We walked up a slope that ran parallel to the river towards the town of Lévis on the southern bank of the St. Lawrence. Passing by a large house, B. wispered in my ear that that building was the convent where his Tante Jacqueline lived. He was whispering on the off-chance that his aunt might overhear him. The last time he had seen her she yelled at him because he hadn’t yet brought me to visit. I could have yelled at him, too, because I had felt very lonely living in Quebec and a visit to his aunt might have been good for me. She was not the only family member of his to extend a welcome to me, offers he usually pushed away. However, I didn’t say anything at the time because it was a lovely late spring or early summer evening and we were actually heading to a social gathering. I was so happy to be out of the house, doing something normal, I didn’t want to ruin it by complaining. So I kept my complaints to myself and made a mental note that Tante Jacqueline had specifically requested to meet me, so perhaps that was something we could do in the future.
When we arrived at a the modest apartment, everyone else was already there. Most of the people I had met only once or twice before, but everyone seemed to remember me and was friendly. One of B.’s friends, whose name I can’t remember, had returned from the Northwest Territories where he had been working with the Qwich’in. All the people at the gathering were linguists, or their significant others. One woman said that she would love to go to the wilderness for a time. Me, being from New York, thought, “What do you mean ‘would like to go?’ Isn’t this the wilderness?” Of course, I didn’t say that. She said that she imagined that the air would be so free of pollution, so clear. “I would just like to smell that.” The traveller from the Northwest Territories laughed. “Well, you haven’t smelled anything until you’ve smelled forty caribou carcasses drying in the sun. So much for the fresh air.” The last time he had been out to the Northwest Territories the Qwich’in, among who he had been living, had had a big hunt. They butchered and dried the meat. He took out a plastic bag full of what looked like beef jerky. “They made me take this home with me.” He passed the bag around and we all tried some. He warned us to try only a small bite first because it was strong tasting. Most everyone made bad faces except for two of us. Someone declared that it tasted like blood. Perhaps. It was strong, and gamey, but not too bad.
The Gwich’in, I learned that night, were a small tribe living in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. The linguist had gone there as part of a project to revive the language that had, perhaps, a thousand speakers left. The last several decades have been, quite literally, murder on many smaller languages. Human languages have been dying out at an unprecedented rate. I first read about endangered languages in Scientific American about a year or two before I met B. The future of smaller languages was something that concerned the French Canadian linguists.
He told us that during the winter his work was easy because all anyone wanted to do was sit around and talk, which is a good situation for a linguist. In the summertime, however, it was useless because everyone wanted to take advantage of the good weather and the long days. “For three months you can’t get anyone to sit still.”
Eventually, one of the women brought out a guitar. They began to sing French Canadian folk songs. After a few songs, she said to me, “Oh, I feel bad. You’re being left out. You don’t know the words, do you. Hey! Let’s all sing some American songs.” The then proceeded to launch into a series of American songs by singer/songwriters who had been popular in the seventies, like John Denver. I didn’t know the words to those songs either.
UNESCO Atlas of World Languages in Danger. According to this atlas, the last speaker of Unami died in 2002.