Eyak

According to the Anchorage Daily News, the last speaker of Eyak, Chief Marie Smith Jones, has passed away. May she rest in peace.

Eyak is the first of Alaska’s twenty indigenous languages to go extinct. Let us hope that it is also the last.

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8 thoughts on “Eyak

  1. James Crippen January 23, 2008 / 9:07 am

    Oh, I hope so with all of my heart… And I hope that the Eyak people work hard enough to bring their language back to life after this loss.

  2. The Ideophone January 24, 2008 / 3:11 pm

    Out of curiosity, is it really the first Alaskan language to go extinct? How do you know, and since when have you been measuring?

    BTW I fully agree with the sentiment of this post.

  3. tulugaq January 24, 2008 / 3:37 pm

    As far as I know, yes, Eyak really is the first. The first that we have any record of, at least. If there have been other languages that died out in Alaska in the past, it was before any records were kept. I could be wrong, but I hope in that case someone will jump in and correct me.

    I’m not an expert on the entire history of Alaskan languages, just someone who studies one of them (Iñupiaq). Of course I’m interested in all the Alaskan languages in general, but I know less about the non-Eskimo-Aleut languages. My information comes from the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. They’ve been working on language revitalization and documentation since the 70s and have a fair idea of the number of speakers of each language because of that work.

  4. James Crippen January 26, 2008 / 1:25 pm

    It should be noted that at least since the 1950s people have been investigating Alaska Native languages, and as such any others would be known by mention of other language communities.

    There is one language which was debatably Alaskan Native, however it might well have been northern British Columbian instead. This was Ts’ets’aut, which was spoken around the Portland Canal which forms part of the border between Alaska and Canada. Franz Boas and Pliny Earle Goddard wrote about it in 1924 in “Ts’ets’aut, an Athabaskan language from Portland Canal, British Columbia”, International Journal of American Linguistics, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 1–35. This article is available on JSTOR if you’re interested. It appears to have been spoken by an Athabaskan group that had recently moved to the coast from the interior, and which was eradicated by Tlingit and Tahltan incursions, and by slaving and intermarriage with the Coast Tsimshians. Since it was a language on the border it’s hard to say whether it was Alaskan or not, but Boas seems to have somewhat arbitrarily placed it in British Columbia, perhaps because the speaker he worked with was a Canadian resident. Thus, going by historical tradition, it’s usually treated as a BC language rather than an Alaskan one. We don’t know exactly when “Levi” died, but presumably Ts’ets’aut disappeared in the early years of the 20th century.

    http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0020-7071%28192407%293%3A1%3C1%3ATAALFP%3E2.0.CO%3B2-B

  5. The Ideophone January 28, 2008 / 11:00 am

    I was asking because trivially, countless languages have gone extinct in the past before there were any historical records and language tallies as we have them now. In African linguistics there are numerous cases in which one can deduct (by comparing oral traditions for example) that a language must have gone extinct. Often these are cases of language shift for all sorts of reasons (e.g. growing intermarriage in times of peace; or economical power attached to the language of the oppressor; or slavery, exile, forced assimilation; etc.). I was wondering whether this might not be the case in Alaska also, and more in general, how much is known about the history of inter-ethnic relations in the area (for that is the type of information one would need).

    To give one example from my own area of expertise: around the Togo plateau in eastern Ghana, there are tales of a once powerful people, the Maakɔ or Maku, which were conquered in a great battle and subsequently assimilated into the various peoples still present in the area. Many of these peoples (otherwise quite different both in language and culture) are organized into clans, and quite curiously, some clan names are similar across different peoples (suggesting that these clans may correspond to portions of what once was the Maku tribe). Indeed in Kawu, where I work, there is still an oral tradition which holds that long ago, members of this clan were allowed to speak their own language on one day of the six-day week. Nowadays it seems there is no trace anymore of this language, but there is enough circumstantial evidence to conclude that it existed, and has gone extinct.

  6. tulugaq February 5, 2008 / 7:09 pm

    Thanks, James. I’ll definitely have to do some reading up. It’s true that I know a lot less about the southeast part of the state, especially with groups straddling national boundaries. Up north with Iñupiaq, it’s more of question where to draw the line between dialect and language in the Inuit dialect chain.

    Mark, I’m not aware of any gaps that would indicate a missing language somewhere in the past, at least not for Eskimo-Aleut. For the arctic regions of Alaska, the extremely low population density (even compared to similarly sized land masses) and mountainous terrain certainly imply there was probably a lot less contact between the few groups. Na-Dene’s a more complicated story, especially with the relatively recent theories about a Yeniseian link.

  7. Gary April 8, 2009 / 12:12 am

    “The last speaker of Tsetsaut, an Athabascan language once spoken along Portland Canal in Southeast Alaska, passed away in the first half of the twentieth century. Tsetsaut is not included on the map, though it is just as much an Alaska Native language as is Eyak. ”

    http://www.uaf.edu/anlc/anlmap.html

  8. tulugaq April 8, 2009 / 1:22 pm

    Good to know – thanks, Gary. I’d never heard of Tsetsaut, but now I’m intrigued.

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