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Book Review: ‘Language City,’ by Ross Perlin

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LANGUAGE CITY: The Fight to Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York, by Ross Perlin


“Up on the sixth floor of an old commercial building along the sunless canyon of 18th Street, there is a room where languages from all over the world converge.” It makes sense that the Endangered Language Alliance, the only organization in the world focused on “the linguistic diversity of cities,” lives here, in a donated office in the most linguistically diverse metropolis on earth. It is also here that Ross Perlin begins “Language City,” his gorgeous new narrative of New York, as told through the hundreds of languages spoken in its five boroughs.

On any given day, the E.L.A.’s cramped office bursts with people singing in Bishnupriya Manipuri (originally from Bangladesh), writing in Tsou (Taiwan) and recording in Ikota (Gabon). A caller from the Bronx, with a voice “full of longing,” seeks recordings of the language he left at the Mali-Burkina Faso border when he was 7.

Perlin, the co-director of the E.L.A. and an accomplished linguist himself, explains that up to half of the world’s 7,000 languages are likely to die over the next few centuries. But his book is less a lament for the deaths of endangered languages than an account of how, like their speakers, they have built new lives in a place where half the residents speak a language other than English at home.

Perlin retells the familiar story of the city through the lens of its exceptional linguistic history, beginning with Indigenous languages like Lenape (in which Manaháhtaan means “the place where we get bows”). Early settlers included the first 32 Walloon families to live permanently in New Amsterdam and enslaved Kikongo speakers from the Kingdom of the Kongo.

While Massachusetts and Virginia were “fanatically intolerant English-only colonies,” New Amsterdam did not seem to care; in 1643, a priest wrote of finding 18 languages among just a few hundred men. New Yorke soon boasted not just languages like English, Spanish, French and Russian, but also Basque and Breton, Catalan and Maltese. Some 200 years later, the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which ended longstanding national-origin immigration quotas, helped make Bengali and Urdu two of the city’s most widely spoken languages.

Throughout, Perlin never misses the chance to reinforce a key point: The history of New York’s lesser-known languages is also that of the traumas of many speakers. Some fled genocide (as in the cases of Western Armenian and Judeo-Greek), others mass deportation (languages of the North Caucuses), racial violence (Gullah, an English-based Creole) or starvation (Irish). Linguistic minorities “have been overrepresented in diaspora,” Perlin points out, because they are “hit hardest by conflict, catastrophe and privation and thus impelled to leave.”

Perlin’s excellent account of the present-day city chronicles six New Yorkers all working, in some way, to extend the lives of their languages. This includes Rasmina, who takes Perlin to “380,” a six-story apartment building in Flatbush that has housed over 100 of the world’s 700 speakers of Seke, a Tibetan-Burman language. Ibrahima runs a website in N’ko, a West African alphabet created in 1949, and Irwin writes poetry in Nahuatl, an Indigenous language he absorbed while listening in at his grandfather’s grocery store in Mexico.

Husniya plans children’s books in Wakhi, a Pamiri language spoken where Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China meet. Dianne, probably the last native speaker of Lenape, tells Perlin wistfully, “Now there’s nowhere to hear the language outside the walls of my head.”

It’s hard to be hopeful. Intergenerational transfer of endangered languages is particularly difficult. Still, Perlin builds a compelling case for why preserving them matters not just for the speakers, but for humanity itself. It’s an argument he lives in his own life. (I invite you, too, to binge-watch Perlin’s fascinating YouTube dispatches from China — in Yiddish.) But change is inevitable. As Perlin says, “Someday English, too, will be down to its last speaker.”

About halfway through reading “Language City,” I reached for the Bible, looking for the story of the Tower of Babel. I knew the basics of the Genesis story: At a time when the world had “one language and a common speech,” the people of Babel decided to build a city, with a tower reaching to heaven. God disapproved and “confused” their language “so they would not understand each other.” Work on the city — and the tower — halted.

But I’d forgotten what happened next: God scattered the people of Babel over the face of the earth. “Language City” is a deft refutation of this parable’s moral. Far from scattering, people have instead converged on the city, bringing their words with them. And New York’s towers have never risen higher.

LANGUAGE CITY: The Fight to Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York | By Ross Perlin | Atlantic Monthly Press | 415 pp. | $28

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