Linguist Michael E. Krauss, renowned in Alaska for his work with endangered languages, died Sunday, a few days before his 85th birthday.
"One of the things about dad that was really special was he was this really brilliant person with really encyclopedic knowledge of his profession. I mean he was a real whiz kid when he was growing up and you know, the things that I was exposed to from being around him were so, seemed so exotic,” said Isaac Krauss, his son. “He was studying these languages that in some cases only had a few speakers left.”
Krauss’ work notably included documenting conversations with the last surviving speakers of Eyak, an Alaska Native language, advocating for preserving endangered languages, building a map of Alaska Native languages and founding the Alaska Native Language Center in 1972.
The Alaska Native Language Archive, a component of the center housed in the Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is named for him and houses much of his work.
“His sort of skill repertoire, his tool kit with regards to the practical, applied as well to the theory of language, was vast,” said Jerry McBeath, emeritus professor at UAF. McBeath says Krauss was a colleague, but also a friend, and he praised his intellect as well as his compassion.
“He was a very generous person, an excellent friend and a person who had grown beyond his discipline,” he said, citing Krauss’ love of music and how he would play in quartets with his son and McBeath’s family. “He was really a person who commanded a great deal of interest and certainly a great deal of affection.”
Although he left his mark there, Krauss did not start at UAF. He built a life in Alaska following graduate school.
“Michael Krauss came to Alaska in 1960, and he took the job here. He came to work and teach French, but he wasn’t really interested in French,” said Gary Holton, the former director of the archive.
Instead, Krauss was interested in Alaska Native languages, according to Holton, who is now a professor of linguistics for the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. When Krauss arrived in Alaska, there were only six people left speaking Eyak.
“He at the time in 1961 pretty much decided to focus his career on documenting everything that could be known of those last six speakers of Eyak,” Holton said.
A career on the move
The career move followed a rapid movement through Krauss’ studies, according to his son Isaac. Krauss initially attended the University of Chicago, from which he graduated in 1953 at the age of 18.
Following his graduation from University of Chicago, Krauss attended Western Reserve University to study Romance languages between 1953-54. By 1955 he had received his masters degree from Columbia University, then traveled to Paris for study, where he took an interest in Celtic languages. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard for his work with Gaelic, before going to Iceland, where his interest in Alaska Native languages sparked.
As a man who is remembered for being extremely dedicated to his work, Isaac says his father was still a "great family man," in spite of his often working late hours.
“He would get home and the first thing he would do is give mom a great big hug,” Isaac said.
His brother, Marcus Feder, remembers the same hugs and mentions them, as well as his father’s humor.
“He had a tremendous sense of humor and he would, for example, he would find a funny passage in the newspaper and we’d be eating dinner and he’d read it to us. Then halfway through the article he would suddenly start ad libbing,” Marcus said, adding that once the family caught on, he would laugh.
Their family was a large one: seven children altogether. Krauss married Jane Lowell Krauss when she already had two children. They had three children together, including Isaac, and the couple had two foster children as well. Following Jane’s death in 2003, Krauss remarried to Molly Lee in 2007.
Growing up with his dad, Isaac noted, he would ask questions about a word he had never heard and his answer would never be direct, but would come as the Latin root of the word.
“That was a trademark of his, to kind of teach by asking questions rather than to teach by giving out answers, so he was very much a teacher in addition to being a father,” Isaac said.
Marcus has a lot of memories of linguists who would visit his dad at their home.
“He worked with other linguists, mostly, and there would be linguists that would fly in from around the world,” he said, citing people coming to the house from Norway, Japan and from the Bush around Alaska.
He also has memories of sitting on the couch at night, listening to his dad play piano. Krauss and Isaac shared a love of music, which lasted his lifetime.
“He used to play the piano and he also had very interesting kinds of tastes in music,” Isaac said. “He either went for music that was really, really old classical music like Bach, but at the same time he loved super modern music — modern contemporary music.”
Krauss moved closer to Isaac in Needham, Massachusetts, during the last years of his life.
“When he eventually moved to Needham in these last few years he spent a lot of time at my house, visiting with my friends and we would play music for him,” he said, adding his dad would spend time there listening and each selection they played he would always “find remarkable and be thrilled with it.”
Marcus was able to speak to Krauss in Massachusetts last week, shortly before his passing.
“Just a day or two before he died I called him and said, ‘Thank you for being my dad,’ and he didn’t skip a beat and said, ‘Thank you for being my son,’ which was very touching,” Marcus said. “That’s the kind of heart that he had.”
Lisa Favero, Krauss’ foster daughter, says he brought his passion for his work into all their lives, that he "had purpose in advance of the rest of the people seeking it." She added she’s grateful for the exposure to him and his work.
“I think it has given me in my own life greater capacity for delivering whatever is needed in a specific situation where there is inequity or where there is some kind of conflict around identity or cultures,” she said. “I think he taught us and modeled how to navigate that in a very healthy way. He was not someone who was objectifying the people he worked with: he was in the trenches.”
He never stopped being in the trenches. Although Eyak lost its last surviving speaker when Marie Smith Jones died in 2008, Krauss continued his work in preserving the language.
“As he got older, I'd say you know his physical energy decreased, but his zeal for what he was doing kind of remained the same,” Isaac said.
Holton, the previous archive director, gave an example of some of Krauss’ zeal from the last week of his life. Last week the Eyak Culture Camp, a camp dedicated to preserving and revitalizing Eyak, took place.
“Unfortunately Dr. Krauss was hospitalized just about the time that camp started, but while we were all in Cordova, several Eyak descendants, and Guillaume, and my student and I were all on the phone with Dr. Krauss every day,” Holton said.
Guillaume is linguist Guillaume Leduey and the student Holton mentions is Kevin Baetcher, both of whom have been working with Holton and Krauss on a National Science Foundation project revolving around the Eyak language up until and following his death this Sunday.
There could easily be a year or two more left to work on the Completion of Eyak Grammar Lexicon and Texts, according to Holton, who described the process. The group is working together to develop a lexicon, or dictionary, of Eyak words.
“One way that people put it is that an English sentence could be a whole word in Eyak,” Holton explained. He noted this portion of the project is probably the most difficult.
The second portion of the project is technical grammar, displaying how the language is put together. The third part is called texts, which Holton says people might refer to as stories.
The texts, he said, are important because it’s difficult to really understand a language until you hear how people speak it.
“So, in a way those texts kind of work as a verbal art,” he said.
The group is working from recordings Krauss took in the field. Krauss published some transcriptions along these lines in a book called “In Honor of Eyak: The Art of Anna Nelson Harry” back in 1975.
He did not live to see completion of the National Science Foundation project, but Holton said the people who worked with Krauss are especially motivated, in light of his death.
“We want to see this come out in his honor,” Holton said.
Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7510. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/FDNMlocal.