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A Growing Silence

by Jason Matthew Smith, editor

On January 21, 2008, another language was officially deemed extinct.

That Monday, Marie Smith Jones, the last fluent speaker of Alaska’s Eyak language (and the last full-blooded Eyak), died in her sleep at age 89. And with her passing, one more of the world’s languages disappeared.

After Jones’ sister died in 1992, a reporter for The New Yorker magazine asked her what it was like to be the only remaining speaker of her native tongue. “How would you feel if your baby died?” she replied. “If someone asked you, ‘What was it like to see it lying in the cradle?’ ” It’s a stark and startling metaphor for the loss of a language, but Jones pretty much nailed it.

A language is more than the sum of its parts—more than syntax, phonemes, morphemes, definitions, and linguistic taboos. With the extinction of a language, we lose another way of looking at the world, an entire storehouse of knowledge, wisdom, stories. Gone. And a population’s identity is inextricably tied to the language it uses.

It is estimated that one language becomes extinct every two weeks—which would mean that they’re slipping away at twice the rate of endangered mammals. In a worst-case scenario, by century’s end there may be only a dozen languages still in regular use.

But some universities are working double-time to stem the loss. And the University of Utah leads the way.

Our cover story by Vanessa Chang spotlights the U’s Center for American Indian Languages (CAIL). Although only about three years old, CAIL has already established itself as one of the premier institutions of its kind, spearheading the effort to document and preserve rapidly disappearing languages. A vibrant language acquires new speakers—that is, children brought up in households regularly utilizing the language—and although that kind of “preservation” is outside the realm of possibility for groups such as CAIL, the scholars and academics working in the program are devoted to recording and capturing as many of these dwindling tongues as they can before the inevitable. And it is inevitable that many of the most endangered languages will eventually die out.

As for other stories in this issue, the stunning photographs of medical student and professional shutterbug Joel Addams are featured. Addams has traveled around the globe snapping photos, and here he graciously shares his images of the University’s Global Health Alliance at work in Peru. It’s just one example of how the University’s reach extends far beyond Utah and the American West. Many of those in Health Sciences (and, indeed, in other disciplines as well) devote ample time and effort assisting communities in need, and Addams’ photographs are a fitting compliment to those who put their own lives on hold to assist others in distant lands.

As many college students hit the road for spring break, newspapers and television programs invariably will feature a story or two about college kids gone wild—packing the sands of Daytona Beach, or clogging the streets of Saint George, Utah (yes, even the Beehive State boasts a spring break getaway). Much of the coverage will be in good fun—if unflattering. But as Taunya Dressler shows us that spring break doesn’t always amount to carpe diem run amok. A growing number of students are opting to participate in programs like the Bennion Center’s Alternative Spring Break. These altruistic students are making the most of their time off from books and exams, choosing to engage in the decidedly unglamorous—but vastly more rewarding—task of cleaning polluted rivers, assisting the elderly and needy, or building houses for the homeless.

In this issue you’ll also find John Youngren’s examination of how the University mends its injured athletes, a spotlight on U tree guru Ann Williams, and a discussion of the Intermountain West’s water worries with writer/Communication faculty member Craig Denton. A Q&A with Beverly Fenton, the new director of the American Indian Resource Center, closes out the issue. Finally, be sure to check out the new section featuring letters from readers. I hope you’ll feel inspired by something you’ve seen in these pages to send us a letter of your own.

We’d love to hear from you.

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