I’m sorry to be so late with this—you’ve only got another day to get this week’s New Yorker—but it has a moving piece by Elizabeth Kolbert, “Last Words,” about the Eyak tribe of Alaska and the last native speaker of their language, Marie Smith Jones:

When I asked her how she felt about [being the last speaker], she said, “How would you feel if your baby died? If someone asked you, ‘What was it like to see it lying in the cradle?’ So think about that before you ask that kind of a question.”

(One interesting point about the article is that it reproduces the scientific transcription of Eyak, which has things like an x with a dot under it.)
Update. Marie Smith died on January 21, 2008.


  1. This is interesting, wish I could see the article. It’s also another sad example of a dying language – hope their efforts to record it will also inspire some of the people to learn it and revive its use.
    Speaking of Alaska, just some months ago I learned that there are a fair number of Sami people there because Sami herders came from Norway in 1894 and 1898 to teach reindeer herding skills to the Yup’ik and Inupiaq Peoples of Alaska. The NorthAmerican Sami have their own magazine BAIKI including an excellent website. I also blogged about this in case you are interested. I believe some of the smaller sub groups of the Sami language in northern Norway, Sweden and Finland are also threatened with extinction.

  2. It’s a very good article, I recommend it as well. I was surprised to learn that Navajo is a closer relative to Eyak than its neighboring languages.
    The Wikipedia article on Eyak is lacking, unfortunately.

  3. I saw this in the online contents of the New Yorker, but couldn’t find a copy anywhere on the web. Too bad.

  4. Harbinger says

    If you want to see some real linguistic barbarism, read this essay:
    “Let Them Die”
    In bemoaning ‘cultural homogenisation’, campaigners for linguistic diversity fail to understand what makes a culture dynamic and responsive. It is not the fracturing of the world with as many different tongues as possible; it is rather the overcoming of barriers to social interaction. The more universally we can communicate, the more dynamic our cultures will be, because the more they will be open to new ways of thinking and doing. … What if half the world’s languages are on the verge of extinction? Let them die in peace.

  5. Rick Grimm says

    I am so happy to have read the above comments, as well as LH’s posting regarding Kolbert’s startling article on the Eyak language. I couldn’t wait until my university library received their copy of The New Yorker (I believe I may have been the ONLY Edmontonian to have saught it that day). In any case, I highly recommend it to those who are interested in language obsolescence or, at least, sociolinguistics. That aside, has anyone had any luck funding a sound clip (MP3, .ram, etc.) of the Eyak language on the Internet? My researches have proved completely unfruitful. Help!

  6. You may have to write to Ms. Kolbert. I also was unsuccessful in a similar quest.

  7. Leduey Guillaume says

    Marie Smith-Jones is one of the most important character in my life. I’m studying Eyak language, I’ve got a lot of documents about Eyak : Dictionary, texts, grammar…
    Eyak will survive, Marie Smith-Jones can be reassured.
    Happy summer,
    Guillaume Leduey

  8. Steven Block says

    I am a freelance copy-editor for Wildlife Conservation magazine, published by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Currently, I am copy-editing a manuscript about the Copper River. In the manuscript, an Eyat conservationist named Jamachakin is mentioned. His name is said to translate loosely into “The Little Bird That Screams A Lot and Won’t Shut Up.” Can you please tell me if that translation is accurate. If not, what is the correct translation. Thank you for your help.
    Steven Block
    Wildlife Conservation Magazine

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