Endangered Speakers

Catching disappearing languages

Yiddish letter, c. 1951. Courtesy of Ian Epstein.

Around the corner from my apartment is a crummy bodega, once a bar called The Wigwam, where Mohawk ironworkers drank Montreal ale. Down the block is a Syriac church, where a kind of Aramaic was once sung in the choir and whispered in the pews. At the corner of Court and Atlantic, now straddled by Trader Joe’s, stood the Philo-Celtic Society, where Irish Gaelic speakers sat reading An Gaodhal, the world’s first Gaelic magazine, published in Brooklyn.

It’s three miles to South Williamsburg, one of the last Yiddish-speaking neighborhoods in the world, where a whole new dialect, some say a separate language, is coming into being. Farther out in East Bushwick, James Lovell is teaching Garifuna, an Afro-Indigenous language of the Caribbean. The Garifuna are descendants of African slaves who escaped a shipwreck off the island of St. Vincent in 1635 and intermarried with the Arawak and Carib natives. On a free island in a sea of slavery, the Garifuna mixed West African words and indigenous Caribbean grammar with loanwords from Spanish and English, evolving a hybrid language that mirrored their exile. Deported by the British to the coast of Belize and Honduras, they became sailors and merchant marines, and many set sail for New York.

In any direction, out to the city limits and into the first diversifying ring of suburbs, there are languages large and small, famous and unknown, arrivals from every corner of the globe. The way Mexico sounded before Cortés, now in El Barrio; the languages of West Africa, arrayed along 116th Street; the Circassian diaspora, in several of its dialects, in the homes of Wayne, New Jersey; the languages of Luzon and Java alive on the Asian streets of Elmhurst, Queens. All the big ones are here — if a language has a million speakers anywhere in the world, most likely one of those speakers lives in New York — but so are many of the world’s endangered and vanishing languages.

At the Endangered Language Alliance, we document these disappearing languages, the words of immigrants, refugees, and exiles, but also of students, businessmen, shamans, activists, and retirees. So far we’ve made recordings in thirty or so of the world’s smallest and most endangered languages: Shughni from the arid valleys of southeastern Tajikistan, Kabardian from the northern Caucasus, Amuzgo from the Mexican states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. We might record just a song or a story before a domestic worker has to hurry back to her sixteen-hour day. We might work slowly with a community over months and years, deep into the lexicon and through all the elements of grammar. Some of the languages we document, like Purhepecha from Mexico, are “isolates,” the last remaining representatives of a whole language family. Others have sounds or structures found nowhere else in human speech. It might be the way clauses are chained together, the play of stress and accent, the liberation of word order, the almost endless complexity of verb endings. The “personality” of a language is the hardest thing to study. Whatever it sounds like, every language is a sophisticated, irreplaceable record of both a world and a worldview; all have features, as the linguist Carol Genetti writes, “that give a language its beauty, its unique personality, and its genius.”

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