Language City

From The Wall Street Journal:

Words are coined and money talks, but the link between linguistics and economics is more than metaphor. Most notably, as Ross Perlin writes in his superb “Language City: The Fight to Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York,” the English-speaking peoples’ geopolitical dominance has made their language the “reserve currency of communication.” But economic power can pull as well as push, luring immigrants and refugees to the metropole with the prospect of better lives, or at least better pay. So it is, Mr. Perlin writes, that New York City is now home to some 700 languages—there are roughly 7,000 extant—making it the “most linguistically diverse city in the history of the world.”

Linguistic variety is “often seen as a problem, the curse of Babel,” but for a linguist, New York City is a riotous collection of living specimens—a “greenhouse, not a graveyard.” Many of its languages have only thousands or hundreds of speakers worldwide. Mr. Perlin, who has a doctorate in linguistics, helps run the Endangered Language Alliance, which works to document such minority tongues. “Language City” centers on six: Yiddish; Seke, from Nepal; Wakhi, from the borderlands where Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and China meet; N’ko, a script invented in 1949 to standardize a family of West African languages; Nahuatl, from Mexico and Central America; and Lenape, the language of New York’s first inhabitants.

The heart of “Language City” is portraits of individual New York-based speakers. Mr. Perlin writes about their work as well as his, capturing the grind of immigrant life with empathy, balance and wit. (Linguistic fieldwork, which involves coaxing people to talk while you note every nuance of their speech, is excellent training for journalism.) “If the country was rich we would never leave,” says Husniya, a Wakhi speaker from bleak post-Soviet Tajikistan. But she savors the city’s entrepreneurial energy: “New York opened my eyes. It shapes you to be a human being, not dividing based on religion, face, or race, or anything.”

. . . .

Mr. Perlin can set a scene with quick, sure strokes. “Boris, sipping from a slim-waisted glass of Turkish tea on Emmons Avenue, insists that he is not the last major Yiddish writer,” he writes of an aging Brooklynite born in Bessarabia. “This village has elevators. We step into one of them,” begins a chapter on Rasmina, a young speaker of Seke. Her language originates in a cluster of five villages in upland Nepal and is spoken by some 700 people in the world. At one point or another 100 of them have lived in a “vertical village” in Brooklyn—a six-story apartment building where a now-forgotten Nepali established a foothold decades ago.

Rasmina visits a class Mr. Perlin teaches at Columbia so that his students can practice field techniques. Like most of the world’s languages, Seke is barely recorded on paper; there’s no dictionary or grammar guide. In fact, Mr. Perlin notes later, as he travels with Rasmina back to Nepal, most languages are documented only “once, if at all.” In class, his students ask Rasmina the words in Seke for a range of objects and concepts, such as body parts and family relationships, drawn from a set of putatively universal vocabulary items called a Swadesh list. Even these are tricky for English speakers: Seke, like Russian and other languages, treats limbs as integral units, with a word that means “leg-foot” and one that means “arm-hand.”

Wonderfully rich, “Language City” is in part an introduction to the diverse ways different languages work. Seke and other “evidential” languages, for example, have different grammatical forms to indicate how the speaker knows what she’s asserting—whether from observation or inference, hearsay or hunch. Other languages syntactically “tag the speaker’s surprise at unexpected information” or have a special temporal marking “just for things happening today.”

It is also a brief survey of U.S. immigration, full of piquant detail about its tortuous history. Ellis Island, contrary to legend, was known for linguistic sensitivity, with translators capable of handling 20 languages—though premium-class passengers could skip immigration checks altogether. It’s the kind of book where even the notes are pinpoint portraits. Did you know that when Andy Warhol met Pope John Paul II (in 1980), they spoke Ruthenian? “Though Warhol famously said ‘I come from nowhere,’ ” Mr. Perlin deadpans, “his family in fact came from Mikova in what is now Slovakia.”

Why do we need so many languages, though? There’s something that seems inefficient about slicing one world into 7,000 pieces; there’s a reason that developing a universal language long seemed like the easiest route to utopia. It took surprisingly long to realize that sharing a language is no cure for conflict. The concerted push to preserve endangered tongues is only a few decades old, and the benefits it claims are more subtle than those of the biodiversity movement that helped inspire it. Exotic species have yielded many valuable medicines, but we’re not going to discover a treatment for cancer in an unfamiliar grammar. A central dogma of modern linguistics is that all languages are functionally equal: “Any society can run in any language,” as Mr. Perlin puts it.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)