Miami-Illinois language

Pronunciation [mjɑːmia]
Native to Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma
Extinct mid-20th century[1]
Revival a small number of second-language users in revival program
Language codes
ISO 639-3 mia
Glottolog miam1252[2]

Miami-Illinois (Myaamia [mjɑːmia]) is a Native American Algonquian language formerly spoken in the United States, primarily in Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, western Ohio and adjacent areas along the Mississippi River by both the Miami as well as the tribes of the Illinois Confederacy, including the Kaskaskia, Peoria, Tamaroa, Cahokia, and Mitchigamea. Since the 1990s the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma has worked to revive it in a joint project with Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.


Miami-Illinois is an Algonquian language within the larger Algic language family. The name "Miami-Illinois" is a cover term for a cluster of highly similar dialects, the primary ones being Miami proper, Peoria, Wea, Piankeshaw, and, in the older Jesuit records, Illinois. About half of the surviving several hundred speakers were displaced in the 19th century from their territories, eventually settling in northeastern Oklahoma as the Miami Nation and the Peoria Tribe. The remainder of the Miami stayed behind in northern Indiana.

The language was documented in written materials for over 200 years. Jacques Gravier, a Jesuit missionary who lived among the Kaskaskia tribe in the early 18th century, compiled an extensive and detailed Kaskaskia–French dictionary. Based on an analysis of its handwriting, it appears to have been transcribed by his assistant, Jacques Largillier.

Gravier's dictionary contained nearly 600 pages and 20,000 entries. It is the "most extensive of several manuscripts" which French missionaries made of the Illinois languages.[3] The original document is held by Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Illinois were subject to extermination by hostile tribes, as well as encroachment by European settlers. The French abandoned the Kaskaskia mission.

Eventually many survivors went to the Indian Territory, where the group became known as the Peoria. Others among the Illinois remained in historic territory of present-day Indiana. Because of the decline among the number of Miami-Illinois speakers, the language was not studied as extensively as some Native American families. It was not until 2002 that the manuscript was edited and published, by Carl Masthay.[3]


There is an extensive amount of data on the Miami-Illinois language. The problem with much of the data collected is that little of it was collected by trained phonologists and thus much of it is incomplete or incorrect. David Costa has written extensively on this language, compiling much of this data and correcting it in his book The Miami-Illinois Language.


The consonants of the Miami-Illinois language are typical to the “Central Algonquian” languages. It contains the voiceless stops and affricate p, t, k, tʃ; voiceless fricatives s, ʃ, h; nasals and liquids m, n, l; and the semivowels w, y. The linguist David Costa (2003) notes that “the original Proto-Algonquian consonants *p, *t, *k, * tʃ, *s, *ʃ, *h, *m, *n, *w, *j remain largely unchanged.” [4]

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p t k ʔ
Fricative s ʃ h
Lateral l
Nasal m n
Semivowel w j

Alternations between /s/ and /ʃ/

There is a small number of words in the Miami-Illinois language that have alternations between /s/ and /ʃ/ in their pronunciations. There are also opposite alternations where /ʃ/ occurs instead of /s/. Examples of both of these alternations seem to most prominently show themselves before the vowel /i/. Costa (2003) notes these “examples of words showing /ʃ/ for expected /s/ follow: /apeehʃia/, /teekweeʃita/, and /neehʃiaani/” [5]


Miami-Illinois has four short vowels, /i e a o/ and four long vowels, /iː eː aː oː/. Costa (2003) notes that “/a/ is a low non-front vowel however it can also be pronounced as a [ʌ] by some speakers. /o/ is a back round vowel ranging from [o] through [ʊ] to [u]. /e/ is a non-high front vowel ranging from [æ] through [ɛ] to [e]. Finally, /i/ is a high front vowel ranging from [ɪ] to [i].” These differences can occur from speaker to speaker and also from word to word.[5]

Strong Syllable Rule

The most important rule in the phonology of the vowels of the Miami-Illinois language is the iambic metrical rule, which is referred to by David Costa (2003) as the strong syllable rule (SSR). Syllables in this language are considered either strong or weak depending on whether they occur in an even or odd numbered spot within the word. Counting from left to right, the even numbered syllables are strong and the odd numbered syllables are weak. However, a long vowel is always considered strong and the syllable count is restarted from this point. Anytime a short vowel comes after a long vowel it will always be weak because the count will have started over and it will occur in an even-numbered syllable.[5]

Vowel Devoicing Rule

One important rule for the phonology of Miami-Illinois is called the “Vowel Devoicing Rule.” In Miami-Illinois the weak vowels are devoiced any time they occur before a preaspirate. If a short vowel occurs before a preaspirate it will be devoiced if it follows a long vowel. This will also happen if it occurs in an odd-numbered syllable. However, if the vowel is in a strong syllable (or an even-numbered syllable) this rule does not apply. As Costa (2003) states it, “a vowel in an original second syllable can be devoiced only if a long vowel precedes it, thus rendering the vowel odd-numbered for the syllable count.” [5]


Aside from the "Strong Syllable Rule" (Costa, 2003), there is separate system of accenting in the Miami-Illinois language. In this rule, the syllable count begins at the end of the word and goes backwards towards the start of it (unlike the Strong Syllable Rule, which begins at the beginning of the word and goes forwards). Vowels in both weak and strong syllable can be accented. Words in this language are seen to take accents on their final accents, although it is more common for the accent to fall on the penultimate syllables. Costa (2003) notes that "this is the case in all bisyllabic words without a word-medial preaspirate." If a weak syllable is subject to devoicing however, it can not receive an accent. This shows that the devoicing rule comes before the accent rule.[5]


Word stress is not as pronounced in Miami-Illinois as it is in the English language. Vowels in Miami-Illinois are pronounced normally regardless of stress. If an unstressed vowel is pronounced with a [ə] rather than the vowels actual phonological pronunciation, you would either end up saying a completely different word, or you would end up saying a word that does not exist.[6]

Language revitalization

Since the mid-1990s, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma has embarked on a strong language reclamation program. Many Miami members have described the language as "sleeping" rather than "extinct" since it was not irretrievably lost.[7]

The Myaamia Center is a joint venture between the tribe and Miami University. The Center's mission is..."to advance the research needs of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma with a focus on myaamia language, culture and history." [8][9] It is directed by Daryl Baldwin, who taught himself Miami from historic documents and studies held by the Smithsonian's National Anthropological Archives, and has developed educational programs.[10] Baldwin's children were raised as native speakers of Myaamia.[11] Center staff develop language and culture resources using material that is often from translated missionary documents.

Some language and culture resources include

The revitalization effort is based on the work of linguist David Costa. Based on his extensive studies, he published The Miami-Illinois Language in 1994 as his Ph.D. dissertation and as a book in 2003. The book reconstructs the Miami-Illinois language and all its grammatical features. A related project at Miami University is one on ethnobotany, which "pairs Miami-language plant names with elders' descriptions of traditional plant-gathering techniques."[12]

Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, "oonseentia" is Myaamia for "Tulip Tree" or "Yellow Poplar"


  1. Miami-Illinois at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Miami". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. 1 2 "Review" of Carl Masthay, Kaskaskia Illinois-to-French Dictionary, Saint Louis: Carl Masthay, 2002, International Journal of Lexicography, 17(3):325–327, Retrieved 2010-3-1
  4. "Historical Phonology of Miami Illinois Consonants, Chicago: David Costa, 1991, International Journal of American Linguistics, 57(3):365–393, Retrieved 2011-11-6
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Costa, David. 2003. The Miami-Illinois Language . Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.
  6. "Miami Illinois Pronunciation and Spelling Guide". Native Languages of the Americas. 1998–2008. Retrieved 2011-10-29.
  7. Leonard, Wesley Y. (2008). "When is an 'Extinct Language' not Extinct? Miami, a Formerly Sleeping Language", in Kendall A. King, Natalie Schilling-Estes, Lyn Fogle, Jia Jackie Lou, and Barbara Soukup (eds.), Sustaining Linguistic Diversity: Endangered and Minority Languages and Language Varieties. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, pp. 23–33.
  8. "Statement of Purpose". Myaamia Center. 2013. Retrieved 2013-10-23.
  9. Cornwell, Lisa (2013-03-11). "Ohio university project keeping Miami Tribe's native language alive". Tulsa World. Retrieved 2013-03-24.
  10. Gugliotta, Guy (2014-01-20). "Smithsonian archives preserve lost and dying languages". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-02-27.
  11. "Breath of Life conference to help California Indians save endangered languages". Imperial Valley News. 2014-05-26. Retrieved 2014-06-01.
  12. 1 2 Shulman, Robin (2002-06-24). "No loss for words: Movement tries to preserve nearly extinct languages". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2010-02-20.

Further reading

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