Fairbanks professor rewarded for language work

Posted: Monday, February 05, 2007

FAIRBANKS - Michael Krauss, professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the founder of the Alaska Native Language Center, received the Ken Hale Prize for lifetime achievement from the Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the Americas.

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The prize, awarded for a lifetime of dedication to the understanding and preservation of native languages, is the society's highest honor.

Krauss joined the UAF faculty in 1960 and has been a professor of linguistics since 1968. In 1972 he helped found the Alaska Native Language Center and served as the institution's first director.

"Back at that time very little attention was paid to Native languages in the state," said Steve Jacobson, a professor with Alaska Native Language Center.

"They hadn't been studied much by scholars, the schools, of course, ignored them and suppressed them and even the speakers of the languages often took them for granted. Michael Krauss changed all that. Now everyone in the state is intensely aware of Native languages."

Krauss' own personal work has centered on the Athabascan and Eskimo languages and especially the Eyak language, which used to be spoken in the Cordova area. Now there is only one living fluent Native speaker.

"I've devoted a large portion of my life to providing the richest possible documentation of that language," Krauss said.

All over the world Native languages are threatened, Krauss said. Of the earth's remaining 6,000 languages, he said, about half of them will completely disappear during this century with all but the last 5 or 10 percent dying in the next century.

"We work to save endangered species but we don't work to save endangered languages," he said. "It's a lot easier to keep them alive than to bring them back."

Native languages are an important part of native culture, Krauss said, and when they are lost an important component of a culture and society are lost.

"When you lose a language and a language goes extinct it's like dropping a bomb on the Louvre," Krauss said. "Ken Hale said that."

Krauss said he was deeply touched to be given an award bearing Hale's name, especially since he and Hale were close friends who even shared the same birthday. Hale, a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who spoke over 50 languages, died in 2001.

"Ken Hale was one of the most revered of all modern American linguists," Krauss said. "A famed polyglot who learned languages amazingly and who gave back with his talent to the people whose languages he was recording."

The Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the Americas presented the award to Krauss during the organization's annual meeting earlier this month in Anaheim, Calif.

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