Myaamia revitalization and Meskwaki insults

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Two conferences I really want to attend are currently in progress. The one I'm at is in Milwaukee, on Language Death, Endangerment, Documentation, and Revitalization; there have been some wonderful talks here, highlighted by "Searching for our talk" by Daryl Baldwin, head of the Myaamia Project at Miami University (that's Miami in Ohio, not Florida): an inspiring and moving description of his and his tribe's efforts to revive and revitalize the Miami language, an Algonquian language that had not been spoken (until Baldwin began his personal journey) for over a hundred years but that is richly documented from past times, from Jesuit missionaries onward.

The other conference is at the University of Michigan, where I would normally be because I teach there: the annual Algonquian Conference, meeting at Michigan this year. It's not too late for Language Log readers in the vicinity to go to today's session, which includes Lucy Thomason's talk [full disclosure: she's my daughter] on Meskwaki insults, a study in pronoun shifting for increased levels of disapprobation. For mild criticism, you can just use second-person pronouns. For strong disapprobation, you shift to third-person pronouns, as in (in translation), "Goodness, my grandson is challenging my kettle!" And for extremely strong disapprobation you use the indefinite pronoun, not the third person pronoun, as in this blast aimed at the speaker's newly-married daughters: "Wake UP, you harlots! INDEFINITE have been keeping each other up all night are now not waking up early!" English, of course, has echoes of this sort of distinction (as in, say, "One really doesn't normally pick one's nose in public", said to an offending person if you don't mind being offensive yourself); but Meskwaki's pronoun-shifting system is more elaborate and (to me at least) more interesting.

But I'm going to miss that talk, along with the rest of the linguistics talks at the Algonquian Conference. My loss.


  1. Barbara Sullivan said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 11:38 am

    Not really a comment, but a question: Is there a way to subscribe to this blog via email? I'm not on Twitter, and must now admit I have no idea what RSS means (yes, this is an old person you're dealing with) though I clicked that link in an effort to find a subscription option I could recognize. I am, however, a WordPress user if that's an avenue that can work.

  2. Nick Lamb said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

    Barbara, you were 90% of the way there. You've discovered this site has RSS, you know you want email, so the search you want is "RSS to email". Such a search will find a number of web sites offering to provide this service (for free perhaps with advertising, or for a fee)

    Typically the way it would work is that once per day you'd get an email with a list of new blog posts, the subject, perhaps the author, and the first paragraph or so which may help you decide if the content is interesting, and then a link to the rest of the post which you can open in your web browser if you so choose.

    Since I don't use any services of this sort, I can't recommend one to you.

  3. Xmun said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

    I'm mystified. What does "challenging my kettle" mean? There's an old sense of "challenge" which means "claim": is that it? Or is it something else?

  4. jan said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 7:20 pm

    One way to preserve languages is to encourage children to start learning these languages.

    Let's say we choose four languages aside from English. Which four do people here think would be good choices?

    Spanish, Mandarin, Swahili, Pali.

    Basque, Meskwaki, Aramaic, Japanese.

    Japanese, Nahuatl, Meskwaki, Swahili.

    Myaamia, Swahili, Pali, Hadza.

    What mix of the obscure, dying, challenging and useful would you choose?


  5. Sally Thomason said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 10:19 pm

    Xmun, I don't know either (my daughter's an Algonquianist, but I'm not); I assumed "challenge my kettle" means something like "criticize my kettle", but that could easily be wrong. The full context (which I don't have) would presumably clarify it. Or Lucy could — sometimes she reads Language Log.

  6. Jens Fiederer said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 12:16 am

    Did you mean to substitute some other word there for "INDEFINITE" in the example sentence, or do people ACTUALLY use the word "indefinite" to be insulting?

  7. Jens Fiederer said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 1:40 am

    I think I get it now, completely misread your post.

    1) The "Algonquian Conference" is actually about the Algonquian languages, rather than a more indirect use of "Algonquian" such as the "Algonquian table".

    2) Meskwaki is one of those languages, not a linguistic term for insulting people by pronoun shifting (which sort of works in English, which is why I was confused).

    3) "INDEFINITE" is actually a feature of the Meskwaki language that could not otherwise be translated.

    The sentence about the Miami language should have clued me in to the correct context, but somehow it just kind of drifted through my mind without sticking to anything.

  8. LDavidH said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 11:05 am

    @jan: The problem is that children are very pragmatic about language learning: if they don't see the point, they won't learn (probably the reason why my wife (UK) studied French for seven years and still can't say more than bonjour and je m'appelle). So how would you motivate children anywhere to actually learn Basque or Nahuatl – learn to speak, rather than just rattle off a few phrases? It's a nice idea, but I fear it wouldn't work. Quite apart from the problem of finding teachers who actually know the language!

  9. ohwilleke said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 11:49 am

    FYI, Miami University of Ohio has some agreements with the Miami Indian tribe and while Miami Indians make up a very small proportion of the 16,000 or so students at the university, a very large proportion of Miami Indian tribe members who attend college attend Miami University. (I grew up in Oxford, Ohio where it is located.)

  10. marie-lucie said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

    One way to preserve languages is to encourage children to start learning these languages.

    Language is the human means of communication par excellence. Children learn the language(s) that is/are spoken TO THEM as a normal means of communication. Merely hearing a language spoken between adults will not teach a child to speak a language even if this child comes to understand most of what is being said. Some older children become eager to learn another language (or more than one), but they are already beyond the optimal age, and unless they are in contact with speakers of the other language (preferably children their age who speak the desired language, but at any rate in an environment where it is spoken naturally), only if they are exceptionally gifted (in that respect) and single-minded in their goal will children succeed to a useful extent.

    Endangered languages are in that sorry state because at some point, a number of parents decided (often under economic if not other duress) that their children would be better off if they were raised in a more dominant language. It does not mean that they did not want the children to learn the local language: it seemed self-evident to them that the children would eventually speak like themselves (such an easy language, as opposed to the difficult one they had to learn in school), so parents (and grandparents even more) are shocked that the children do not speak it. But how could they, once most people of child-bearing age are bilingual enough to be able to raise their children in the dominant language? If there are no monolingual grandparents or greatgrandparents in the household, interacting with the child in their own language, the child will not learn that language. The same process also occurs in families of recent immigrants where the parents do not use their own language with the chlidren born in the new country.

  11. marie-lucie said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

    That said, the exceptional work of Daryl Baldwin (mentioned in Sally Thomason's post) is quite inspiring. He not only taught himself the Myaamia language using the olde documents, but got an MA in linguistics in order to understand the work of linguists on this language and related ones, and he has been raising his children in the language. Since the language had not been spoken for generations, there were no elders to both help learners and criticize their efforts (a problem for learners in some communities), and the Myaamia language classes and camps are attended by all ages.

  12. marie-lucie said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

    Meskwaki insults:

    Are those usages really insults, or could they be closer to euphemisms, since they avoid direct terms of address? Similar things do happen in English as pointed out, and also in French:

    You forgot to lock the door! (I am reproaching you)
    Someone forgot to lock the door! (we both know who is at fault but I won't utter the name)

    Tu as oublié de fermer la porte à clé! (You forgot …)
    Quelqu'un a oublié de fermer la porte à clé! (Someone forgot …)
    Il y a des gens qui oublient de fermer la porte à clé! (There are people who forget …)(I am just making a general statement – I haven't named any names)
    Y en a qu' oublient de fermer la porte à clé! (There are some who forget …)(same, except lower class)

    The second Meskwaki type (my grandson …) does not have a strict equivalent in English or French, but French does have something similar:

    Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle a oublié de fermer la porte à clé! (no English equivalent)

    The terms of address are neutral to respectful when addressing adults, especially strangers, but in the modern world, using them for third-person reference while addressing the people in question is only done by subordinates such as servants in a high class family (who would also refer to their bosses in this way in talking to others). A person (such as a parent of a teenager) using these terms to remind another person of their failings by adopting the speech patterns of a lowly servant to an aristocrat reminds the delinquent person of that the relationship is NOT one of such vast social distance – the fake-humble person may in fact be the boss. (A similar instance in English could be Your Ladyship … or Your Highness, but those are not normal, neutral terms of address between the majority of people, unlike the M… series in French).

    The indefinite on cannot be used in such instances in French, since it is increasingly (though not always) used as a replacement for Subject nous, so that On a oublié … would normally be understood to mean "We forgot …", not "Some people forgot …".

  13. Lucy Thomason said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 6:00 pm

    Sorry the example was so opaque! The kettle is a magic inexhaustible kettle (motif D1031 in Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, or motif 210 from the list at the back of Stith Thompson's Tales of the North American Indians). It's very tiny, and when it's set down in front of the grandson it contains only a single kernel of corn and a single bean and a single shred of meat. He quietly thinks to himself that he's not going to get enough to eat, and his grandmother "hears" his thought and scolds him for thinking that he can eat more than her kettle can provide. In the end he can't finish what's in the kettle, because it replenishes itself as fast as it's eaten.
    And that "indefinite"–Meskwaki verbs often inflect for an indefinite person which is separate and distinct from the various third persons (there are five third persons marked on verbs in Meskwaki: animate proximate, animate obviative, animate secondary obviative, inanimate proximate, and inanimate obviative).

  14. marie-lucie said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 2:41 am

    Very interesting about the folk tale. It sounds very European. What is the kettle made of? Did the Meskwaki use metal kettles in pre-contact times?

  15. Lucy Thomason said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 10:09 am

    Magic kettles in the stories are made of copper. There was pre-Columbian copper mining, but it seems that before the arrival of Europeans copper was used primarily for ornaments and ritual objects. Laurier Turgeon wrote an article called "The Tale of the Kettle: Odyssey of an Intercultural Object" in which he explains how European-made copper kettles became important ritual objects for various Native American groups.
    Before (and after) the introduction of metal kettles, people boiled food in wooden kettles or in bark baskets by means of hot stones.
    The idea of magic inexhaustible kettles occurs in both Europe and North America but probably did not first reach North America from Europe.

  16. Ray Dillinger said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    Whenever I encounter a grammar assertionist I think that they should just embrace the impulse and take up the hobby they so clearly would love; the construction of a conlang.

  17. marie-lucie said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

    Thanks, Lucy. I think that the motif of an inexhaustible food vessel, or of the tiny amount of food that keeps replenishing itself, is not limited to the metal kettle. In this particular case, there could have been cross-contamination of an indigenous tale involving the local type of cooking vessel and a similar European tale with an inexhaustible kettle.

  18. AlexTheSeal said,

    October 26, 2011 @ 11:56 am


    "A similar instance in English could be Your Ladyship … or Your Highness, but those are not normal, neutral terms of address between the majority of people, unlike the M… series in French."

    A great example with which everyone is hopefully familiar (if not, shame on you!) would be Han Solo's various mock-respectful terms of address for Princess Leia in the original Star Wars movies, such as "Your Worship" and "Your Highnessness."

  19. marie-lucie said,

    October 28, 2011 @ 6:26 pm

    At least in Canada, "Your Worship" is the term used to address a Mayor.

  20. jan said,

    October 29, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

    I wonder how learning a language from a book compares with learning it from a teacher?

    Younger kids could be taught the more common languages they're likely to encounter as adults, and older kids would take the more obscure languages as a challenge, and as a code to write their diaries in.

    Or maybe not. Just a suggestion.

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