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.