In Alaska, a Frenchman Fights to Revive the Eyak's Dead Tongue
Natives Take Dialect Lessons From Guillaume Leduey; Blurting Out 'Keełtaak'
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.
Lots of local dialects across the world face extinction, but few have attracted a preservationist as unlikely as Mr. Leduey, an aspiring sculptor who until June hadn't left Europe. That month, he journeyed to Alaska to study under Michael Krauss, a 75-year-old University of Alaska linguistics professor who knows conversational Eyak. Mr. Leduey set out to traipse in the footsteps of the tribe that once inhabited this gritty fishing village on Prince William Sound.
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.
More than a thousand years ago, the Eyaks are believed to have settled in Alaska's interior before migrating to the coast, hunting and fishing along the way, historians say. They passed down their language through storytelling. While as many as 20 native dialects remain in Alaska, Mr. Krauss says Eyak is considered extinct because there are no fluent, native speakers.
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