Take Dialect Lessons From Guillaume Leduey; Blurting Out 'Keeltaak'
AlaskaMona 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
said that it's beautiful," Guillaume Leduey explained without
hesitation. "It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you God."
is an indigenous Alaskan language that has an unlikely ally- a 21
year old Frenchman named Guillaume Leduey. WSJ's Jim Carlton reports.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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's. 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.
Leduey's Eyak odyssey began at age 12, when he happened on the language
while trolling through an online dictionary of languages in his
hometown of Le Havre. By searching more online, he discovered Eyak
appeared to have only one native speaker, Ms. Jones.
was like, 'Wow, one speaker left. I must do something to learn the
language'," Mr. Leduey says. His parents were less than thrilled.
"They don't think it's useful," he says.
little online material on Eyak, Mr. Leduey obtained one of Mr. Krauss's
texts on the subject, and turned to Laura Bliss Spaan, a filmmaker
in Anchorage, Alaska, who directed a documentary about Ms. Jones.
Ms. Spaan sent Mr. Leduey the film and some more of Mr. Krauss's
April 2009, Mr. Leduey showed off his Eyak skills to Ms. Spaan while
she was visiting France. "We were outside one of the most beautiful
cathedrals in Paris and Guillaume showed me some graffiti of an
octopus," she says. "He instantly told me three different
ways to say 'octopus,'" which is "tsaaleexoquh" in
this year, Ms. Spaan suggested Mr. Leduey visit Mr. Krauss in Fairbanks,
Alaska, where he teaches. After Mr. Leduey's June arrival, Mr. Krauss
cloistered him in a room for up to five hours a day to pore over
Eyak documents. To break the monotony, Mr. Leduey sang songs in
Eyak to Scamper, the professor's Norwich Terrier.
Leduey also traveled to Cordova, where the Eyaks made their last
stand against being swallowed up by civilization. Cordova boasts
Eyak Corp., a legal entity for native groups in Alaska, with about
400 members. Membership is dominated by rival Tlingits, who helped
take over the Eyak territory, along with white settlers, says Dune
Lankard, one of about 50 in the corporation with Eyak blood. Bits
of the language remain alive even though its fluent, native speakers
are people talking like they're Eyaks but they're not Eyaks,"
says Mr. Lankard, a commercial fisherman.
Cordova last month, some part-Eyaks showed Mr. Leduey a demolished
village site and took him to a natural attraction called Child's
Glacier, where a harbor seal leapt out of the icy water. "Keeltaak,"
Mr. Leduey blurted out, using the Eyak word for the animal.
stopping to inspect a roadside sign about Eyaks, Mr. Leduey caught
a barely perceptible error. The sign uses the Eyak word "saqehl"
for people who go by boat; Mr. Leduey said it should be "saqehl,"
with a bar through the "l."
10 to 15 people have shown interest in Eyak lessons, he says. Mr.
Leduey recently huddled at a kitchen table with Mr. Lankard, 50,
and Ms. Curry, 53, for a lesson. "Adate'ya," Mr. Leduey
said for "silver salmon." Mr. Lankard struggled with the
guttural sound. "I can't even say that," he says.
the early stigma about their language, "it feels right to learn
now," Ms. Curry says. "This will help keep my mom's memory
and spirit alive."