Death of a language

The Economist eulogizes Marie Smith, the last living speaker of the Eyak language, who died last week in what is today the state of Alaska.

Only when her last surviving older sister died, in the 1990s, did she realise that she was the last of the line. From that moment she became an activist, a tiny figure with a determined jaw and a colourful beaded hat, campaigning to stop clear-cutting in the forest (where Eyak split-log lodges decayed among the blueberries) and to get Eyak bones decently buried. She was the chief of her nation, as well as its only full-blooded member.

One passage in particular demonstrates just how fragile our hold is on some dying languages.

But one scholar, Michael Krauss of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, showed such love for Eyak, painstakingly recording its every suffix and prefix and glottal stop and nasalisation, that she worked happily with him to compile a grammar and a dictionary; and Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker was allowed to talk when she brought fresh halibut as a tribute. Without those two visitors, almost nothing would have been known of her.

One thought on “Death of a language

  1. I agree that keeping a record of these dying languages is important, but I am having a hard time defining exactly why and what it means at a higher level. When a plant becomes extinct, we have lost what may have been the source of medicines, etc. Does a lost language take with it something similar? Also, are languages like these dying out at a higher rate now as small subcultures are pushed out by the Clear Channels of the world? Are we losing local flavor? Will it reappear in some new form through the internet and the voice it gives the individual?