The Extinction of a Language

I see that an Alaskan lady named Marie Smith Jones has passed away. As the last speaker of the Eyak language, an entire way of thinking dies with her. (h/t Mark G)

A couple of competing quotes come to mind. From GK Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill:

“The Señor will forgive me,” said the President. “May I ask the Señor how, under ordinary circumstances, he catches a wild horse?”

“I never catch a wild horse,” replied Barker, with dignity.

“Precisely,” said the other; “and there ends your absorption of the talents….
In Nicaragua we had a way of catching wild horses–by lassooing the fore feet–which was supposed to be the best in South America. If you are going to include all the talents, go and do it. If not, permit me to say what I have always said, that something went from the world when Nicaragua was civilised.”

Versus this one, from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia:

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

I doubt very much that my inital thought, that the Eyaks of Alaska are some kind of Eskimo (or Esquimaux, as Chesterton has it), is correct. Nevertheless, their Northerly homeland does remind me of the story about how Eskimo’s have forty words for snow (or is it fifty? Or a hundred?) What special, specific thoughts and words have we lost now that Mrs Smith Jones has passed away? Matthew Parris, writing in the Spectator last week, says “I know exactly what I mean. I just can’t think of the word for it” referring to those Meaning of Liff or Meaning of Tingo type words that should exist, but do not. How many words, phrases and thoughts could the Eyak have taught him?

4 thoughts on “The Extinction of a Language”

  1. “Eskimo’s have fourty words for snow (or is it fifty? Or a hundred?)”

    I’m afraid that this is a myth. The various eskimo languages have no more words for snow than English – rather they use single words where we use multiples: snowflake, snow blizzard etc.

    I get your point tho’

    A x

  2. Yes, I instinctively thought it must be a kind of eskimo (or innuit) too!

    As for the snow thing, I think it’s 200 words, (according to Whorf), but I also gather that is a myth, that the exact number is unknowable. Dunno where he got the 200 from.

  3. I love the Arcadia quote. I remember being struck by it when I saw the play. So we don’t need to worry too much about Mrs Smith Jones. She was 89 and had compiled a dicionary of her language. Intuitively one imagines that a people who experience a lot of snow and different types of snow would have evolved more words for it than we who rarely experience snow but 200 seems a bit excessive!

  4. Sorry to be pedantic but I repeat – it is a myth that the various eskimo peoples have any more ways of defining snow than we do.

    See in the pup in a moment Rob.

    A x

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