic hindered the development of much more economically important English language skills."

Completely un-true. Bi-lingualism has been shown to aid in the future acqusition of languages and in the understanding of other cultures.

"Indeed, I would imagine that Celtic ori8ginally died out because it came to be of little real use. Nothing in that regard has changed since then."

Irish never died out.

"Another point that people may miss, as may be true of those trying to bring the Myaami language back to life, is that it is not necessary to have a separate language to develop a unique culture. There are people in many countries who speak English but have different cultures."

Complete rubbish! A distinct language is the bastion of a distinct culture. Just look at Belgium, Finland, Canada and Switzerland.

I cannot believe you would dare compare Irish Gaelic, the second oldest living language of the Indo-European family with this dead indigenious-North-American language. You obviouslly have no idea what you are talking about.

11:14 AM

 
Blogger Colm said...

"There was no similar compelling reasons for the revival of Celtic since everyone in Ireland already spoke English. This revival was done for purely political reasons."

Complete BS.

"As in the Irish case, any time spent teaching the kids Myaamia that detracts from their learning to read and write English would not be time well spent."

*shakes head in dismay*

11:20 AM

 
Blogger Trevor said...

Oh dear lord, i think M.I.T. would be fairly unhappy with a ph.d. graduate of theirs spewing such rubbish. They might sue you for libel, considering it's a severe lapse in judgement for them to have presented someone which such minimal knowledge of minority languages with such an accolade. I don't need to repeat colm's criticisms, as they are all accurate.

11:48 AM

 
Blogger Tadhg said...

dude, get your facts straight. if you have a ph.d. then research should not be a new thing for you. there is no such language as "celtic". and don't ever go spewing this "mis-information" in ireland (or on myaami territory, for that matter)... you're bound to get your face punched in.

3:53 PM

 
Blogger K. Patrick said...

Language Guy? what kind of handle is that for someone that is so clueless about languages.
you might check out your facts. as others have stated.. no language call celtic.. which i'm sure you pronouce with an S sound in the front. last statistic I saw was over 250,000 people said that 'Irish' was their first language (Gaelic in English by itself generally refers to the Scots version, but i'm sure a 'Language Guy' such as yourself already knew that) last i knew Navajo was not considered a 'dead language' I don't think there are 250,000 speakers of Navajo. (that is the large Native American tribe in Northern Arizona for you blue blooded idiots on the other side of the Hudson)

11:27 PM

 
Blogger Dearg Doom said...

You have a PHD ? From MIT ? My god in heaven.

First of all, the Celtic "language" developed into many different unique languages, one of which was Gaelic (Irish and later branched off again to form Scottish Gaelic).

There are TV stations, radio stations, newspapers etc along with native speakers of Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic (to a lesser extent) and Welsh (the most healthy of the languages By a LONG way).

Irish Gaelic NEVER died to be revived, neither did Scottish gaelic or Welsh.

I can't even believe your blog post was serious.

A PHD ??? You should be ashamed.

10:56 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

You will have noticed I gave my sources for what I said about Celtic. If they are wrong, then what I said was wrong.

The idea that a linguist should know everything about every language is ridiculous. That is why we cite our sources.

By the way, anyone who thinks mockery of someone is a legitimate argument form is a bit dim.

10:36 AM

 
Blogger Colm said...

You are obviously "dim" because AS WE ALL SAID THERE IS NO SUCH LANGUAGE AS CELTIC!!!!!

For a person with a PhD Wikipedia is not exactly a source to be proud of!!

9:43 AM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Okay, Colm. Lets get down to the basics. Do you agree that there was a group of persons occupying the British Isles that is referred to as the "Celts." This is basic British history so I guess you will say, "Yes." Next question: Do you think these people could speak with each other? I trust you will say, "Yes" again. The language they spoke is called "Celtic." Here are just a few references to help you grasp this notion.
The Columbia Encyclopaedia.
Dalriada Celtic Heritage Society
Use Google and you will get more.

8:31 AM

 
Blogger Trevor said...

Keep up that research. The celtic languages of the british isles are not mutually intelligible. They are divided between two groups, goidelic and brythonic, which are as different as french and german. The goidelic group includes Irish Scots Gaelic, and Manx, whereas the Brythonic groups include Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

Even within these groups, mutual intelligibility outside the most simplex of sentences, is not guaranteed.

The point of the matter is language guy, that if you are to make such a damning statement about language revival, and in particular the Irish language, we expect you to do some basic research first.

Btw The Irish Free State? Where are you from? 1928?

10:21 AM

 
Blogger Frank said...

'Oh dear' was perhaps the most succinct and on-point comment on the whole fiasco. I came here from languagehat's awesome blog, and am disappointed at this piece. Not sure I'll look around much further.

To argue that the language which the government of Ireland tried to revive should be known as 'Celtic' on the basis that the British Isles once had residents known as 'Celts', who could speak to each other in a common tongue, is rather like insisting on referring to the majority language currently spoken in Britain as 'West Germanic' (as in "Emily Bronte, one of the first and finest writers of the novel form in West Germanic...").

It's technically correct, but so chronologically inaccurate, and therefore vague, that it makes the reader question the writer's credibility. Oh dear.

3:58 PM

 
Blogger Language Guy said...

Okay, I have figured out the nature of the dispute here. If you go to the web site Irish? Celtic? Gaelic? Scottish? What Does it All Mean?you will see that this is much ado about language change. It seems I am trapped in the past and have used the name of the language that evolved into Gaelic rather than Gaelic or Irish. However, the fact remains, the language of Ireland is English and that is very unlikely to change. The substantive point, which none of you people addressed, is that the effort to revive Gaelic/Irish may keep it alive but it will never be the language of Ireland. That, I fear, will continue to be English. Perhaps you will have something substantive to say about that issue, rather than nattering on about the name I used.

9:36 AM

 
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8:04 AM

 
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3:11 PM

 
Blogger El Caballero said...

Although I can understand the frustration of people who speak Irish Gaelic with some of your incorrect points, I think that their comments were perhaps a bit extreme. Let's clear up the whole "mutual comprehensibility" issue with an overview of the history of Celtic languages.
Two branches of the Celtic branch of Indo-European languages are represented in the British Isles--P-Celtic and Q-Celtic. (I think that these are the only two languages.) Q-Celtic changes the unvoiced labiovelar stop "kw" to "k." P-Celtic changes it to "p."
P-Celtic speakers came to the British Isles from France (or so it is thought.) They settled the island "Britain" mostly. Q-Celtic speakers migrated from Spain--this is from old, semi-legendary accounts, but written fragments of Iberian Celtic, a Q-Celtic language, do exist in Spain, making it very plausible--and settled in Ireland. At one point, the Q-Celtic Speakers invaded the northern part of Britain, now Scotland. So although speakers of Celtic languages did coexist in the British Isles, their languages would not have been mutually comprehensible due to separate evolution. Certainly, it would have been more facile for each group to learn the other's language than a less-related language, and they could probably recognize each others' language as related, but they were not mutually comprehensible.

9:09 PM

 
Blogger Shane said...

"Indeed, I would imagine that Celtic ori8ginally died out because it came to be of little real use."

If you dont know the name for something how can you assert it died out.

English is a Germanic language, therefore we can say that "Germanic is one of the most useful languages in the world" by the same definition. Nonsense.


Died out? Census figures show that there are over 50,000 native speakers, and 400,000 that speak it as a second language, my guess is that a quarter or more of that is to a native like level, and about 200,000 to 300,00 that are semifluent like me or in between. So, "dies out"?

Please go to tg4.tv, maybe if logic can't persuade you the language is alive then Spongebob Squarepants can. (16:35 daily GMT)

8:47 PM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

If it hadn't virtually died out there would have been no need for a revival. You concede that there may be only 50,000 native speakers (self-described or tested?) but the fact is that the language of Ireland is English. Why would the government hire translators if this were a vital Irish language?

Obviously I have gored your favorite political ox.

7:20 AM

 
Blogger Cormac said...

Do you have a crystal ball? How can you know that the main language will never be irish. I admit that there is a fair chance that English may dominate for a good while but with all these foreigners the likely dominant language will be Mandarin... and as long as the language is spoken it cannot die, for it is in our system, you can't get through our schools without it. You will fail in life if you don't speak your so called *dead Celtic*. Tá a lán rudaí againn, mar shampla,radió, nuacht agus South Park. Mr. Language Guy. Anyone who has South Park in their native language has a healthy living language. OWNED! Slán a mhic!

1:34 PM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

Yes, I have a crystal ball.

The reality is that the overwhelming tendency is for "small" languages to die out and though clearly concerted effort can keep it going, when that is politically motivated I suspect younger people who don't care about the politics will go with the language that they perceive as more prestigious. So, I predict that some day there will be 4 languages, English, Mandarin, Hindi, and Spanish. I am joking.

10:34 AM

 
Blogger jamesnp said...

Can I personally assure you that Irish is far from dead. I use Irish almost exclusively in my daily life. Yesterday, I travelled from An Cheathrú Rua in Gaillimh to Dublin via bus, rail, tram and at no stage of the journey did I feel the need to read English, speak English to other people. I listened to the raidio in Irish, caught up on some tv programmes in Irish on the train, I ordered my cup of coffee and sandwich in Irish, bought my tickets in Irish, and when I reached Dublin I met up with some friends (from Dublin) and once again, spoke Irish.

To respond to other points raised: 50,000 is a conservative estimate of the number of native speakers of Irish. Research carried out more recently by Roinn na Gaeltachta estimates around 85,000. Number of fluent speakers is estimated (inc. native speakers) at about 450,000 and according to the last census, about 1.6 million claim to "speak Irish". It is also a fact that the number of Irish speakers in increasing year on year.

Also, on a point of order, at the time of Athbheochan na Gaeilge (Revival, circa 1850) everyone in Ireland DID NOT speak English.

Beir bua.

6:29 AM

 
Blogger Belezabaub said...

In reality Irish Language still exist today and is going strong. There still exists a strong sense of community within the speaking of the language check out http://tiny.cc/114br for a really well structured argument for it.

7:23 AM

 

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