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Death of a language

On January 21^st^, aged 89, Marie Smith died and with her the Eyak language passed into oblivion.

From the Economist:

This universe of words and observations was already fading when Marie was young. In 1933 there were 38 Eyak-speakers left, and white people with their grim faces and intrusive microphones, as they always appeared to her, were already coming to sweep up the remnants of the language.

As the spoken language died, so did the stories of tricky Creator-Raven and the magical loon, of giant animals and tiny homunculi with fish-spears no bigger than a matchstick. People forgot why “hat” was the same word as “hammer”, or why the word for a leaf, kultahl, was also the word for a feather, as though deciduous trees and birds shared one organic life.

Most outsiders were told to buzz off. 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.

… in an age where perhaps half the planet’s languages will disappear over the next century, killed by urban migration or the internet or the triumphal march of English, Eyak has no chance. For Mrs Smith, however, the death of Eyak meant the not-to-be-imagined disappearance of the world.