The last native speakers of Miami-Illinois died in the 1960s. Two centuries earlier, Jesuits came to the United States and found two tribes — the Miami and the Illinois, which both shared a common language.
“The Jesuits believed you had to understand the language and the culture of the people you were trying to convert,” says George Ironstrack, assistant director for the Myaamia Project. “Then you could preach to them in their language and translate religious materials for them.”
While the Jesuits may not have had the purest of intentions, they did create an extensive record of the language, including dictionaries in French that matched words with sentences that put them in context. In the 1990s, researchers started the task of bringing the extinct language back to life, teaching it to the Miami community in Oklahoma.
Today, according to Ironstrack, there are about 100 to 120 people who use the language in some capacity on a daily basis and about 10 to 20 people who are functionally fluent in it. A far drop from the roughly estimated 50,000 Miami and Illinois people who once spoke it, but an improvement nonetheless.
Still, there’s a lot of work to be done; Ironstrack says researchers have only translated a third of the existing records, meaning it won’t be finished in their lifetimes. Plus there are probably Miami-Illinois records and artifacts in museums and universities around the country that the Myaamia Project doesn’t even know about.
That’s why the Myaamia Project started working with Google. Before the Internet, endangered languages existed solely in the minds of a few speakers and academic archives. If you wanted to know more about the Miami-Illinois language, you would have had to call or drive to Miami University in Ohio.
With nearly half of the world’s 7,000 or so languages threatened by extinction, the Google-sponsored Endangered Languages Project is hoping to gather the efforts of groups like the Myaamia Project into one easily accessible place. It all started when Jason Rissman and his team at Google noticed that scholars were using YouTube to store and share records of various threatened languages.
Google then contacted the University of Hawaii and Eastern Michigan University, who both had grants from the National Science Foundation for work on preserving endangered languages. That collaboration grew into the site Google premiered yesterday, an interactive, living archive that lets users search a giant Google Map for endangered languages, with links to descriptions, recordings and written documents for many of them.
The hope is that as more people discover the project, more documentation will be uploaded to the site, making it a valuable virtual meeting point for disparate language communities.
“There have been a lot of silent efforts,” says Rissman. “There have been a lot of exciting projects happening at the regional and community level, but this is the first time anyone is bringing it all together.”
The response has been encouraging. He recently had a video chat with the First Peoples’ Cultural Council in Canada, which preserves Aboriginal language and culture in British Columbia. A group of tribal elders celebrated the project by singing a song — a prayer for their language.
“That was pretty touching,” says Rissman. “It’s testament to all the listening we did to potential users before we developed the project.”