Your Soon-to-be Dead Language

We mourn the passing of Eyak, once a traditional language spoken in Alaska. Mrs. Mary Jones died on January 21 and took her language with her. Southern Tsimshian, a dialect used in Klemtu, British Columbia is expected to follow soon, surviving only as long as the 95-year-old lady who still speaks it. With her demise her language, and the rich cultural heritage it contains, will be buried along with her, forever.

Through a Scientific American article released some five years ago, I learned from a renowned researcher with a Ph.D from Harvard – and himself now in his eighties – that one language dies every 15 days, on average. That came as a shock, even to the full-time linguist I was back then, whose professional survival ultimately hinged on long-lived languages. I confess I had never really given any thought to the fate of disappearing tongues. For starters, I didn’t know they were dying so fast. Plus, I just took it as a fact of life (which is what it is, after all).

The researcher’s name is Michael Krauss, a professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. His greatest legacy to language documentation is his work on Eyak, conducted through much of the 1960’s. Eyak – a crucial missing link for historical linguistics, with ties to neighboring Ahtna and even distant Navajo – was back then already the most endangered of the Alaskan languages. Prof. Krauss did much to record all that could be retrieved from Mrs. Jones and other heritage speakers before their passing. In so doing, he helped disseminate the novel concept of ‘salvage linguistics.’

While most would agree that it’s still too cold to even talk about Alaska (I’m writing this on a freezing morning in Geneva, with Spring still stubbornly hiding somewhere over the Alps), and that Eyak would be a very long shot for anybody considering a career in interpreting, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. Here’s how Prof. Krauss puts it:

These [and many other] languages are the essence of the thinking of uniquely Alaskan people, who have the right to help to retain their language. They are the result of millennia of experience in these environments, the wisdom of the ages. Not only that: they represent different ways of seeing – of understanding – our common human experience.

Languages will continue to die, of course, and not just in Alaska, as there is yet no way to make people immortal. But much can be done while they are still around, if languages (and speakers, if need be) can be put on life support. That’s exactly what Prof. Krauss was commissioned to do.

He and some colleagues from Canada, Japan and Russia were awarded over a million dollars by the National Science Foundation to document several endangered languages over several years. And they are in a hurry: “If it’s ever going to be done, it has got to be done now,” says Krauss, cognizant of the fact that many languages are indeed on the brink of extinction. “Making a record, as much as we can, of a language while it is still there is vital to the future of that language and the people” [that speak it].

Other than try to prevent the death of a language, which is sometimes irreversible, the idea is to preserve enough of the oral traditions, recipes, tales and wisdom and make a record of it before it perishes. The last I checked the project, which dates back to 2008, was in full swing.

I remember releasing a sigh of relief at the end of that article and thinking: “I’m glad Eyak is not one of my working languages!” Then again, come to think of it, Portuguese, Spanish, French and even English will die, too, eventually. Can’t see that coming? Think twice. Remember that Latin was for centuries the language of the world, back when every path led to Rome. Now the Roman emperors are long gone. And so is their language.

So, say a prayer for your working languages, for they are going fast. If it makes you feel any better, we are probably going faster, so in a funny way I guess we are all safe.

by Ewandro Magalhaes

 

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