Michael Krauss and the Eyak language

September 4, 2008 at 4:45 pm | Posted in Alaska, Language | Leave a comment
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Michael E. Krauss (born 1934) is a linguist who has worked extensively on the Na-Dené language family, especially on proto-Athabaskan, pre-proto-Athabaskan, the Eyak language, which became extinct in January 2008, and also numerous other Athabaskan and Eskimo-Aleut languages.

With his 1991 address to the Linguistic Society of America, Krauss was among the first to create an awareness of the global problem of endangered languages. He has since worked to encourage the documentation and re-vitalization of endangered languages across the world.

Krauss, professor emeritus, joined the faculty of the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1960 and served as director of the Alaska Native Language Center from its inception in 1972 until his retirement in June 2000. He remains active in efforts to document Alaska’s Native languages and encouraged awareness of the global problem of endangered languages.

Krauss’ largest contribution to language documentation is his work on Eyak, conducted through much of the 1960s. Eyak was then already the most endangered of the Alaskan languages, and Krauss’ work is all the more notable considering that it represents what today might be considered salvage linguistics. While some Eyak data had been previously available, they were overlooked by previous scholars, including Edward Sapir. However, Eyak proved to be a crucial missing link for historical linguistics, being equally closely related to neighboring Ahtna and to distant Navajo. With good Eyak data it became possible to establish the existence of the Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit language family, though phonological evidence for links to Haida remained at the time elusive. Further, the system of vowel modifications present in Eyak inspired Krauss’ theory of Athabaskan tonogenesis, whereby tone develops from vowel constriction.

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