Thursday, November 17, 2011

Each Culture is Like a Volume in the Encyclopedia of Human Knowledge

The alternative title is:  What Do Wampanoag and Eyak Have In Common?

Alaskans passed an English Only initiative in 1998 which, in part, said:
"The English language is the language to be used by all public agencies in all government functions and actions."
That particular language was struck down by the Alaska Supreme Court in 2007.

I have to work hard to bite my tongue and not make snarky comments about people who come up with ideas like this and voters who don't speak other languages and simply have no understanding of the value of other languages and other cultures to humankind.

Each culture, in my mind, is like a volume in the Encyclopedia of Human Knowledge.  Each language, and the culture to which it gives life, represents one way that a set of humans found to survive in their part of the earth. 

It contains a view of the world and an understanding of aspects of the world that allowed them to live in their particular niche. It has knowledge that no other language or culture has captured.  And we never know when that knowledge may be of value to the rest of us.  Most of us have no idea of the rich diversity of knowledge that has been collected over millennia and preserved in the blend of each culture and language.

To lose a language is to lose a volume of that encyclopedia. 

There were two movies shown at Out North on Tuesday night.  We Still Live Here told the story of the Wampanoag people, 2/3 of whom were wiped out by yellow fever after early contact with Europeans arriving in their land in Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.  The movie follows Jessie Little Doe who still has remnants of the Wampanoag language in her head, even though the last fluent speaker had died 100 years before.

She ends up on a Fellowship at MIT working to resurrect Wompanoag.  Not only does the language regain life, so do the remnants of the Wompanoag people who rediscover their heritage.

I know those who favor things like English Only are thinking, "It was better off dead.  If these people call themselves Americans, then they should speak English."  Well, first, they do speak English.  Second, the movie traces how the Wompanoag language and culture was essentially destroyed through policies such as taking away their children and raising them in white families.  And third, as I said above, each language contains a unique knowledge of the world.

The last native speaker of Eyak, Chief Marie Smith Jones, died in 2007 at age 90.  But University of Alaska Fairbanks Professor Michael Krauss, has been studying Eyak for almost 50 years and has a rich collection of tapes and documentation of the language.  And a young Frenchman, Guillaume Leduey, discovered Eyak as a child and began studying it from tapes and other materials.  He arrived in Cordova, the area where Eyak are from, in the summer of  and continues to work with Eyak people via the internet and Skype.

Thus the second - short - movie is called Parlez Vous Eyak?

The film maker was at the Out North Tuesday as were six or seven Eyaks who are part of the Eyak Language Project who, like the Wompanoag, are working to resurrect their language.

In the photo, you see UAA Linguistic Anthropologist Roy Mitchell, film maker Laura Bliss Spaan, and four Anchorage Eyaks.  I apologize that didn't write down their names.  It was a powerful discussion after the movie as they discussed the delights and difficulties of learning Eyak.  They also talked a bit about We Still Live Here  and the similarities and differences between the two experiences of reviving their languages. 

You can watch Parlez Vous Eyak below.

I know that English Only folks are passionate in what they believe.  But it was people like them who have destroyed languages all over the world.  These people work to make it harder for non-English (and you can substitute  other dominant culture languages around the world) languages to survive.  It's no different from people who kill off endangered species because some part of them is thought be a powerful aphrodisiac.  It represents self-centeredness and ignorance.  But despite their efforts, people recover lost languages.  It's not impossible.  The most successful example I know of is the revival of Hebrew to become a robust modern language. 

Alaskans can see:

We Still Live Here 
Thursday (tonight) on 
PBS (Channel 7 in Anchorage) 
at 9 pm

It's part of the show Independent Lens.


  1. Well, as one of the ca. 15 million Hungarian speakers in the World I don't feel as an "endangered species". In Hungary, it is a big trouble that many Hungarians deny to learn foreign languages.

    I don't know what my future is like but I won't forget my mother tongue and no matter where I will live, I will use it as much as possible.

  2. I hope it is not a problem for you if I mentioned your blog in my recent post.

  3. Ropi, how could I have a problem with you linking here? At least you didn't point out some glaring error of mine.

    As I read your post on your budget paper - particularly on Bulgaria and Uruguay (you didn't say much about Uruguay) - I see your growing sophistication in economics will quickly leave me way behind. And soon I will be able to say, "I knew Ropi before he was rich and famous." :)

  4. By the way, Ropi, 15 million Hungarians is a lot! According to Wikipedia:

    "A little over 2,000 Wampanoag survive (many of whose ancestry includes other tribes), and many live on the reservation (Watuppa Wampanoag Reservation) on Martha's Vineyard . . . and a 2000 census resident population of 91 persons."

    And none are Native speakers.

    As for the Eyak, Wikipedia says:

    "In 1900 total population was estimated at 60. As more settlers arrived this last village became the town of Cordova. As of 1996 there were 120 living, partial Eyak descendents.[2] The last full blood Eyak, Marie Smith Jones, died on January 21, 2008."

  5. Well, I said more about Bulgaria, because I have little data on Uruguay but I will carry on gaining knowledge and information in this topic and I am going to write about a similar topic to get my Ba diploma.


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