Decades ago, when David Costa first started to unravel the mystery of Myaamia, the language of the Miami tribe, it felt like hunting for an invisible iceberg. There are no sound recordings, no speakers of the language, no fellow linguists engaged in the same search—in short, nothing that could attract his attention in an obvious way, like a tall tower of ice poking out of the water. But with some hunting, he discovered astonishing remnants hidden below the surface: written documents spanning thousands of pages and hundreds of years.
For Daryl Baldwin, a member of the tribe that lost all native speakers, the language wasn’t an elusive iceberg; it was a gaping void. Baldwin grew up with knowledge of his cultural heritage and some ancestral names, but nothing more linguistically substantial. “I felt that knowing my language would deepen my experience and knowledge of this heritage that I claim, Myaamia,” Baldwin says. So in the early 1990s Baldwin went back to school for linguistics so he could better understand the challenge facing him. His search was fortuitously timed—Costa’s PhD dissertation on the language was published in 1994.
United by their work on the disappearing language, Costa and Baldwin are now well into the task of resurrecting it. So far Costa, a linguist and the program director for the Language Research Office at the Myaamia Center, has spent 30 years of his life on it. He anticipates it’ll be another 30 or 40 before the puzzle is complete and all the historical records of the language are translated, digitally assembled, and made available to members of the tribe.
Costa and Baldwin’s work is itself one part of a much larger puzzle: 90 percent of the 175 Native American languages that managed to survive the European invasion have no child speakers. Globally, linguists estimate that up to 90 percent of the planet’s 6,000 languages will go extinct or become severely endangered within a century.
Read more: Smithsonian Magazine