February 8th, 2008

Marie Smith

A number of the people on my flist posted about the death of Marie Smith near the day it happened. Yesterday, the Economist published her obituary, which I include here for its poignancy.

From http://www.economist.com/obituary/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10640514:

Marie Smith

Feb 7th 2008
From The Economist print edition

Marie Smith, the last speaker of the Eyak language, died on January 21st, aged 89

BEYOND the town of Cordova, on Prince William Sound in south-eastern Alaska, the Copper River delta branches out in silt and swamp into the gulf. Marie Smith, growing up there, knew there was a particular word in Eyak, her language, for the silky, gummy mud that squished between her toes. It was c'a. The driftwood she found on the shore, 'u'l, acquired a different name if it had a proper shape and was not a broken, tangled mass. If she got lost among the flat, winding creeks her panicky thoughts were not of north, south, east or west, but of “upriver”, “downstream”, and the tribes, Eskimo and Tlingit, who lived on either side. And if they asked her name it was not Marie but Udachkuqax*a'a'ch, “a sound that calls people from afar”.

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As a child she had longed to be a pilot, flying boat-planes between the islands of the Sound. An impossible dream, she was told, because she was a girl. As an old woman, she said she believed that Eyak might be resurrected in future. Just as impossible, scoffed the experts: in an age where perhaps half the planet's languages will disappear over the next century, killed by urban migration or the internet or the triumphal march of English, Eyak has no chance. For Mrs Smith, however, the death of Eyak meant the not-to-be-imagined disappearance of the world.