My turn: Obituary of a language

Posted: Monday, February 04, 2008

On Jan. 23, the Juneau Empire reported the death of Chief Marie Smith Jones, the last fluent speaker of Eyak. Since my first linguistics class six years ago, I have often heard that half of the world's nearly 7,000 languages will die within the next century, but until last week, I had never read an obituary of a language.

Sadly, it seems that these linguistic and cultural losses go unnoticed by most of the world. Though living languages and cultures may face violent oppression, they do not meet violent deaths. They disappear gradually, as fewer and fewer children are taught, or even allowed, to speak their parents' language. Smith Jones passed away peacefully in her sleep at age 89, the last full-blooded Eyak on earth.

The loss of languages over time is nothing new (dozens of European languages succumbed to the spread of Latin during the heyday of the Roman Empire, and Latin itself comes to mind when most people hear "dead language"), but the current rate at which minority languages are disappearing is unprecedented.

Eyak had long been a striking example of a dying language - for the last 15 years, Chief Marie Smith Jones was the lone Native speaker of her language. Eyak is the first Native Alaska language to go extinct in recent history, and many others are in danger of meeting the same fate.

For Southeast Alaskans, the death of the Eyak language is very close to home. Historically, the Eyak people have lived just north of the Tlingit people, along 300 miles of coastline between Cordova and Yakutat. While Eyak has no very close linguistic relatives, the language is part of the Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit language family.

Since 1962, Smith Jones worked with linguist Michael Krauss of the Alaska Native Language Center to document Eyak. Smith Jones has left behind a dictionary, grammar guide, and many recordings, in the hopes that some day her language may be resurrected.

There is a lot of wonderful work being done throughout the state to revitalize Alaska Native languages. Here in Juneau, the University of Alaska Southeast offers classes in Tlingit, Haida, and even a new class entitled Revitalizing Endangered Languages. Sealaska Heritage Institute has an extensive collection of language-learning resources on its Web site, www.sealaskaheritage.org. Best of all, children are being exposed to the Tlingit language in school, while they are still young enough to easily acquire languages. I began studying Tlingit at UAS this fall, and have been impressed by the dedication of students and teachers working to perpetuate this very difficult language.

In an interview in 2005, Smith Jones translated her Eyak name, Udach' Kuqax*a'a'ch', as "a sound that calls people from afar." What a fitting name for a woman who spoke out for the Eyak people, Native Alaskans, and indigenous people worldwide. I hope that she will continue to call people from afar, encouraging all of us to learn as much as we can about endangered languages and cultures, before it's too late.

• Katie Spielberger moved to Juneau after studying linguistics at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. She is learning the Tlingit language at the University of Alaska Southeast.



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