An Investigation of Language Death: The Alaskan Eyak and Yupik Native Languages

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Magen, Hannah
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Language and culture are like two sides of a coin. They both influence and are equally dependent upon one another. Whether it be Sign Language, French, English or Chinese, language is essential to our existence as culturally bound beings. Throughout history the languages of our earth have undergone many changes and shifts. While some languages have branched together forming pidgins and creoles, others have been divided into many different dialects. There are other languages that have died out entirely and are completely lost to modern humanity. While language death is a process that has affected human culture and the people of our earth for centuries, it is something that continues today. The Eyak and Yupik Native languages of Alaska are two language communities which continue to be affected by this process. As a member of the Alaskan community and fascinated by language, this is an event that hits close to the home and heart. For my Senior Individualized Project I chose to investigate the processes behind which languages undergo change and sometimes die out. While language death can be seen as creative and beneficial it also highlights social inequities around the globe and is a process that some scholars have come to label as cultural genocide. Each side of the debate on theories surrounding language death, endangerment, shift and/or change offers interesting and powerful arguments. Yet there is a missing link that runs throughout. While the arguments on either side do not directly oppose one another, and in many cases offer similar analyses of how and why languages change, shift and become endangered or threatened, sometimes dying out entirely, each perspective is lacking in a truly productive and comprehensive way to understand and approach this occurrence. We can implement as many maintenance and revitalization programs as possible, fight to protect and promote dying languages and remain blind to the fact that these programs are potentially more injurious than supportive to the people whose language they aim to save. While language death and change is certainly a naturally occurring process within the patterns of culture and society, this notion too has the potential to diminish not only the importance a particular language plays within the culture of a people, but also the unique meanings that it provides in the everyday lives of its speakers.
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Kalamazoo, Mich. : Kalamazoo College
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