New York, New York – a Graveyard for languages?Sharon Stephens
You cannot go far in New York without hearing a cacophony of different languages. The subway, the streets everywhere, they are filled with a delightful clash of language and culture. Some of these your ear may be more atuned to; European languages, Russian, Chinese and other major world languages but beyond that you can also hear minority languages and languages you would rarely hear anywhere, such as Navajo. In fact, according to the NYC.gov: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 American Community Survey there are 4504 languages that are “other” or “unspecified” languages spoken in New York and its boroughs.
Linguists in New York have explored this phenomenon further and taken the unique opportunity that the Big Apple presents to study endangered, all with the aim of finding ways to preserve them. One of the linguists, Dan Kaufman, said that it is the “city with the highest linguistic density in the world and that is mostly because it draws large numbers of immigrants in almost equal parts from all over the globe – that is unique to New York.” The staff at the Endangered Language Alliance – set up by Kaufman and two others – have been working with two Garifuna speakers, Loreida Guity and Alex Colon, to document language and aspects of their culture through traditional song, before these are lost without a trace..
I have only visited New York once and I would love to go back. During my travels I only really got to see the ‘main’ sights on a whistle-stop tour, so I know there is so much more that I have missed out on. In such a varied city with so many cultures it is a wonderful opportunity to experience aspects of each. Chinatown, Little Italy…to name but two. The worry is though that some languages will live out their last in The City That Never Sleeps. Already some of the only remaining speakers of minority languages and dialects are currently residing here and without relations to carry the native languages forward, there is a fear that they will become extinct forever.
This is by no means an irrational fear; there are long lists of extinct languages world-wide. A city which has been a symbol of freedom and a beacon of hope for so many immigrants throughout the years may be the final resting place of many different cultures. The sad truth is though that when a language dies, so does a link to a unique culture and people related to it. Alliances like the one set up by Kaufman could be just the lifeline that such rare languages need. Recording them before they become extinct may be the only chance we have to stop them vanishing without a trace and what better place to start than The City so Nice they named it twice.
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