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Monday, 17 December 2012

New York, a graveyard for languages

Language in New York montage

Home to around 800 different languages, New York is a delight for linguists, but also provides a rich hunting ground for those trying to document languages threatened with extinction.
To hear the many languages of New York, just board the subway.
The number 7 line, which leads from Flushing in Queens to Times Square in the heart of Manhattan takes you on a journey which would thrill the heart of a linguistic anthropologist.
Each stop along the line takes you into a different linguistic universe - Korean, Chinese, Spanish, Bengali, Gujarati, Nepali.
And it is not just the language spoken on the streets that changes.
Street signs and business names are also transformed, even those advertising the services of major multinational banks or hotel chains.
In the subway, the information signs warning passengers to avoid the electrified rails are written in seven different languages.
Subway 7
New York is not just a city where many languages live, it is also a place where languages go to die, the final destination for the last speakers of some of the planet's most critically endangered speech forms.
Of the world's around 6,500 languages, UNESCO believe that up to half are critically endangered and may pass out of use before the end of this century.
mmediately we think of remote Himalayan valleys or the highlands of Papua New Guinea, bucolic rural villages where little known languages are still spoken by handfuls of speakers.
But languages can die on the 26th floor of skyscrapers too.
New York City is one of the most linguistically rich locations on earth, the perfect location to conduct research on endangered languages.
Jewish cinema, Manhattan c.1940s
Jewish culture dominated the lower east of Manhattan in the early 20th Century
At the end of 19th Century, the lower east side of Manhattan was a celebrated centre of European Jewish culture, a world of Yiddish theatre, newspapers, restaurants and bookshops.
But in the 20th century, Yiddish took a battering as the Jewish community left the lower east side and moved out to the suburbs. The American-born children of Jewish immigrants understood, but rarely spoke, Yiddish.
With no readership, newspapers closed and books were discarded.
And then, just as it was most threatened, Yiddish bounced back, thanks to an unusual combination of technology, faith and the efforts of Aaron Lansky, founder and president of the Yiddish Book Center.
He established the centre to help salvage Yiddish language publications, 11,000 of which have now been digitised and are freely available online.
Yiddish also found support from an unexpected quarter - while secular Jews were increasingly giving up the language in favour of English, religious Jewish communities across New York continued to speak it, using Yiddish as their everyday vernacular allowing Hebrew to be reserved for religious study.
From BBC News


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