The last Eyak speaker passes
January 22, 2008 9:16 PM   Subscribe

(I have seen both 1920 and 1918 given as birth years, so I split the difference.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:23 PM on January 22, 2008


this breaks my heart.
posted by Rumple at 9:23 PM on January 22, 2008

What a long, wonderful life, and what a legacy. It's likely more languages have disappeared than are currently spoken, but it's so strange to see it winnowed down to a single speaker like this.
posted by headspace at 9:27 PM on January 22, 2008

This is super interesting, thanks.
posted by patr1ck at 10:07 PM on January 22, 2008

posted by hattifattener at 10:53 PM on January 22, 2008

The saddest thing about the article is that it's not an unusual event. It's fairly likely that about half of the world's 6000+ languages will be gone in the next 100 years. That's about 30 a year, or one every two weeks or so. I've met speakers from a couple of different languages who have fewer than a dozen 'native' speakers. It's tragic.

My friend told me the story of the a woman who is youngest (around 40) speaker of a Siberian-area language (I don't know which one, sorry!) with only a couple of hundred speakers - most of them very elderly. This woman is a linguist, ironically. When this woman and her husband visited her "village," where the last speakers live, it took them about three days to get there *after* the plane trip and train journey from the airport. She taught her young kids some basic words and expressions - hello, thank you, the first ten numbers, and so on. When these very polite kids arrived in the village, they were doted on by all the older people. There aren't many young people left there; they've gone elsewhere in Russia for work, education and opportunity, so seeing these kids was a treat for the villagers. And learning words in this language was a fun game for the kids, so when the kids opened their mouths and uttered words which had not been heard from children in several decades, the villagers would instantly break down into tears and become hysterical from a mixture of the simple miracle of the event and the tragic way this occurrence brought home the fact that their language was, basically, dead. Later they would "kidnap" these children by taking them to their houses, stuffing them with treats and feverishly trying to expand their vocabulary and impart some sense of sentence structure. I can't imagine this was too much fun for the kids after a while, and their parents quickly grew tired of having to "track down" the kids by knocking on every door in the village . . . but it says a lot about how the loss of a language (and by expansion, a culture) must be soul-crushing to those seeing it unfold before them.

Interestingly, the husband is always nagging his wife to get down to it and create a lexicon and basic grammar of this language - evidently it's never been done or not done well. She's quite busy with her other work, but isn't it sad?
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:33 PM on January 22, 2008 [13 favorites]

Wow. A language dies, before our eyes, with its last speaker. What a moment. And the world turns again.

This brings up some very complex emotions, involving the sadness of such loss, but also the inevitability of it. Languages, cultures: born, matured, died, vanished... this is the story of humanity. I'm reminded a bit of how I felt when those ancient Buddhist statues (huge ones carved into the side of a mountain) were destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:00 AM on January 23, 2008

It reminds me of the Fatamid Ewer, one of only 7 remaining in the world, dropped by a Pitti Palace museum employee (scroll to end). Yes there are 6 left, related pieces, that we can study. But what if there was something unique about the one that's gone? What might we have discovered?
Lost potential.
posted by Wilder at 1:14 AM on January 23, 2008

You hear a lot more about dying languages than about new ones that are being born. I agree that it is sad, but isn't just our limited perspective?
The idea that native languages are being replaced with things like "wut r u up 2?" makes me want to scream, but perhaps that's just the way the world turns...
posted by arcadia at 2:24 AM on January 23, 2008

posted by litlnemo at 2:32 AM on January 23, 2008

Consider the difficulties in perpetuating a culture. Example: getting Klingon speakers to breed.
posted by hal9k at 2:35 AM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I find things like this very sad, for some reason. I realize that logically not much really changes with an event like this but there's something about the feel of it that gets to me.

Also, I can't imagine how lonely it must feel to be the last native speaker of your language. That is something that I will, thankfully, never have to go through. At least she managed to help compile something that, in some way, will keep her language alive.
posted by Stunt at 2:46 AM on January 23, 2008

I'm reminded a bit of how I felt when those ancient Buddhist statues (huge ones carved into the side of a mountain) were destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

I remember that, Flapjax. I felt like a part of my eyes had died.

Now, on an "up" note: There is one other speaker of Eyak: It is is Chief Marie Smith Jones' pupil (and documenter), Michael Krauss.

What more, the language has been well-documented and is being taught to young people of related-native descent.

Directly from the Eyak Preservation Council website...

"On behalf of all Eyak people, we want to acknowledge the Administration for Native Americans who funded this critically important project. Because of your support, the Eyak language lives!"

That said, my feelings about the passing of Chief Marie Smith Jones, as follows:

posted by humannaire at 3:57 AM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


For all of my issues with organized religion, this is one area in which churches have been unbelievably proactive. They've got the mandate and the funding to make sure that there's a bible in every language on earth, a clearly impossible task. I don't have a cite but I've heard that there are languages for which the only translated work is the bible thanks to missionaries (and Larry Wall, presumably).
posted by Skorgu at 3:59 AM on January 23, 2008

posted by Smart Dalek at 4:02 AM on January 23, 2008

Yes, languages die naturally. But the rate of language loss in the world is much higher now than it has ever been in recorded history, much like the rate of species loss is accelerating (and some linguists see the connection as relevant, and talk about linguistic diversity as an important evolutionary accomplishment of our species). Every language is a slightly different toolkit for parsing the world, and a slightly different pallet for painting in words. Native languages like Eyak are dying especially fast, and especially irrevocably because there is no written literature in many of them. In any case, we don't know the consequences for humanity of going from 5-6K languages in the world down to fewer than 1000, of which only a couple of hundred will be widely in use, within the next predictable century or so.

DELAMAN (Digital Endgangered Languages and Musics Archiving Network) has a big resource page on the subject with lots of links for those interested.

For me personally, watching these languages blink out is like watching canaries die in the coal mine, though I am pretty close to this subject so maybe I don't have perspective. There are some languages that have a fighting chance because of heightened interest in saving them within Native communities, but even the healthiest of them in the US face a huge uphill climb to try to get young people to keep speaking the language, or to learn it beyond a few words and phrases. But at least we're recording and archiving more languages now so that it might be possible at least to reconstruct them when future generations get interested.

Dee Xtrovert, any way you can come up with the name of that language? Siberia is one of the few places where there are still majorities of native speakers of a number of languages.

Here's an article by Jack Hitt from the NYTimes in 2005 that deals mostly with the expanding number of people claiming Native heritage in the US, but which has some interesting details on the forces favoring language retention and recovery.

I don't know, but after a long few days of thinking about how excited we can get about a baby polar bear in the zoo, or the passing of an actor (a very good actor, far too young), I thought a meditation on what it means to lose an entire language and culture with little notice was worth a pause.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:10 AM on January 23, 2008 [6 favorites]

Reading the Bible in Eyak (or other non-latin, non-Western language) has to be one truly, nay, profoundly fucked up experience.

Really, now. That makes about as much sense as balogna underpants.
posted by loquacious at 4:15 AM on January 23, 2008

Skorgu, you're correct about some of the churches, though not all, that missionize in Native communities. Where I work in Alaska, the Presbyterians have been very committed to the native language and hold services and have entire hymnals in that language. But they can't find a minister who speaks it, or the minister hasn't bothered to try (the current minister, though nice, can't pronounce the local names, which makes baptisms and weddings quite awkward).

The Moravians have been pretty good in Latin and South America. But there are other (and fast-growing) missionary religions that don't care at all about this stuff and don't have anything like the commitment of some of the older line missionary churches to language work.

That said, the Ethnologue link above is only one of the good things to come from the SIL (formerly the Summer Institute of Linguistics), which has been training linguists to do language preservation and description work with the goal of helping missionize Native peoples and translate scripture, etc. But they have funded and supported a huge amount of important work. They are responsible for the important Ethnologue language database.

Another interesting online resource is The Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA), which is a serious digital language preservation effort.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:26 AM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I meant to say SIL "has been training linguists . . . " for 70 years. No newcomers, these guys.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:28 AM on January 23, 2008

Very strange to have children who don't know your first language. I suppose you more or less have to be bilingual by then, and though you may speak the language to them when they're small, you alone are not enough for them to pick up and retain it properly. Or does there come a point where people give up and don't speak their own first language to their children?
posted by Phanx at 4:31 AM on January 23, 2008

And I should have linked to the Michael Krauss stuff, so thank you humannaire. The Eyak Language Preservation Council page (to which I did link) had not been updated when I posted, so thanks also for catching that.

I applaud the efforts to retain and restore languages, but once the last native speakers are gone, it's not really clear you can do much much beyond preserve a bare shell of the language. That's why recordings and archives are so important. With textual data, we can recover languages like Aramaic and Sumerian and Etruscan and Hebrew. So the hope is that we can, at some point in the future, truly revive languages for which we have extensive audio archives of native speakers doing their thing. Without it, it's nearly impossible.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:42 AM on January 23, 2008

So the hope is that we can, at some point in the future, truly revive languages for which we have extensive audio archives of native speakers doing their thing. Without it, it's nearly impossible.

Serious question: why? Preserving an extant language I can see, because it's implicitly bound up with a culture and a worldview. But once it's dead... without native speakers isn't it only of interest to linguists?
posted by Leon at 6:06 AM on January 23, 2008

In Alaska, the Russian Orthodox missionaries were very pro-Native language and used the languages in Church. Much of the early linguistic work was done by them.

In the American period, the incoming Presbyterian missionaries, most notably Sheldon Jackson (who became superintendent of education for Alaska), believed that Native culture was sinful and the Natives needed to be "civilized." Use of Native languages was abolished – all instruction was given in English. These policies continued until the mid-twentieth century. I personally have met elders who were punished at boarding school for speaking in their native language.
posted by D.C. at 6:37 AM on January 23, 2008

Great post and discussion—I'm relieved not to see the usual "who cares about dead languages?" crew. Thanks, fourcheesemac.

Nice balanced discussion at the Wikipedia link:
It should be noted that the spread of English and suppression of aboriginal languages by American authorities are not the only reason for the decline of the Eyak language. The northward migration of the Tlingit people around Yakutat in precontact times encouraged the use of Tlingit rather than Eyak along much of the Pacific Coast of Alaska. Eyak was also under pressure from its neighbors to the west, the Alutiiq people of Prince William Sound, as well as some pressure from the people of the Copper River valley. Eyak and Tlingit culture began to merge along the Gulf Coast, and a number of Eyak speaking groups were absorbed by the Gulf Coast Tlingit populations. This resulted in the replacement of Eyak by Tlingit among most of the mixed groups after a few generations, as reported in Tlingit oral histories of the area. This process was however entirely voluntary, in stark contrast to the coercive efforts of the U.S. government during the territorial era.
posted by languagehat at 6:47 AM on January 23, 2008

But once it's dead... without native speakers isn't it only of interest to linguists?

It's also of interest to tens of thousands of modern Natives who want to preserve their ties to their ancestors even if they aren't fluent in the language of their grandparents. By recording as much material as possible (both in audio and in text) a lot of historical and cultural information is preserved besides the language itself.
posted by D.C. at 6:56 AM on January 23, 2008

Serious question: why? Preserving an extant language I can see, because it's implicitly bound up with a culture and a worldview. But once it's dead... without native speakers isn't it only of interest to linguists?

"Dead language" is a misleading phrase. We now know that a language will often fall out of use while the community that spoke it survives. So now you've got people trying to preserve that culture and that worldview even though the language is gone. And it's a tricky situation, because it's possible to keep a culture alive even without a distinct language, but it's almost certainly harder.

Suppose grandma's ninety years old. She grew up speaking Foobar, and she knows loads of stuff — legends, history, genealogies, recipes, proverbs, all of it. She's tried to pass it on, but her English isn't so good. Meanwhile, she's the youngest Foobar speaker alive, so there's nobody around to translate. You're her grandson, maybe thirty years old. Wouldn't you want to learn a little Foobar? Would you even care that you'd never be a "proper" native speaker? If it were me, I'd just want to be able to understand the old stories while I still had grandma around to tell them.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:56 AM on January 23, 2008

Well, as a linguist, I say "of interest to linguists" is sufficient justification . . . grin.

But it's a fantastic philosophical question you ask, Leon. The question, at root, is whether a language and its particular grammatical parsing of reality is not somehow a thing of intrinsic importance, the DNA *of* "a culture* in a certain sense. There is no question that a language is a thing of intrinsic beauty to many linguists, and many non-linguists too, of course. Here is an example from Siberian Yup'ik of the kind of polysynthetic (agglutinative) density that makes Inuit languages so fascinatingly different in feel (and the question is, what about in "grasp" of the material or ideational world?) from isolating languages like the ones most of us speak (and write in here):
(from the aforementioned website, which is an amazing resource for stuff like this)


[pause and reflect and wrap your head around this "word," which, let us stipulate, is pronounced roughly like it is spelled above, for purposes of demonstration -- in reality the phonetic complexity here is un-freaking-real]

Here's how this "word" is a sentence:

tuntu -ssur -qatar -ni -ksaite -ngqiggte -uq
reindeer -hunt -FUT -say -NEG -again -3SG:IND
'He had not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer.'

This sort of grammatical diversity is only the tip of the iceberg of the proposition that languages are like scientific instruments, and the issue goes way deeper than the "Eskimo words for snow" reductiveness that tends to dominate in discussions of this issue. (Though please see this English-to-Iñupiaq dictionary and type in "snow" before banging Geoff Pullum's book down on the table! I am more of a lexicalist on this stuff than many of my colleagues.) But the real action comes in sociolinguistic and poetic dimensions of language, which are very hard to describe with the kind of accuracy with which we can describe verb tenses or transitivity. Every language includes a rich grammar of associated behaviors -- movements and gestures, sets toward other speakers, ways of imitating other people's voices -- that disappear with it.

How we value that diversity -- when we have the capacity to maintain it -- is an instructive case study in how we think about the cultural heritage of our species more generally. We can't preserve everything, but we do preserve things of (to me obviously) lower value than a language all the time, at great expense (material culture, human remains, etc., and a discussion concerning cultural rights is obviously important here, not just "heritage" in a neutral or anthropological sense).

Compare this to the much more minimal parallel efforts to preserve intangible culture, -- music, stories and verbal arts, dance, and especially language as such. The question is why are we not conservative as a species -- or even within our own particular cultures -- about something the value of which in the future cannot be known, but which might be immense and is certainly beautiful and unique? Many Native languages encode very precise knowledge of local flora and fauna, and the lexicons of Native languages have proved invaluable to biologists and ethnopharamcological prospectors, and the like. Who is to say that the rich empirical modeling of the arctic environment over thousands of years that is embedded in languages like Yup'ik is worth tossing aside when we face an unprecedented environmental crisis in that region of the globe with huge implications for the future of human civilization.

So the analogy to the Buddhas in Afghanistan is quite a good one as a starting point. Because people made them, and they are beautiful and amazing human accomplishments, we should take care of Native languages in danger of extinction.

This is to leave aside the ethical issues -- as if you could do that -- of *why* these languages are disappearing, and whether the power relationships and colonial and genocidal histories "dying" cultures and languages symbolize should be a factor in the moral question of whose responsibility it is to "preserve" or try to "revive" Native languages (or cultures). Native people are very active in their own linguistic and cultural defense these days, with an obvious set of interests that are at once political and emotional and proprietary and increasingly coming into conflict with other cultural and political forces (including between Native communities, and concerning "who is a Native" and what "language" has to do with that).

But that's a big can of worms to open here. Anyone hungry?
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:01 AM on January 23, 2008 [9 favorites]

Reading the Bible in Eyak (or other non-latin, non-Western language) has to be one truly, nay, profoundly fucked up experience.

Really, now. That makes about as much sense as balogna underpants.

How would that compare, then, to reading the Tao Te Ching or the Vedas in English? Or, for that matter, reading the Hebrew scriptures? Should I get out the mayo?
posted by jtron at 7:25 AM on January 23, 2008

[Wow. Great response.]

Well, as a linguist, I say "of interest to linguists" is sufficient justification . . . grin.

No argument about that - knowledge for knowledge's sake, and all that. The 90 year old grandma and the knowledge that is embedded in the language are certainly things worth recording. There's no question that there's a lot of "worth" there, however you choose to define it.

I guess what I'm having trouble with is the idea that, 200 years down the line, someone outside the specialists is going to jump up and say "hey, lets resurrect Foobar from the dustbin of history and gain a unique new worldview!" I might be convinced if there were a significant number of people wandering around practising their 14th Century English, or whatever.

Some thoughts, phrased in the form of questions because I'm obviously amongst experts here:

Am I correct in assuming that Europe went through its own linguistic holocaust at some point in the past? In the long-run, was Europe better or worse off because of a reduction in the number of languages?
posted by Leon at 7:38 AM on January 23, 2008

Am I correct in assuming that Europe went through its own linguistic holocaust at some point in the past?

Yes, probably more than once, but the one that's known to us was caused by the spread of Latin (whose local dialects eventually became the Romance languages). From Nicholas Ostler's Ad Infinitum:
The displacement effect of this orderly advance of Latin on the previous languages of what was becoming Europe was devastating: it is calculated that in the five centuries from 100 BC to AD 400 the count of known languages in lands under Roman administration fell from sixty to twelve, and outside Africa and the Greek-dominant east, from thirty to just five: Latin, Welsh, Basque, Albanian, and Gaulish—among which Gaulish was already marginal and doomed soon to die out totally. The very names of the lost languages, crossing southern Europe from west to east, sing an elegy of vanished potential: Lusitanian, Celtiberian, Tartessian, Iberian, Ligurian, Lepontic, Rhaetic, Venetic, Etruscan, Picene, Oscan, Messapian, Sicel, Sardinian, Dacian, Getic, Paeonian.
And of course those are just the ones we know about. Basque and Albanian survived because they were spoken by very fierce people in mountainous regions not valuable enough to conquer; Welsh was out on the very fringe of the Empire, in a region so shallowly Romanized that Latin died out in Britain once the imperial troops left and the Germanic invaders showed up. (Contrast France, which still speaks Latin in a modernized form although it's named after its own Germanic invaders, the Franks.)

In the long-run, was Europe better or worse off because of a reduction in the number of languages?

There's no objective way to answer that. Either you're one of the "humanity would be better off if it spoke a single language" folks, in which case your answer is "better," or you value the diversity of languages, in which case you'd say "worse." I know which side I fall on.

*mourns Tartessian*
posted by languagehat at 8:12 AM on January 23, 2008

Another thing the Romans did for us...
posted by Phanx at 8:42 AM on January 23, 2008

Doesn't a language really die with its second last speaker?

If you're the only one that knows what the sounds mean, it's really no different from me babbling to myself incoherently. After all, I know what it means.
posted by CaseyB at 9:08 AM on January 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

I guess what I'm having trouble with is the idea that, 200 years down the line, someone outside the specialists is going to jump up and say "hey, lets resurrect Foobar from the dustbin of history and gain a unique new worldview.

It's happened with Hebrew, effectively.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:49 AM on January 23, 2008

I realize that I said "see this Iñupiaq dictionary" above without linking to the amazing
Alaskool online Iñupiaq dictionary. Here, however, is what you get when you type in "snow:"

Word being searched for is: snow

aniu any snow
mauyaq break through snow condition
nutabaq fresh snow, powder snow
qiqsruqaq glazed snow in thaw time
sitxiq hard crusty snow
sixxiq hard crusty snow
niefiqsimaruq is insulating dwelling by building a wall of snow blocks about it and placing soft snow between the wall and the dwelling
illuktuq is snow blinded
apiruq is snow covered
piqsiqsuq is snow storming
qanniksuq is snowing (no wind)
qanigruaqtuq is snowing (no wind)
apigaa it is snow covered
qatiqsubniq light snow, deep for walking
auksalaq melting snow
auksajaq melting snow
aukkaa melts it (ice, snow)
aniu packed snow
qayuqjaq rippled surface of snow
apun snow
aputyaq snow block shelter
apuyyaq snow block shelter
amautligaq snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)
avatalibuuvaq snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)
amautlikkauraq snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)
amaujigaaluk snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)
kafuq snow goose (Chen hyperborea)
natibviksuq snow is ground drifting
apuyyaq snow patch
aputyaq snow patch
aniuvak snowbank
natibvik snowdrift
qimaugruk snowdrift blocking a trail or in lee of a building
mapsaq snowdrift overhang (ready to fall)
mavsa snowdrift overhang (ready to fall)
qannik snowflake
ukpik snowly owl (Nyctea scandiaca)
ukalliuraq snowshoe rabbit, varying hare (Lepus americanus)
ukalliq snowshoe rabbit, varying hare (Lepus americanus)
nuluq snowshoe webbing
tagluk snowshoes
sisuuq snowslide, avalanche
aqixuqqaq soft snow
mitaixaq soft snow on ice floe covering an open spot
mauruq steps into, falls into a hole, breaks through (of snow)
pukak sugar snow (near ground)
puuvruktuq swims, plows through deep soft snow
puuvraktuq swims, plows through deep soft snow
mixik very soft snow

So while the "words for snow" argument is one of the most trivial and debatable ways in which grammar shapes or reflects "culture" and "experience," there is still something amazing about how fine grained this parsing of the ecological conditions in the Arctic. Of course, as a dictionary shows us, it is *possible* to express each of these concepts in English, or *any* other language.

But we'll debate Whorfianism some other day too.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:56 AM on January 23, 2008

Reading the Bible in Eyak (or other non-latin, non-Western language) has to be one truly, nay, profoundly fucked up experience.

Really, now. That makes about as much sense as balogna underpants.

What the hell is that about? Most of the Bible was not even written in Latin, originally, and English, the language of King James, is not a Latin language (assuming you mean non-Romance languages when you say non-Latin).
posted by beagle at 9:57 AM on January 23, 2008

I don't think, by the way, that we can answer the "better or worse off" question. But I don't think that's the best argument for language preservation.

In truth, I'm much more invested in the ethical and rights-based arguments that underlie commitments to language and culture retention. Native people, by and large, had their cultures and languages forcibly and violently taken away from them as a way to weaken them politically and destroy their communities and family structures. The fight to save, restore, and pass on what is left of those languages and cultures is about a very modern answer to the question of what is right and wrong with this picture. I don't think it's up to linguists or anyone else to tell Native communities what they should or should not be doing with respect to their own languages, really. But I can speak from experience when I say that this is a huge issue of cultural survival for many Native communities and activists. And it's a lot more compelling to me than race-based ways of thinking about cultural rights or identity questions.

There is a lot of language reconstruction and retention work going on right now, with major examples being the Mohegan and Pequot languages (you can imagine why and where the funding is coming from, but in this case the task is entirely one of reconstructing from related languages and very scant textual sources); Seminole; Ojibwe; and Lumbee (obviously the southeastern Native societies were assimilated earlier and lost languages entirely long before the modern effort to salvage and describe these languages got underway in the late 19th and early 20th centuries under Boas, especially. There are native speakers of the latter three, of course, but fewer . . . and fewer . . . ). But even in places where a generation or two ago most people were fluent native speakers, suddenly it's down to a few elders and a few activists of the next generation doing their darndest to teach the kids in something of an urgent atmosphere of impending loss -- it's what I see in Alaska, for sure. When a language starts to go, often it goes very, very fast.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:10 AM on January 23, 2008

There's an old joke about opposition to bilingual education that linguists tell, the punchline of which is "If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for our kids."
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:10 AM on January 23, 2008

CaseyB, that is a great point, and in a deep sense true. That's what I mean about a language consisting of so much more than its lexicon or grammar. Language and culture are not interchangeable, as Boas showed us (and neither is at all interchangeable with "race," a truly useless concept in this conversation unless it is preceded by "human," since any of us can learn any language on earth to Native fluency if we are exposed to its socially contextualized use as a small child, with no effort at all).

But the embeddedness of culture and "language" (thought of us as more than grammar) in each other is profound, under my school of linguistic thought (Boasian/Sapirian) anyway. You'd get an argument from the Stephen Pinkers of the world. They are wrong or talking about a different idea of what "language" even is (I tend more to the latter view, because they are "right" about a lot too.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:15 AM on January 23, 2008

"without native speakers isn't it only of interest to linguists?"

For the better part of 2000 years, Hebrew was of great interest to Jews, even though no one spoke it any more, and was at the core of the ethnic and religious identity. I see no reason why, say, the study of Eyak and all the preserved material in Eyak might not be of equal value to Eyak people.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:33 AM on January 23, 2008

Paging Geoff Pullum...
posted by Phanx at 1:08 PM on January 23, 2008

Every language has a qualitative value among every other language to a linguist. In the case of language isolates like Eyak, all the more so because linguists are always trying to discern historical relationships between human groups through history and languages contain clues as valid and important as any DNA test. Among modern spoken languages there are huge related familes. Isolates, like Eyak, Yuchi (SE USA, now in Oklahoma) Ket (Siberia) or Basque, seem to have been set in place before the historically documented era. Relationships between them are all the more interesting, and although the discipline of historical linguistics is an imprecise and debated science, the generalizations tend to rest on the evidence provided by language isolates.

In the case of Eyak, it seems that Eyak directional terms (such as English' east, north, south, west) were set during the ice age, and refer to moving up into an ice-entrapped valley, or down away from one. Which places Eyak as a language that had found its place during one of the earlier groups that populated the Alaskan area during the ice age, before the more recent Athabascan and Inuit populations came into the area. If one wishes to know about the early migrations into the Western Hemsiphere via the Bering Land Bridge, Eyak would definately seem to hold more than a few clues. There are lots of groups that lost their unique languages over the following years - but something like Eyak (or Yuchi or Zuni or Basque or Burushkashi) is a rosetta stone into mankind's prehistory.

The death of languages is due in large part to the growth of media and the loss of context for language use. These are things that have occured in the last generation - thirty or forty years. That is why the antidotes - immersion language school programs and elder-child mentor programs for endangered languages - are all the more urgent.
posted by zaelic at 1:53 PM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Paging Geoff Pullum...
posted by Phanx at 1:08 PM on January 23

I paged him above already, but also said don't just toss down Pullum and leave the room, because what we're talking about here is not the "Eskimo vocabulary hoax," but a more advanced set of issues. In any case, Pullum's title is too flip by half, just as the tradition of simplistic lexical Whorfianism it mocks is silly.

It's become a kind of easy reflex to toss Pullum like a bomb into this sort of discussion. Pullum is not an expert on the languages in question, and he picks a very broad target.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:58 PM on January 23, 2008

zaelic, lovely comment . . .
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:59 PM on January 23, 2008

A fantastic post, and one that I totally stole adapted for my own blog!
posted by LarryC at 8:01 PM on January 23, 2008

fourcheesemac: there's real passion coming through your posts. You should adapt some of this stuff into a longer, layman-accessible essay.
posted by Leon at 2:21 AM on January 24, 2008

Thank you Leon. This is what I do in real life, as it were. It is a consuming passion.

There is a lot of good, accessible layman-friendly writing on many of these issues already in circulation, certainly on the issue of Whorfianism (the argument that grammar reflects or shapes "experience" or "culture" in some way). There's also more and more good work on cultural survival and language issues in indigenous cultures.

I will come back in a bit with a list of some references.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:34 AM on January 24, 2008

She drank too much, but gave it up; she smoked too much, coughing her way through interviews in a room full of statuettes of the Pillsbury Doughboy, in which she said her spirit would live when she was dead. 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.
From The Economist's obituary of Marie Smith.
posted by Kattullus at 10:56 PM on February 8, 2008

I just saw the link to the Economist piece at Danny Yee's weblog and was quite impressed by it, but I'm much more impressed by this thread. It's wonderful, and thanks to fourcheesemac for initiation, and to everybody who made it excellent by their attention and imagination, again, thanks. This is one of the best things I've seen at MeFi.
posted by cgc373 at 4:54 AM on February 9, 2008

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