The Sounds Of Silence

Every dying language had an adventurous youth. Eyak can be traced to an ancient mother tongue that was centered near the Yukon and Tanana rivers in North America. Three millennia ago, a small band broke away from the larger tribe, which also gave rise to the Navaho, Apache and Athabaskan languages. Eyak legend has it that they traveled down a river in dugout canoes, and came to a land of plenty. There they found bird's eggs --"they tried them, and they were good," the legend goes --as well as abundant salmon and seals. Linguists and anthropologists believe the Eyak then lived for many centuries in isolation, perhaps cut off from other peoples by giant glaciers. By the mid-19th century, the descendants of this hardy band numbered a few hundred people and spoke a language all their own. They lived near present-day Cordova on the Gulf of Alaska. The Eyak had their own myths, folklore and songs, containing their own moral code.

Now Eyak is about to become extinct. To be precise, the language will likely die out in a pale-green apartment building in Anchorage, Alaska, where a sign on the porch warns: positively no dogs or waterbeds allowed. An 81-year-old Eyak woman named Marie Smith Jones, white haired and hard of hearing, lives in apartment No. 1. Since her sister Sophia died in 1993, Marie has been the last native Eyak who knows that the word kaelltaak means "seal," or the phrase daqiikih salle'llinuu translates "they've become no more." Jones occasionally gets a call from Michael Krauss, a nonnative linguist who learned Eyak for academic reasons. But more often she recalls Eyak words in her head, or sometimes aloud. "I just want to hear what they sound like," she says.

Jones is one of a growing number of such solitary souls. According to statistics compiled by Ethnologue, a catalog of the globe's languages, an estimated 52 languages have just one native speaker left, and 426 are "nearly extinct," meaning that only a handful of elderly speakers remain. Some prominent linguists predict that half of roughly 6,000 world languages will be silenced by the end of this century, and that 80 to 90 percent will die off within the next 200 years.

Should we care? Most people living in New York or Paris or Ouagadougou, after all, have never heard of Eyak and haven't felt the loss. Some people believe, moreover, that the multitude of tongues in the world has been a plague on mankind since at least the Tower of Babel. The purpose of language, this argument goes, is to communicate, and myriad languages only serve to confuse. A country like the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, has more than 200 languages and dialects. It's tempting to believe that if all of Congo's 50 million people spoke the same language, people there would be better off.

Nonsense, say specialists on endangered languages: linguistic differences do not cause wars, intolerance does. (Serbs and Croats speak the same language, as do warring Somalis.) Some experts warn, moreover, that the death of languages is a threat to the general well-being of the human species. Just as biological diversity is now considered vital to the earth's health, they argue, so is intellectual and cultural diversity.

"If you see an ancient pagoda, you're not immediately tempted to bulldoze it," says Michael Krauss, director of the Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks. "Languages are intellectual pagodas --one is a pagoda, another is a Parthenon --but you have to work to appreciate them." A leading gadfly on language endangerment, Krauss offers several arguments for linguistic diversity. One is that by protecting languages, societies also preserve historical, cultural and even scientific knowledge. Many modern medicines have been developed using traditional know-how about plants and animals: quinine, for instance, is a Quechua Indian term from South America. When a native language dies, valuable information about local fauna and flora often dies with it.

Languages have come and gone since the early days of human history, but the wave of destruction today is unprecedented. It's happening wherever technologically advanced societies overwhelm less powerful groups. Australian colonizers helped wipe out more than 150 native languages over the past 222 years, and more than 100 others are on the brink. In South America, Spanish and Portuguese have overwhelmed scores of native Indian languages, and pioneers pursuing "manifest destiny" helped to destroy most of some 300 languages native to North America. Of 100 languages that once were spoken in what is now California, only half remain, and most of those are spoken only by a few tribal elders.

Globalization is probably helping to fuel the destruction. English, in particular, is quickly becoming the indispensable language of successful people from different countries and cultures. That's partly because a disproportionate number of the world's rich speak English, and also because English is the language of the technological revolution. Even before the Internet, television, telephones, air travel and other innovations helped the languages of dominant cultures and economies to spread. The French are indignant about what one academic calls "an insidious dispossession" by English, but speakers of the regional Breton language in northwest France are equally ruffled by the dominance of French. Breton speakers number 268,000, down from a million a century ago.

The obliteration of small languages might seem inevitable and irreversible. But languages, unlike people, can be resurrected. The last fluent speaker of Miami Indian died in the 1960s, but Daryl Baldwin, 37, has nursed Miami back to life. As a student at the University of Montana a decade ago, Baldwin immersed himself in research on his ancestral tongue --studying texts by missionaries and others recorded as far back as the 1600s. With the help of a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley, he taught himself Miami vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, and then he brought the language into his home.

Now Baldwin, his wife and their four kids have a rule: whenever possible, they speak only Miami among themselves. About 80 percent of 3-year-old Emma's vocabulary is Miami Indian. (Her Miami name, given to her by her grandfather, is Amehkoonsa, or Little Beaver.) Other Miami Indians, among a tribe numbering about 7,000 split between Indiana and Oklahoma, are joining the effort. Tribal members have produced a CD-ROM for teaching Miami to kids, as well as storybooks and student dictionaries. "The term 'extinct' is one that I don't like to use," says Baldwin, "because it means gone forever."

Baldwin doesn't want his kids to learn Miami at the expense of English, however. "A language is what makes you part of a country," he says. "But there's a notion in America that you have to give up one language to get the other. It shouldn't be that way." Few experts who argue for linguistic diversity believe that countries should not have a lingua franca. "It would be wrong to say no English at all [in Africa], no French," says Ngugi Wa Thiongo, a Kenyan author who writes his novels, plays and essays in his native Gikuyu. "The issue is the relationship between languages. Now, the marginalized languages are being forced to die. If present trends continue, Africa as a cultural identity will eventually cease to exist."

Fully reviving a language requires more than Herculean efforts by a few individuals, however. Some Coptic Christians in Egypt, who trace the language of their religious rituals to the pharaohs, have been trying to revive its use in the home for decades. Although they've helped to keep the language from dying, its use has not become widespread among Egypt's 6 million Copts. (Egypt was conquered by Muslim Arabs in the seventh century, and Arabic is the official language.) Kamal Farid Ishaq, who speaks Coptic at home and meets monthly with a small group of Coptic revivalists, says that for Coptic to flourish, the government needs to help. "When the Jews got their own country, they revived the Hebrew language because the government was interested," Ishaq says. "If the government feels the Egyptian language is the identity of Egypt, and teaches it in schools or universities, the language will spread." Others believe, however, that promoting the Coptic language will only further isolate Egypt's minority Christians.

Western governments have helped to silence hundreds of languages. European immigrants to Australia brought virulent plagues, and literally hunted the Aboriginals off their land in the 19th century. Aboriginal languages suffered further decline in the first half of the 20th century, with the attempt to "civilize" the Aborigines by giving them Western schooling, Western clothes and forced doses of Christianity and English. Likewise, the U.S. government obliterated Indian tribes, and forced Native American children into government schools that forbade the use of anything but English. "The white administrators felt they needed to destroy the unique identity of the Indians so they could take over their land without resistance," says Krauss of the Alaskan Native Language Center. "They also felt they were destroying languages inferior to their own and thereby doing native peoples a favor by 'uplifting' them."

Both the United States and Australia have reversed course in recent years. The 1990 Native American Language Act is supposed to promote the rights of Native Americans in the United States to develop their languages, and the government has since provided limited grant money. In Australia, the government now finances extensive programs both to preserve remnant languages and expand the teaching of those near extinction. Kaurna, a language that died out in 1927, is now taught in university and boasts 50 fluent speakers.

But for every success story, scores of languages are dying. A language like Eyak, most people believe, does not stand a chance. In addition to being the last native Eyak speaker, Marie Smith Jones is one of only two full-blooded Eyak Indians still alive. The Eyak culture was all but wiped out around the beginning of the 20th century, after white Americans built canneries and a railway head on Eyak land. (As it was, the Eyak were rapidly being assimilated by the larger Tlingit group even before the whites arrived.) Jones spent much of her adult life in an alcoholic haze, then quit drinking on Halloween in 1970. "I hated myself because I couldn't right the wrong that was being done to us," she says.

Jones has since come to terms with the demise of her people, and the fact that none of her children, born of white American fathers, want to learn Eyak. Still, she refuses to write off the language that is mostly confined to her head (but also extensively documented). "I have this strong feeling that Eyak may come back," she says. "You may laugh --'This old lady thinks her language will return' --but I get a lot of feelings, sir, that come true." No one is laughing. Still, Eyak is more likely to survive not as a living language, but as a cautionary tale for thousands of other languages slouching toward oblivion.