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Eyak: Back from the Dead?

Last year, we wrote about how the Eyak language, once spoken by a native tribe in Alaska, was being given a second chance at life courtesy of a young French student with a knack for linguistics.

At the time, 22-year-old Guillaume Leduey had just made his first trip to Alaska. Leduey is something of a language prodigy, and had taught himself Eyak via instructional DVDs.

The last native speaker of Eyak, Marie Smith Jones, died in 2008. However, before she died she taught the language to University of Alaska linguistics professor Michael Krauss. Leduey brought the total number of Eyak speakers up to two, but nobody knew whether he’d be able to continue to work with the language or not. Read more

Today Feels Like Alaska

Around 8 inches of snow, minus 9 degrees and we are all wrapped up like we are going to spend a week in an igloo. So yeah, without a doubt, I can say that today feels like Alaska (even if I never went, I can only imagine!) except that we don’t have the beautiful mountains, the wildlife and the breath-taking lakes…other than that, I’m pretty sure that in few years, England will be the new Alaska of Europe. Suddenly I realise that I don’t know much about it except that it’s far away from where I’m at the moment and that it’s really cold. Time to change that and learn few things about this amazing US state…

  1. Alaska is one of the wealthiest nations in North America.
  2. The official language of Alaska is English. While most of the people speak in English, the other recognized languages are Native North American, Spanish, Yupik, Tagalog and Inupiaq.
  3. Alaska’s name is based on the Inuit word Alakshak, meaning great lands or peninsula.
  4. Alaska is larger than the combined area of Texas, California and Montana. It is even larger than 23 smallest U.S. states and districts, combined together.
  5. The capital of Alaska is Juneau, the only capital city in the United States that is accessible by boat or plane only.
  6. Read more

Kodiak Alutiiq Speakers Reinvent Their Language

Just last year, the Alutiiq, a group of Native Americans who live on the coasts of Alaska, were in danger of losing their language, the Kodiak dialect of Alutiiq, completely. The dialect is down to about 50 living speakers.

For the past four years, however, the Alutiiq Museum has been working on a project to document and preserve the language. Called Living Words, the project involves talking with and recording the elders who can still speak Alutiiq.

But in addition to documenting the language as it exists today, the Alutiiq are also looking to the future by adding new words.  According to the Kodiak Daily Mirror, tribal elders have been holding “New Words Councils” to create words for modern phenomena like text messages and ATVs. Read more

Eyak Language

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.