24 January 2008

Last Native Eyak Speaker Dies

I was saddened to learn today that the last native speaker of the Alaskan Native language Eyak died yesterday at age 89. Marie Smith Jones was a tenacious woman, probably the last full blooded Eyak, the last full member of her tribe. She took great pains to try and record her knowledge of the Eyak language so that future generations can resurrect it working with researchers at the University of Alaska and her work brought the problem of language into the public eye. The Eyak people traditionally lived in and around the Copper River Basin, a place where I worked and lived for 5 years, a place that may be known to you for it's famous Copper River Red Salmon which hits the market at top price.

It is sad to know a language has gone extinct and with it all of the cultural beliefs and thought processes and problem solving methods and artistic talent and world views that are unique to the speakers of that language. How lonely Ms. Jones must have felt, not being able to communicate with others in the tongue that she knew best. Some things are just not translatable because they are a concept wholly within the language and not without. This language died in a large part due to the suppression by American authorities of native languages. Ms. Jones was beaten for speaking her language as a child.

I'd like to quote for you what is means for a language to be living (from the Language Log):
there must be little kids who speak the language with each other because it is their only language or else their favorite. Little kids who would speak it even if they were told not to… Ask around the village and find the age of the youngest people using a language every day for all their normal conversational interaction. If the answer is a number larger than 5, the language is probably dying. If the answer is a number larger than 10, it is very probably doomed. If the answer is a number larger than 20, you can kiss it goodbye right now…

Today I hold a candle in my heart for this remarkable woman, Ms. Marie Smith Jones. I hope that Alaskan people pay attention to her passing and to the lessons she has taught us, because unless we act now this will be just the first of many languages that are unique to Alaska to disappear. Hearteningly, the BBC reports, that Nunavut, Canada leads the way in making both Inuktitut and Inuit content management for websites. This means that people can write documents and even pay bills in these native languages through aativk.ca. I truly believe that making modern communications available in these languages will make it more likely for youngsters to use them and for their continuation into the future.


  1. That is so very sad. I'm glad you memorialized this world's loss in some small way.

  2. I saw this article on the BBC website yesterday and thought of you*. A very sad day, I hope we can learn from this and use the lessons to help save other endangered languages.

    *you're the only person I "know" from Alaska so you now embody the state for me, hope that's OK.

  3. That is sad. As someone who learned how to speak English & Spanish at the same time, it was strange for me when my mom told me that when she dreams, everyone is speaking Spanish. I never thought about how sad it must make her that we don't speak it around her very much anymore.

    Thank you for posting about this.

  4. This is a sad story, especially sad because more than just a woman passed on, although at heart, it was a woman, a real person. Glad she was the sort to try to preserve it. But the end...that's hard.

    Thanks for writing about it.

  5. WS: Thanks for commenting on my blog. I've looked at yours now and then over the past few months, and I always find something that interests me.

    You must've read Mark Abley's book "Spoken Here"..?

    Anyway, thanks for your caring comment.


  6. Oh what a huge loss...auch a remarkable woman.

  7. Wayfarer, this is an issue dear to my heart. The loss of a language, as you say, is a disaster for the human race. We lose one way of seeing the world. I once met someone who told me her parents (or grandparents) were amongst the last speakers of Romansch, a version of Latin spoken right down to the twentieth century in Switzerland. I'm not sure how accurate this memory is - it was in the early seventies.
    It's also a huge issue in Australia, as the multitude of indigenous languages struggle to survive.

  8. Hey, good news! I just googled 'Romansch' and read that 65000 people now speak it in Switzerland and they have reversed the trend towards loss of this language , which was at its nadir in the 1940s.
    So let's hope that Marie Smith Jones' work is not in vain and that some of the not-full-blooded descendants of her people will restart this language. Perhaps there are many who speak it to some limited extent but not as their preferred language?

  9. That is indeed tragic, to lose a language and the thought processes that went with the knowlege of that language. I join you in holding a candle for a remarkable woman.

  10. i agree completely with the tragedy of this, especially since the language itself is the tip of the iceberg of what is lost. trying to put myself in her mind i got this feeling of having a wonderful secret that i couldn't tell to anybody. interesting dilemma in that the technology in our culture that brings people together is also partly responsible for losses like this. I could see improving technology that might reconstruct the language, but we'll never get back the culture or the life secretly encoded within the language.

  11. Sad. Society struggles with priorities, or it ignores them.

  12. I also lit a candle. Maybe she is once again hearing her language.

  13. liv, I couldn'r let it go by without a note as it especially as it seemed to slip behind the other day's news.

    cae, I have no problem with that at all...being your token Alaskan.

    qt, yes, I think it must be sad for your mom, in ways that she cannot explain.

    julie, it is sad on both fronts: a woman lost, a language lost.

    fireant, you're welcome, I do visit you regularly but my comments are sparse.

    dj, such a vast loss...

    parlance, that is good news about the Romansch. The Australian Aborigines and native peoples and languages everywhere I think are at the forefront of this battle. I do hope that the language will be reconstructed, that her descendants and others may try to reach out and learn about it.

    mary alice, thank you

    matte, it is a double edged sword isn't it? I think all of technology is like this, it can be used carelessly or dangerously or for good, but to do the latter often requires conciousness about it.

    patches, I wonder if society sees this as a priority?

    orangeblossoms, thank you

    hel, thanks, wouldn't that be lovely?


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