In 2008, an 89-year-old Alaskan Native woman named Marie Smith Jones died. The Eyak language died with her, as she was the last living speaker. Now, a young French student with a passion for languages is considering helping to resurrect the language.
According to the Anchorage Daily News, Guillaume Leduey has always had a passion for language. When other kids were playing video games, Leduey daydreamed about being able to speak Lithuanian. In 2005, he got in touch with Laura Bliss Spaan, the director of a documentary about Eyak, and requested some instructional DVDs so that he could try to teach himself the language.
Now, Leduey is visiting Alaska to study with linguist Michael Krauss, who has spent a large potion of his life trying to preserve a record of the Eyak language.
Whether or not Leduey will continue to study Eyak until he becomes fluent is an open question. He’s also an artist, plus his parents have told him that he needs to find a paying job ASAP. Nobody is sure if or how learning Eyak will pay off for him in anything other than karma.
Considering how many other languages Leduey knows and his obvious talent for learning them, might we suggest applying for a job as a translator?
Although Marie Smith Jones had children, none of them learned the language. Native children were discouraged from speaking Eyak in school, so the children were brought up speaking English. Why is important to try to preserve a record of a language that no one currently speaks? The Anchorage Daily News describes this rather heart-wrenching encounter between Mona Curry, one of Jones’ children, and Leduey:
“It was really emotional to hear you say you know the word for ‘thank you,’ ” Curry told him. “What is that word?”
“Awa’ahdah,” Leduey replied.
“Say that again,” Curry said, concentrating on the pronunciation.