24 Jan 2008

Last speaker of Eyak recently passed away

I just found out that Marie Smith Jones, the last speaker of Eyak, an Alaskan language which can be seen in the above graphic courtesy of the Alaska Native Language Center (University of Alaska Fairbanks) in yellow to the left of Tlingit in orange, sadly just passed away in her sleep a few days ago. Maybe most people wouldn't bat an eye to that tragic news, but any warm-hearted ethnologist at heart should. It's now one branch of Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit gone in the blink of an eye. The good news at least is that she was blessed with longevity, living to 89 years of age. Although she survived through a lot of adversities in her life, she evidently overcame them with determined strength. Unfortunately, although she begat nine children, none of them have learned Eyak because of the taboo when they were growing up of speaking a Native language, hinting at the destructiveness that racism brings. It's not a complete loss however. Michael Krauss had compiled and published an Eyak Dictionary in 1970 and also a set of stories in her tongue in order to resurrect the traditions and knowledge of the Eyak for future generations.

More about the story is found from Associated Press.


(Jan 24 2008) Whoops, Eyak isn't quite an Athabaskan language but rather a coordinate subbranch of the Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit family, according to the Alaska Native Language Center. Apparently the term "Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit" is used to avoid the controversial term "Na-Dene" which according to that hypothesis also links Haida to the family (and this is controversial). I guess I should have looked that up before I posted. Oh well, I corrected the above where I stated "It's now one branch of Athabaskan gone" to the more accurate statement "It's now one branch of Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit gone". Oopsy daisy. Oh well, perfection is divinity, I always say.

(Jan 26 2008) Today, I discovered Damon Lord's response at Linguanaut to my entry and he offers his own perspectives on the death of languages that are worth a read in Endangered Languages.


  1. A lot of messages of 'died languages' have been flowing in lately. And although it's sad, I think it's quite silly to pay attention to it. Statistically every two weeks a language dies out.

    I think any attempts at 'revival' are quite futile. It's sad that many of these near-dead languages have come this far to extinction due to racism though.

    Also, you living in Canada it might feel a more 'personal'. On the other hand, Canada is really big, so I actually have no clue how you feel about it ;-)

    The only dying language that is particularly close to me, is of course Frisian. Still has a lot of speakers, and the Northerners still have it as a mandatory subject in class.

    But I believe that any language which is already labelled 'dying' isn't going to be saved by mandatory (read: forced) classes. At that point, we're probably already too late to save the language. Especially in this day and age of globalisation, and more and more people making efforts to learn to speak English I doubt we'll be able to do anything to stop these languages from dying out at its steady rate of one every two weeks.

  2. Phoenix: "I think any attempts at 'revival' are quite futile."

    Jews didn't think so when they revived Classical Hebrew :) And for that matter, Catholic priests who've revived Latin, priest of the Coptic Church who've revived Coptic, Hittite scribes who had kept Hattic alive, etc., etc. If these languages hadn't been revived, our understanding of history would be poorer for it. Imagine if Etruscan had been passed on and then revived. Then we'd have already figured out what on earth the Liber Linteus is saying instead of arguing about it.

    I think, if anything, that recording these languages before they die is important for future linguists so that we can piece together the linguistic history of humanity better. We are still obligated to preserve them in books, otherwise what's the point in recording history at all then?

    Phoenix: "Especially in this day and age of globalisation, and more and more people making efforts to learn to speak English I doubt we'll be able to do anything to stop these languages from dying out at its steady rate of one every two weeks."

    Yes, of course you're right. I just hope we don't become soulless in the process as our past is not just being forgotten but erased. Notice that the Eyak language didn't just die out naturally. It was helped along because Natives suffered ill treatment from sadistic people of European descent that literally stopped them from speaking it. Abuse against Aboriginals has been widespread throughout North America, including in my own home province of Manitoba. I've heard stories of this abuse and the prevention of speaking Native languages from one lady living here locally, in fact.

  3. I find it incredibly sad. A culture lost and who will remember? Stories, traditions, beliefs, gone.