Monday, 28 January 2008

Marie Smith Jones la Guardian:

Marie Smith Jones was the world's last Eyak speaker - by the time she died last week, she could use her mother tongue only in her dreams. But the loss of a language is not just a personal tragedy, says Mark Abley, it is a cultural disaster

Some deaths come as a shock. The death last Monday of Marie Smith Jones did not. She was 89, blind, a heavy smoker and a recovering alcoholic, who had borne nine children and buried two of them. People had been expecting her death for years…

…For a minority language to flourish, its speakers need a sort of bullheaded confidence. Such stubborn self-belief emerges from a sense of cultural power and feeds back into it. The classic example is the astonishing rebirth of Hebrew a century ago in what would become Israel. In our own time the Basques and the Catalans, the Welsh and the Maoris display a similar faith.

These are the groups who should now act as poster children for minority languages: the Maori boys and girls in pre-school "language nests", the artists and producers who mutate the mass media in Welsh, the Catalan activists who have peacefully forced Spain to rethink its identity. The vigour in these cultures, and many others, belies the easy notion that all minority languages are doomed.

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