Sunday, August 06, 2006


Useless to go back there.
My uncles too have all died out on me.
After my uncles all died out my aunts next fell,
to die.
why is it I alone,
just I alone have managed to survive?
I survive.

The above is a translation of a "lament" recorded in 1972. The poem/song was composed in Eyak, an Alaskan native (Indian) language that, as of summer last year had one remaining native speaker. Having no one to talk to in her language the elderly woman typically uses English and Tlingit, a native language that, the author of the article I'm looking at (New Yorker, June 6, 2005) speculates, may in the absence of English have displaced Eeyak. When Europeans arrived Eyak speakers were a remnant population and Tlingit speakers were becoming ever more dominant in the area.

The extinction of languages distresses me. I do remember when I was a kid being delighted by the idea of global language and enough of a chauvinist (& lazy?) to hope that that hegemonic language be English. As I studied other languages (such common ones as Spanish & Portuguese and the relatively exotic American Sign Language) and discovered different ways of organizing thoughts my dream of the triumph of English began to seem distasteful. Gradually the frustration with hearing unintelligible language gave way to an appreciation for their musicks. The change had something to do with my growing appreciation for poetry and exploration in language. Much poetry is difficult, even impenetrable, and, I discovered, there are varieties even of English that I just can't grok. Unfamiliar languages came to seem new technologies, fresh tools, and I like gizmos, too. I like it when science "discovers" some animal (typically well known to the also overlooked locals). Why shouldn't I be fascinated by the novelties of other languages?

The Eeyak version of the first two lines of the above goes (roughly, as I don't know how to reproduce some of the typography -- an "l" with a line through it, an "x" with a subscript period):

K'aadih ulah uuch' q'e' iili'ee.
SitinhGayuudik sixa' iinsdi'ahl.

No comments: