In Alaska, a Frenchman Fights to Revive the Eyak's Dead Tongue
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CORDOVA, Alaska—Mona Curry recently stared teary-eyed at a film of her late mother speaking in the native-Alaskan language of Eyak at a tribal ceremony. Then she turned to a 21-year-old Frenchman for translation. "She said that it's beautiful," Guillaume Leduey explained without hesitation. "It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you God.
Mr. Leduey, a college student from Le Havre, France, has made it his mission to bring the Eyak tongue back from extinction. Eyak tribe membership once numbered in the hundreds in south central Alaska, then dwindled over the past two centuries as other tribes and Western settlement encroached. Ms. Curry's mother, Marie Smith Jones, was considered by Alaska historians the last native Eyak speaker when she died in 2008. Her descendants and others didn't become fluent in the language because of a stigma around speaking anything other than English in Alaska's native villages.
Versed in French, English, German, Chinese and Georgian, and able to sing at least one song in Lithuanian, Mr. Leduey says he can't fully explain why he took on the defunct tongue. "It's like I have an inner voice that tells me I have to do that," he says
Mr. Leduey's preservation quest is littered with linguistic stumbling blocks. Eyak bears little similarity to English or the Russian spoken by some Alaskan natives. Sounds for letters often are uttered from the back of the mouth, rather than the middle as with European languages. Eyak's vowels followed by an "n" are nasalized, while the "m" sound rarely is used. It wasn't until academics began studying it that the language was formally put in writing.
There are no obscenities. "If you want to insult someone, you call them a 'nik'da'luw,'" Mr. Leduey says, using the Eyak expression for "big nose," which means nosy. And there are a number of one-word sentences. "If you want to say, 'I'll kill you," it is 'ige'xsheh,'" he says. To understand more about Eyaks, Mr. Leduey also learned to cook salmon in the ground, a native tradition. On an overcast day here last month, he dug a shallow pit in the front yard of Eyak descendant Pam Smith, a niece of Ms. Jones. He tended a crackling fire to roast two red salmon, each wrapped in giant skunk cabbage leaves. After 90 minutes, the fish were warm but still raw, so Ms. Smith threw them into an oven.