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Frenchman helps keep Alaska Native Eyak language alive

Diane JeantetThe Cordova Times
Diane Jeantet photo

CORDOVA, Alaska -- With the gift, sometimes also comes the burden.

Guillaume Leduey remembers the first time the media caught up with him. He also remembers the email from someone asking why everyone was suddenly taking interest in him. “The thing is,” he answered, “I never wanted to be in the spotlight.”

When Leduey first took interest in the dying language of Eyak in his parents’ house in Le Havre, France, he never could have suspected what was ahead.

Only 13 years old at the time, Leduey was eager to learn another language and had thought about Lithuanian after hearing it at Eurovision, a European annual song contest. “It sounded so...beautiful!” he recalled, laughing at his younger self.

Then his dad offered him an encyclopedia that contained all of the world’s languages. He read about the Aida language, spoken in Southeast Alaska. Intrigued, he did more research and stumbled upon a map of the state of Alaska, which eventually led him to reading about the sad tale of the Eyak people and their endangered language.

One of two speakers

“Interesting,” he thought. But already conscious of the obstacles ahead, at the time only a handful of native speakers were still alive, the teenager left this discovery at the back of his adventurous mind.

About 10 years later, Leduey is one of only two people on the planet who can speak the Eyak language fluently. He can’t explain it -- even to himself -- but his desire to learn Eyak has never ceased and this path of discovery brought him to Laura Bliss-Spaan, a former journalist who archived material on the language and produced a documentary on the last full blooded Eyak and fluent speaker, Marie Smith Jones, whose Eyak name, Udach' Kuqax*a'a'ch, translates into “a sound that calls people from afar.”

When Bliss-Spaan provided her archival work to a teenage French boy, she too could never have possibly suspected what would emerge. A slow communication process started between the two. Once in a while, Leduey and Bliss-Spaan would email each other but it was not until the death of Marie Smith Jones, in 2008, that Bliss-Spaan, who had taken to heart the fate of the Eyaks for over 20 years, decided to meet this Frenchman.

For Leduey, until then his passion for Eyak had mainly been between him and...himself. He had not even told his closest friends of his discovery, and with no one to share Eyak with, he was isolated in an odd and unknown bubble. During these years, he learned four other languages and skimmed through many more; Eyak was a subdivision of his broader passion for languages.

Odd pairing

Leduey first met the old-fashioned linguist, Professor Michael Krauss from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), as he was leaving his teen years and entering into adulthood at the age of 20. At the beginning, the French adventurer who grew up surrounded mostly by women, wasn’t quite sure how the two would get along.

“He can come across as being very...straightforward,” Leduey finally said about his 78 year-old mentor, groping for words. After a brief hesitation he began working with Krauss on the digitalization of his English-to-Eyak dictionary, dating back to the professor’s early work in the 1960s and 1970s. And, at the mere age of 23, the Frenchman, who still lives with his parents in Le Havre, finds himself working for Krauss in an official capacity for the linguistic department of UAF. Leduey says he is grateful to be working with Krauss, who he described as “one of the greatest living linguists in the world.”

Asked about plans to go back to a university, Leduey responds, “I’d much rather focus on projects and see what happens next.” He even mentions a book, for which he has no time.

But his current work for Krauss -- in a position usually intended for postgraduates -- perfectly fits his working habits. A solitary worker, he was always reluctant when it came to team work and did not enjoy his one-year experience at a French university.

With more than 4,300 miles and 50 years apart, Leduey and Krauss make quite an unusual duo, but a complementary one. Krauss is particularly focused on perfecting his dictionary and making it available to universities, libraries and experts. However, Leduey’s work provides more than a dream to those who want to see the language of Eyak brought back from ashes, to make it more appealing and accessbile to a wider audience.

More than a language

“We’d like to create a dictionary that is more interactive, with audio files, videos... And that would be accessible online,” Leduey explained. “It will be very modern.”

Indeed, no one could ever expect such a blessing. Not even the descendents of the Eyak tribe, who for long had to witness passively the slow disappearing of their culture and tradition. With so few artifacts left, the Eyak language is far more than just a language; it is wholly part of the culture. By digitalizing and giving life to an academic dictionary, Leduey is also reviving their hopes and memories.

Still, the shy French Eyak speaker doesn’t know what to say to people who call him the “prophet.” It's a heavy weight on the shoulders of a young man who 10 years ago, unintentionally unearthed this multifaceted treasure.

Since his first visit to Cordova three years ago, Leduey has tried to keep a balance between Eyak, which he is undoubtedly passionate about, and people’s expectations.

“I was offered the opportunity to go to Los Angeles and take some linguistics classes,” said Leduey, who has very little knowledge of phonology, for instance, which would be necessary if Krauss wanted to pass the torch to this uniquely talented student. “I think they might have been disappointed that I chose not to go.”

However, Leduey points out that his interests have evolved throughout the years. “At the beginning I was more into the various projects to rehabilitate the culture than the linguistics. Now it’s really become equal.”

You can reach Diane Jeantet with comments and suggestions at djeantet@thecordovatimes.com