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February 06, 2008

How do you say goodbye in Eyak?

native Eyak speaker Marie Smith Jones

The world got a little bit less interesting last month, with the passing of an 89 year old Alaskan woman named Marie Smith Jones. Smith Jones was the last full-blooded member of the Eyak tribe, and the last native speaker of the Eyak language. And as such, she was a living example of a global concern.

All around the world, languages are dying out, falling victim to the forces of globalization. According to some estimates another language disappears every two weeks.

Why care? Well, according to the National Science Foundation there are plenty of reasons. For instance, by studying the variation in human language we gain valuable insight into the workings of the brain. But perhaps more profoundly, individual languages are repositories for the values and world-views of the cultures that speak them. Don't believe me? Check out this talk by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis.

The BBC website has this obit of Marie Smith Jones. Also, National Public Radio aired a brief obit of Smith Jones last month that features of few seconds of her speaking Eyak.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at February 6, 2008 03:20 PM