We all know about the Cherokee and Pawnee of Oklahoma, and the Navajo and Apache of New Mexico, but unless we’re from the Southeast United States, we hear very little of Florida’s rich native history. This is mainly because of the smaller populations; descendants spread out to Cuba and Mexico as part of the Spanish missionary attempts, or to other parts of the United States as a result of the Seminole Wars – the Apalachee, for example, migrated to Louisiana, where around 300 still live to this very day.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, records show there were many distinct tribes living in what we now know as Florida, including the Ais, Chine, and Jororo. Today, however, there are just two recognised tribes still in the state: the Miccosukee, and the Seminole, with native languages considered endangered.
Language and Dialect in the South East
Muskogean languages were spoken by indigenous people upon first contact with Europeans. While each tribe had their own distinct language – or distinct dialects at the very least – there were often many similarities to be found in both vocabulary and grammar. The number ‘two’, for example, was said as ‘tòklo’ in Alabama, ‘toklo’ in Chickasaw, ‘tuklo’ in Choctaw, ‘tóklon’ in Koasati, ‘toklan’ in Mikasuki, and ‘hokkolen’ in Creek. This led historians to conclude that the Southeast was very much a linguistic area, with these similarities rarely found elsewhere in the United States. The beauty of these similarities is that extinct languages, like Apalachee, are kept alive by their mutually intelligible counterparts, like Alabama.
Mikasuki is the only Muskogean language that is still spoken with any real frequency in Florida today, although many descendants – particularly the younger generations – are bilingual, and speak American English in many day-to-day situations. Mikasuki is spoken by an estimated 500 people in Florida, making it a threatened language, according to the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity. Creek variants are even more endangered, with around 200 (mainly older) people continuing to speak the language.
The good news, however, is that we’re seeing more and more effort being put into native language education and awareness in Florida. Miccosukee Language Arts is now taught in many local schools, while the University of Florida offer the Elling Eide Professorship in Miccosukee Language and Culture, which is designed to aid research into native Southeast languages, and ultimately preserve them.
If you’re interested in learning more about Muskogean languages such as Hitchiti and Houma, be warned that these native languages were known for being quite complex. It is often said that English is one of the most difficult languages to learn because of our word ordering, exceptions to rules, and confusing homophones, but when you consider the Muskogean languages often had separate – and very distinct – suffixes depending on whether you were dealing with a subject, an object, or a question, and also included double consonants, like ‘ng’, then English doesn’t seem all that difficult, does it?