The Myaamiaataweenki Sources

Miami-Illinois may be unique among Native North American languages for not having been natively spoken for at least half a century, yet still having extremely extensive written documentation spanning almost 250 years, most of which exists as unpublished manuscripts in archives and libraries. Purely in terms of written records, Miami-Illinois is one of the best documented Algonquian languages, far more extensively recorded than many other Native American languages which still have speakers.

The earliest documentation of Miami-Illinois consists of three Illinois dictionary manuscripts compiled by French Jesuit missionaries from the 1690s through the 1720s.s Taken together, these manuscripts contain tens of thousands of words, collected at a time when the language was in daily use by large, monolingual communities still living in a traditional manner.

In the early colonial period, the language was again documented in several vocabularies, some quite extensive, from the 1790s through the 1860s. Starting in the

1890s, the language received its first attention from the Bureau of American Ethnology, by the Swiss-born linguist Albert Gatschet, who recorded extensive field notes, several native texts and thousands of vocabulary cards, which reside at the National Anthropological Archives at Suitland, Maryland.9 Not long after Gatschet’s work, the Miami-Illinois language was extensively documented for more than ten years by the Indianapolis lawyer and avocational linguist Jacob P. Dunn, who reelicited much of Gatschet’s data, as well as collecting several new texts and a huge amount of new vocabulary from speakers in both Indiana and Oklahoma. A small portion of Dunn’s data was poorly redacted and published by linguist Carl Voegelin in the late 1930s,10 but the bulk of Dunn’s data has never been published, and remains at the Indiana State Library and the National Anthropological Archives to this day.11 The last substantial documentation of Miami-Illinois was undertaken by the Bureau of American Ethnology linguist Truman Michelson, who, in one week’s worth of fieldwork on the Peoria dialect in Oklahoma in 1916, collected three native texts, a full schedule of kinship terms, numerous verb paradigms and a fair amount of vocabulary. Truman Michelson was the closest thing to a trained Algonquianist and linguist who ever conducted fieldwork with fluent speakers of Miami-Illinois, and so his records are quite valuable, though nowhere near as extensive as one might wish. Again, none of Michelson’s notes were ever published, and they too are now preserved at the National Anthropological Archives.12

From the 1930s through the early 1960s, the last generation of Miami-Illinois speakers was recorded in a handful of brief vocabularies, some recorded by linguists but most by hobbyists. The most valuable of these vocabularies was recorded by linguist Charles Hockett during two days’ worth of fieldwork in 1938 with Myaamia and Peoria semi-speakers living in Oklahoma.13 After Hockett’s work, the Miami-Illinois language was documented in a scattering of small wordlists, the importance of which is greatly diminished by the lack of any kind of linguistic training by the people who collected them as well as the greatly decreased fluency of the semi-speakers and members who were still alive in the 1940s and thereafter. Although people with ancestral Native knowledge of Miami-Illinois survived until the late 1970s in Indiana, and to a lesser extent in Oklahoma, no trained linguists worked with these people. Very unfortunately, no significant sound recordings were ever made of any speakers of Miami-Illinois.

Despite being documented for more than two centuries, all the records of Miami- Illinois are problematic, as none of the data was recorded with fully modern standards of phonetic accuracy, and no sources consistently mark all the contrastive sounds of the language. Data from the most fluent speakers tends to have been written down by the least skilled transcribers, while the more accurate later records of the language, transcribed by the first generation of trained linguists, are from a time when speakers were less fluent. Thus, even though there is a massive amount of data on Miami-Illinois, little of it was competently recorded from fluent speakers. As a result, none of the recorded corpus of Miami-Illinois data can be taken at face value, and careful philological analysis must be brought to bear on all of it.

The two most problematic phonological features in determining the correct pronunciation of Miami-Illinois words are vowel length and preaspiration of consonants. Vowel length and preaspiration are crucial features in the phonology of Miami- Illinois, are both fully contrastive, carrying a high functional load, yet they are seldom indicated in most recordings of the language. In the extensive French Jesuit records, vowel length is never marked and preaspiration is only infrequently marked; in the late-19th and early-20th century records of the language, both length and preaspiration are marked somewhat more often, though still not dependably. There is no source on Miami-Illinois that marks both features consistently, so these contrastive phonological features must be filled in and all the data phonemicized in order to make materials usable for either linguistic or pedagogical purposes.

There are two primary methods by which phonological details can be filled in for Miami-Illinois data. One is by comparing all the varying original transcriptions for the words, and the other is by comparing the Miami-Illinois words with cognate data from its closely related sister languages. Both vowel length and preaspiration are found in essentially the same places in Miami-Illinois as in neighboring Algonquian languages such as Meskwaki, Ojibwe, Shawnee, and Kickapoo, and so comparing Miami-Illinois transcriptions to cognate words from these languages is extremely helpful in determining the true phonological shape of Miami-Illinois words.

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