In a February post, titled “The Ethnosphere and Our Common Culture,” Culture in Peril referred to a Wade Davis lecture in which he remarked on the conspicuous daily extinction of languages. Davis notes that of the roughly 6500 to 7000 languages in the world (a rough estimate only because nobody really knows how many there are), half of them are not being taught to children. On average every two weeks, he says, “some elder slips away and carries with him or her into the grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue.” The loss of language, then, equates to a loss of culture, the loss of a person or group’s identity that manifests itself in their mythologies, ritual songs, folkloric tales, and spoken cultural creations. Culture in Peril encouraged readers to think about what it means to be “facilitators of cultural survival,” the optimistic term Davis uses to promote intercultural appreciation and awareness.
A recent New York Times article in the N.Y./Region section, titled “The Lost Languages, Found in New York,” reports on a linguistics project, the Endangered Language Alliance, begun in New York and aims at endangered language research and conservation. Its mission, according the ELA website, “is to further the documentation, description, maintenance, and revitalization of threatened and endangered languages, and to educate the public about the causes and consequences of language extinction.” The ELA takes as its geographic focus the whole of metropolitan New York, which is not only “the capital of language density in the world” but also, more importantly, “an endangerment hot spot,” says ELA co-director, Daniel Kaufman.
Linguists believe over 800 languages are spoken in New York, some of which come from the most remote parts of the world and now have their last speakers living in New York. For example, a Rego Park, Queens, resident is believed to be the last living speaker of Mamuju, an Austronesian language found in West Sulawesi, Indonesia. Vlashki, an Istro-Romanian dialect spoken by less than 1000 people in the world and listed as “seriously endangered” in the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages, is indeed kept alive in conversations heard elsewhere in Queens. By applying in New York’s urban ethnic niches the very same field methods utilized in exotic and foreign areas, ELA is attempting to record these dying languages and hundreds of others which may have no written documentation and whose native speakers are so few in number.
The initiative shown by the ELA to preserve languages and prevent their extinction characterizes the nature of what is meant by facilitating cultural survival. Many of the speakers of endangered languages recognize that the survival of their people’s identity depends so heavily on the perpetuation of their native tongue. They understand that as older generations die away, without new speakers to carry on the voice of their cultural group their identity quickly becomes moribund. Perpetuation of a cultural identity through its linguistic tradition does not mean that studying and recording the syntax and grammatical rules of the language necessarily ensures its survival; rather, perpetuation means that the language must continue to be spoken and passed on through generations of living speakers–essentially, through children. ELA supports this notion by encouraging these fading ethnic communities to teach younger generations and compatriots their native tongue, through the revival of songs and stories.
One of the more refreshing indicators of communities’ awareness of the importance of new speakers for disappearing languages is the number of taught courses offered to students and younger generations alike. A linguistics class at New York University is currently instructed by Daowd I. Salih, a Darfuran refugee living in New Jersey who speaks Massalit, a tribal language. On teaching these young minds his language he says, “Language is identity. This is the land of opportunity so these students can help us write this language instead of losing it.”
Culture in Peril recommends the video about New York’s language diversity and the move to preserve speakers’ cultural identities.