Posts Tagged ‘Babel’


Photo: Ann Hermes/Christian Science Monitor
Daniel Kaufman, founder of the Endangered Language Alliance, is recording and preserving the many endangered languages of New York.

A number of people who follow this blog are interested in endangered languages and what is being done to save them. Recently, I saw this article on the treasure trove of rare languages that is found in — of all places — Queens, New York. Here it is.

Harry Bruninius writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “Like many immigrants who live near the busy subway hub in Jackson Heights, Tenzin Namdol usually talks to her family and friends with a shape-shifting array of tongues.

“She’ll jump from colloquial Tibetan to standard English in the middle of a conversation almost without a thought, and then start speaking what she says has become a third hybrid of slang, combining the phonetics of both. She also speaks fluent Hindi. ….

“Despite this easy fluency in a number of very different languages, Ms. Namdol becomes wistful when it comes to one she hasn’t quite mastered – the native tongue of her mother, whose people speak a rare Himalayan dialect called Mustangi.

“There are only about 3,000 people left in the world who still speak Mustangi, and most live in a remote Himalayan region in western Nepal. But a few hundred or so of these speakers, including Ms. Namdol’s mother, now reside in the New York borough of Queens.

This also happens to be the most linguistically diverse neighborhood on earth, scholars say.

“With as many as 800 distinct languages, Queens has a diversity of tongues and dialects unprecedented in human history – and its epicenter is here amid the concentrated din of Jackson Heights. …

” ‘Sadly, my mother didn’t pass down her language to me,’ says Ms. Namdol, whose family lived among the Tibetan diaspora in Dharamshala, India, before emigrating to New York. …

“Part of this classic story, too, has been the well-intended reactions of immigrant parents like her mother, who raised her daughter to speak the lingua franca of their wider community, the standard Tibetan used for commerce, government institutions, and the traditions of Buddhism. What use could a language like Mustangi offer her daughter?

“ ‘Now if I go to a gathering of my mother’s people, I’m not able to understand their words, so they don’t really identify me as one of their own because I don’t know their language,’ says Ms. Namdol. …

“For the past year, she has begun to learn the words of Mustangi, volunteering with the Endangered Language Alliance, a nonprofit in Manhattan that works with immigrant communities to preserve their dying languages.

“Collecting the stories of local Tibetans in their native tongues, she’s been recording them for the alliance’s project ‘Voices of the Himalayas,’ learning more about some of the other seven languages spoken in Jackson Heights’ Tibetan diaspora, including her father’s native tongue, Kyirong, a three-tone Tibetic language spoken mostly in Nepal. …

” ‘This  neighborhood in particular is like, I would say, the Noah’s Ark of languages,” says Daniel Kaufman, a professor of linguistics at Queens College and the executive director of the Endangered Language Alliance. … And it’s really just a coincidence, Dr. Kaufman says, that Jackson Heights happens to be at the crossroads of language diversity. The immigrant communities clustered here happen to be from countries that already have the most spoken languages in the world. …

“Alex Paz, however, may be one of only a handful of people living in New York who speaks P’urhépecha, an indigenous pre-Columbian language spoken in southern Mexico.

Considered an ‘isolate’ among human tongues, P’urhépecha is not only rare, but also one of a kind, linguistically unrelated to any other known language in the world.

“ ‘There are things that can only be said in my language,’ says Mr. Paz, an immigrant from the small mountain town of Ocumícho in the Michoacán region of southern Mexico. ‘Even at home, I can see how my language is disappearing, and this means a lot of cultural aspects, too, because language – once we lose our language, I think that’s the essence of who we are.’ …

“Mr. Paz, too, has been volunteering for the Endangered Language Alliance, trying to locate and collect everything that’s been written in P’urhépecha over the past few decades. And while he hasn’t found anyone else in New York who speaks his language, Mr. Paz has been immersed in it as he never has before, putting what he finds into a database and then providing word-by-word translations into English and Spanish – a complex and complicated task, he says, since many of his language’s words contain concepts nearly impossible to translate. …

“ ‘It’s like the language is the only thing that we have left, and its concepts,’ Mr. Paz says. ‘I don’t want to read somewhere, or have to say, “Back in the day in Michoacán we used to speak this language, P’urhépecha.” It’s sad, and I want to at least try to keep it alive.’ ”

More here.

Photo: Mark Lenihan/AP
The No. 7 subway train arrives at the 82 Street Jackson Heights station in Queens. Jackson Heights is one of the more diverse neighborhoods in New York City. 


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