Michael Krauss ended up late for school the day he first heard a group of people speaking a strange language. He was a boy in Cleveland, Ohio, and he happened to walk by as the speakers dug a ditch.
“I pretended to be interested in the work itself, but it was the language that fascinated me so much,” he said in a 2011 interview.
That fascination eventually drew him into a lifelong quest to explore, document and preserve Alaska Native languages. He spent 40 years as a university faculty member before retiring in 2000, though he continued to pursue his passion as an emeritus.
“I was always attracted to languages spoken by the fewer rather than the more people and by the more powerless rather than more powerful,” he said.
Alaska Native languages fit that description well. Across his many decades at UAF, Krauss dug into those languages. In 1972, he convinced Alaska legislators to create the Alaska Native Language Center. He arranged and taught classes. He directed documentation efforts. He edited and published several dictionaries.
Krauss sees languages as reflections of our humanity. “In some ways you could say diversity in language is as essential to our humanity as biodiversity is essential to our survival,” he said in 2011.
But he offers no certain way to retain that diversity, other than by parents speaking constantly with their children in their unique languages. He doesn’t see that happening with most obscure languages, though. He expects that 95 percent will die in this century.
“I’m trying to be open-minded towards the future because I ain’t got no crystal ball,” he said in 2011. “All I do know is that this will be a fundamental and irreversible change in our existence.”
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