The death of a language

Chief Marie Smith Jones

One year ago today, an 89 year old woman died in Alaska.

This may not seem remarkable at first glance, but when she died, she took with her an entire language. Chief Marie Smith Jones was a chief of the native Eyak tribe in Alaska, was the last full-blooded Eyak, and was the last native speaker of their language.

Like many tribal languages, Eyak was only spoken in a limited geographical region, amongst people of the same tribe. With the encroachment of other tribal cultures, and the spread of English through North America, it is no surprise that usage of the language would diminish in time.

Foreseeing the extinction of the language, Chief Marie worked with linguist Dr. Michael Krauss for over forty years in an effort to keep the language alive.

Linguistic and cultural extinction doesn’t get as much media attention as environmental extinction (of endangered species, for example), but it doesn’t mean it’s any less tragic. Of course, there are two sides to this argument, with some people believing that globalisation and the creation of an international lingua franca is not only inevitable, but beneficial, as easier communication will be facilitated.

I’m not sure where I sit on that scale, but I know that there’s something poignant about seeing the last of anything disappear from the earth.


Article from Wired.com; photo from ARPN.

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