Eyak: Back from the Dead?

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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.

Now, a year later, Leduey is helping to spread his knowledge of the Eyak language to the Eyak people via a series of workshops. While it’s not possible to learn an entire language in a two-day workshop, the events gave participants a chance to learn the basics of Eyak, including how to form sounds and basic vocabulary.

Writing for The Cordova Times, reporter Jennifer Gibbons explains why it’s so important to preserve this almost forgotten language:

“Eyak is a place-based language, meaning that its words are rooted in the specific land of its speakers. They are literally of the same earth. Consider for example that in Eyak there are only two seasons – summer and winter. Fall is expressed as “toward winter” and spring as “toward summer.” For anyone who lives in this land, there is both wisdom and humor in that.”

In addition to preserving local knowledge, the language is also naturally important to the Eyak people. Once, they were discouraged from speaking it, but now the language is a powerful source of cultural pride.

For example,  Angela Arnold, the director of the town of Eyak, was recently able to welcome visitors in Eyak. She told the Cordova Times,

“This was the first time in my life that I was able to do that and I am very excited. I have always wanted to be able to do that.”