January 21, 2008, a world ended. On that day the last surviving speaker of Eyak, Marie Smith Jones, died. Her Eyak name was Udach’ Kuqax*a’a’ch, which translates as “A sound calling people from afar”. Ms. Smith Jones or Udach’ Kuqax*a’a’chwas also the last full-blooded member of the Eyak Nation, a Native American group in Alaska. Until her death she worked closely with linguists to record her language and to produce grammars and dictionaries. But none of her nine children learned to speak Eyak. Many Native Americans never learned their own language, and many languages in the world died out because its native speakers did not teach it to their children. They could not.
For mysterious reasons many people classify languages into two main categories: ‘good’ and ‘bad’. ‘Good’ languages are beautiful, logical and spoken by advanced people. ‘Bad’ languages are ridiculous, illogical and spoken by backward people. Invariably those who decide which is which are those in power. Governments, church authorities, the wealthy. And those in power can determine, by force if necessary, which languages are being taught in schools, which ones are allowed within the administration, and which ones are taken seriously. Those are always their own languages. Parisian French, not Occitan. ‘Goois’ Dutch, not Frisian or Achterhoeks. American English, not Eyak.
Every linguist knows that there is not, indeed never was, a primitive language. Every language is perfectly suited to its own culture and has a long and complex history. They all look at the world in a different way and so, in a sense, are different worlds. There is a deliciously bewildering variety of them, an endless source of joy for those with open minds and ears. But people in power fear variety and change, clinging to their own ways and worlds as supreme over all others. Therefore Eyak had to die, and with it its world. Languages are mortal, as are people. They wax and wane and at last pass away, often leaving descendants behind. But some people are deliberately murdered, as was Eyak. Its sounds will no longer call people from afar.