Tongues Untied

Language City: The Fight to Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York BY Ross Perlin. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. 432 pages. $28.

The cover of Language City: The Fight to Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York

THE LINGUIST ROSS PERLIN is an encyclopedist of New York City’s microworlds. In 2016, when he took me and ten others on a tour of Ridgewood, Queens, he alerted us to the presence of a dozen languages spoken in a two-square-mile radius, including Syriac, Yiddish, Malayalam, Haitian Creole, and Kichwa. He led us into an ancient, black-and-white-tiled, espresso-scented Sicilian social club, where a retired nonagenarian factory worker proudly discussed his dialect, Partanna. Later, we drank beer and ate bratwurst at the Gottscheer Hall, a tavern and cultural center for the Gottscheers, a tiny community of Germanic people who fled their native Slovenia following the World Wars. Their language, Gottscheerish, is a thirteenth-century dialect of German that now survives largely in New York. 

Such diversity is easy to take for granted in New York, ambient wallpaper for a city powered by finance, but as Perlin writes in his comprehensive and brilliant new book Language City: The Fight to Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York (Atlantic Monthly Press, $28), the situation is more complex than meets the eye—or ear. Half of the world’s seven thousand languages “are likely to disappear over the next few centuries,” which makes New York, with its teeming biome of seven hundred languages, “a last improbable refuge for embattled and endangered languages.” But New York—and the United States—exerts its own relentless pressure on immigrants to assimilate into dominant mother tongues like English and Spanish, and we may have already reached “peak linguistic diversity.” Perlin’s heroic task in the book is to provide a linguistic snapshot of this moment of language explosion and implosion. He does this by profiling six speakers of six endangered languages in New York, languages that many readers will never have heard of, such as Seke, a Tibeto-Burman tongue used in five villages in Nepal and now transplanted into a single apartment building in Brooklyn; Wakhi, “an endangered Pamiri language spoken by around forty thousand people in the remote high-mountain region where Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China converge”; and N’Ko, a script for the Manding language group in West Africa that may have been partly revealed in a dream to a “young teacher of the Quran who was also starting to trade in kola nuts” in Bingerville, Ivory Coast. Though Language City is often Borgesian in its profusion of delicious, esoteric detail, it is ultimately a closely observed, empathetic account of the struggles of immigrants in the city and their tenuous and fraying ties to their homelands. It is destined to be a classic of immigrant literature.

I recently talked with Perlin on the phone about his new book and the challenges of capturing the city’s dizzying and often opaque linguistic diversity.

KARAN MAHAJAN: You write in the book that “there are no linguistic histories or portraits of any city.” Why is that the case?

ROSS PERLIN: Even just the linguistic life of a single person, especially a single multilingual person who may speak six or seven languages, as is common for many New Yorkers, would be almost impossible to trace without intense surveillance. There’s a fluidity to real oral language, in all its multimodality with gesture and facial expressions, that is beyond the reach of any documentation, even with all the new recording technologies.

Nor have most linguists, especially those who care about Indigenous, endangered, and minority languages, taken much of an interest in cities. Authenticity is seen as being elsewhere. 

I’m a linguist who loves cities, who has always lived in cities. I wanted to turn an anthropological and linguistic lens onto my hometown, to look within, to see the world in a single city. I’m interested in the goal of bringing all languages to what philosopher Philippe Van Parijs calls a “parity of esteem,” of fostering a world culture where every language is part of a common human inheritance but also an articulation of specific history, way of being, a lifeway. 

You met the speakers you profile through your work as codirector of the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA). Can you describe the work you do? 

The Endangered Language Alliance is this small, strange organization/clubhouse which was founded in New York in 2010. It’s the only organization of its kind focused on linguistic diversity in cities, growing out of the fact that contemporary New York is the most linguistically diverse city in the history of the world. I became codirector in 2013, and a few years later, among other projects, we started mapping the city’s languages—the first linguistic census of any city, spotlighting hundreds of languages that the Census Bureau doesn’t record. With proceeds from a print map people donated for, we created languagemap.nyc.

More broadly, much of what we do is documentation: recording narratives or conversations, creating dictionaries and grammatical descriptions. In an unremarkable building on West 18th Street in Manhattan, languages that would never come into contact with each other anywhere else converge at least for a moment. It’s like the Aleph described by Borges, but in the middle of New York City. 

What’s hard for speakers of dominant languages to imagine is how the entire record of a language can come down to a few people, a few recordings, a single book. It’s humbling, and it makes us realize how partial and puny the records of humanity are. We have to be living in and hearing those languages while we can, because any record is going to be so small. 

Lucas van Falckenburg, La Tour de Babel (The Tower of Babel), 1594, oil on panel, 16 1/8" × 22 1/4". Wikicommons/Louvre Museum.
Lucas van Falckenburg, La Tour de Babel (The Tower of Babel), 1594, oil on panel, 16 1/8" × 22 1/4". Wikicommons/Louvre Museum.

What were the challenges of rendering the complexity of dozens of endangered languages in the flat world of English—a language that you describe as “the real empire of our time”?

English is the matrix, but I have tried to bring as many other languages into it as possible. For one thing, that meant plenty of challenges around typography, character rendering, translation, transliteration, standardization. The audiobook includes recordings with some of the six speakers. So it’s a medley of voices, and these practical challenges reveal how much most books are really in one language. A multilingual book is a major challenge. 

A book about the languages of New York is naturally a book about diaspora; all six speakers profiled are immigrants, and you even travel with a few of them back to their home countries. On a macro level, is the preservation of these languages in diaspora affecting the status of these languages back home? For example, are Nahuatl activists in New York engaged with Nahuatl activism in Mexico?

The first question is whether there’s any access to the home region. The groups that have lost that are the most diasporized. For them, the future of the language rests on a place like New York. They know they have to preserve it in diaspora, whether it’s Yiddish or Gottscheerish or Garifuna. In an opposite sense, the story of Lenape raises this question of homeland as well. New York City and surrounding areas are the traditional ones, but one of the new homelands, after centuries of displacement, is Ontario, where the last speakers and revivalists are. Can we somehow embrace diasporic identity and find sovereignty within diaspora, or does the diasporic condition prompt even more longing for the homeland and even a kind of diaspora fanaticism? 

The situation is quite different when the group still has a clear homeland. Nahuatl speakers like Irwin [one of the profiled speakers] can look to the Aztec empire or even periods of Spanish rule, as a time when Nahuatl was the baseline language of Mexico. The very name “Mexico” is a Nahuatl word. On the other hand, Spanish has conquered and displaced, and all the resulting displacements eventually led to thousands of speakers coming to places like New York, where a new kind of awareness and relationship to Nahuatl can bloom, away from the particular challenge brought by Spanish. That doesn’t mean that the future of Nahuatl is entirely in the Bronx—most would probably say it’s in Mexico—but it’s in both. Every language described in the book has experienced contractions, but also expanded into spaces like New York. That paradox of endangered languages now being on the move and arriving next door is what I’ve been seeking to understand. It’s also an opportunity. Far from the idea of a passive last speaker on a mountain or an island, we now see migration flows bring people together, even as the language is under intense pressure. Through ELA, we want people to realize that they can speak their language in New York, that migration is not a one-way ticket to a dominant language.

But the economic pressures to adopt a dominant language must be huge, right? As you write in the book, it’s hard “for even the most dedicated activist to keep a language alive in their own home.” 

Economic incentives today certainly seem to point to larger languages. But one caveat is that there’s also a lot of aspirational movement towards larger languages that is not necessarily practical. Massive numbers of people around the world are learning English and dreaming of a kind of career that may not actually work out. In many cases, doubling down on a local or regional or even national language could be just as practical. I put myself in this category. When I first started learning Mandarin, I had the idea that I was going to speak to a billion people. But nobody speaks to a billion people. The languages that we need are the ones that we’re going to speak with the people who are closest to us. 

You write astutely about how “nonstate spaces” such as inaccessible highlands tend to foster linguistic diversity. Is New York such a “nonstate space” where minority languages can flourish away from their own oppressive nationalisms, or does the US government—at the federal, state, or city level—play a suppressive role?

If I can speculate, perhaps there’s a distinction here between empires and nation-states. To the extent that the US actually behaves more like an empire, it may, like certain past empires, such as the Ottoman empire or the Austro-Hungarian empire, be more amenable to linguistic diversity then nation-states. The US does not have an official language and never has. At certain times and places, English arguably has functioned more as a lingua franca than a national language. No single standard was consciously promoted by the government. It’s quite different from having an Académie Française or Real Academia Española or a language planning office in Beijing. This is most intensely felt in an imperial cosmopolis like New York. So in that sense, there is a certain amount of benign neglect or laissez-faire [by the State]. But New York has also fundamentally been patterned along ethnolinguistic, immigrant-driven lines, where ethnic-bloc politics have been determinative. So the pressures are different. It’s not always to shift to English—it actually may be that a Nahuatl speaker is under pressure to shift to Spanish or a speaker of Seke is under pressure to switch to Nepali or a Pamiri is under pressure to switch to Russian. It’s a city of many overlapping, multilingual assimilations. 

A lot of that imperial laissez-faire is also that people didn’t even know what was going on around them. People thought that they were dealing with Italians, when they were dealing with Sicilian speakers. Or with Germans when they were dealing with Gottscheerish speakers. Or with French Americans when they were dealing with Breton people. These ethnic, linguistic, religious, and other minorities were always overrepresented in the history of the city, but were not necessarily so visible to anyone else. 

Nin Oozora, The Modern Tower of Babel 2, 2018, acrylic and oil on paper, 35 1/2" × 22 1/2". Rin Oozora (Instagram: rinoozora_art).
Nin Oozora, The Modern Tower of Babel 2, 2018, acrylic and oil on paper, 35 1/2" × 22 1/2". Rin Oozora (Instagram: rinoozora_art).

You’ve said that COVID provided an impetus to your writing. Can you talk about that?

When I started my work with ELA, I was full of joyful excitement about all there was to do, all the possibilities for languages in New York City, documenting things that hadn’t been documented. But, beginning with 2016 and Trump’s election, and accelerating under COVID, I felt more acutely the vulnerability faced by the city’s diaspora and immigrant communities. That’s what finally got me to put pen to paper and write a book. I could feel the possibility that this could be “peak diversity” and that these worlds of words wouldn’t necessarily be here forever. The most multilingual places like Jackson Heights were the ones most hit by COVID, and language was one of the reasons. COVID became a language crisis as well. Many elders and keepers of languages were taken by COVID; it was a deep disaster for many languages. We shifted our work with ELA and threw ourselves into questions of language access, barriers, and health. 

One powerful and positive thing that came out of COVID was the impetus around language access, the necessity of making information available, as well as translation and interpretation. No other public health crisis in history has generated such a range of messages in different languages. It was a global situation, and communities responded in their languages.

One of the speakers profiled, Husniya, who speaks Wakhi—and eight other languages, out of necessity—tells you that “the deeper she goes into her language . . . the more her perspective actually broadens.” Can you expand on that feeling?

I think what Husniya meant is that going deeper into Wakhi has led to a deeper inhabiting of herself—that a valuing of one’s own mother tongue grounds you in a way that enables you to go, transformed, into other spaces and other languages. In studies that connect language and mental health, there’s a correlation between lower levels of youth suicide and mother tongue maintenance. There’s an alienation that can come from language loss, especially in the ensuing generations, whose parents or grandparents may have given up or been pressured to give up a language. People may feel that loss intensely, even at a subconscious level. They may now be lower on the hierarchy, dialect- or accent-wise, in terms of a dominant language—speaking a variety of English or Arabic or Russian that is considered lesser but without a separate identity anymore. It’s pervasive in New York as well. You get people who feel an identity intensely and articulate that identity, but they’re not able to inhabit it. They long for the language, and some then embrace it and try to revitalize it.

Karan Mahajan is the author of two novels, including The Association of Small Bombs (Viking), a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award.