Chief Marie Dies; So Does Her Language
2008: Marie Smith Jones, a chief of the Eyak Indian tribe in Alaska, dies. With her dies the Eyak language.
Chief Marie, 89, was the last person to speak this tribal tongue, which she learned from her parents as a little girl. She was also the last full-blooded Eyak. Following her elder sister’s death in the 1990s, Chief Marie, now the lone native Eyak speaker, kept the language alive with the help of linguist Michael Krauss. He’d begun working with Chief Marie in 1962.
Because Eyak’s eventual demise could be foreseen, it became kind of a poster child in the battle against language extinction.
Eyak, a branch of the Na-Dené language, was — like many aboriginal tongues — spoken only in a small, local area. In this case, it was found in south central Alaska, centered near the mouth of the Copper River.
The spread of English certainly played a role in the decline of Eyak, but the real nail in the coffin came from the Tlingit, another aboriginal tribe who first came into contact with the Eyak through migration and eventually subsumed the former’s culture. Tlingit, another offshoot of the Na-Dené phylum, became predominant as the two cultures merged.
The matter of language extinction has become more acute in a world made smaller by technology. Linguists are divided over whether this is a good or bad thing.
Those seeking preservation say that each language represents an entree into individual cultures, including insights into local knowledge. Those who would let a fading language go extinct argue that the fewer languages around to muddle understanding, the better.
Source: Wikipedia, Alaska Public Radio
This article first appeared on Wired.com Jan. 21, 2009.
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