Saving Private Tongues

Jesse Kuhn/

Linguist Daniel Kaufman traces the beginning of his life's work to an uncharacteristic moment of social boldness. Back in the city after receiving his Ph.D. in linguistics from Cornell, he was attending a Christmas party when he decided to ask one of the restaurant's Mexican employees if he spoke a language other than Spanish.

"The first person I asked said, 'Yeah, of course, I speak Mixteco.' I thought, if the first person I ask speaks an indigenous language, that means that most of them do."

Kaufman says he's "not usually the kind of person to get into strangers' business." But over the past five years, Kaufman has entered people's homes—and their businesses—to record them speaking their native languages, applying the skills he honed in graduate school to an unlikely spot for linguistic field research: New York.

Along with City University of New York Graduate Center linguist Juliette Blevins and their students, Kaufman, a longtime Graduate Center adjunct, is making hundreds of recordings of speakers of endangered languages—in some cases to help revitalize the language, and in others to ensure that it won't die without a trace. Even as globalization has threatened languages, it has also provided an assist to those who hope to protect them, pushing their speakers into large cities that are also centers of academic linguists—none more so than New York.

Blevins says that about 800 languages are spoken in the five boroughs, making it the most linguistically diverse city on earth. The Endangered Language Alliance, an organization of professional linguists, linguistics graduate students, and speakers of endangered languages that Kaufman founded in 2010, is currently overseeing projects on nearly 30 languages, from Abzakh, a dialect of Circassian spoken in southwest Russia, to Wakhi, spoken in mountainous Central Asia. (In Wakhi, you cannot say that you are going somewhere without specifying whether your destination is at a higher, lower, or the same altitude.) Most are sparsely documented, with—in the best cases—an archaic rudimentary dictionary or grammar study the only record of a language's history.

One language dies about every 15 weeks, according to linguist Lyle Campbell of the University of Hawaii–Manoa. For Kasabe, a sparsely documented language of Cameroon, the date of death can be pinpointed to November 5, 1995, the day Kasabe's last speaker, a man named Bogon, died—just days before linguist Bruce Connell arrived in his village to interview him.

Common reasons for the death of a language include forced eradication by a central government that views linguistic diversity as a threat to national unity; the migration of indigenous people to cities, where access to jobs often depends on mastering a global language, such as Spanish or Hindi; and mass media, including the Internet and television, which linguist Michael Krauss describes as "cultural nerve gas." Most endangered languages are primarily oral, and the most threatened languages are typically also the least documented. Many languages, having never been recorded, completely vanish.

Linguists call this a global disaster, not just for their field, but for the loss of the cultural and scientific knowledge embedded in a language. Tofa, a language of Siberian reindeer herders with fewer than 100 speakers, has a word for "five-year-old male castrated rideable reindeer": chary. In Yahgan, an endangered language of Tierra del Fuego, mamihlapinatapai means "a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start." As the late MIT language scholar Ken Hale once said, the death of a language is "as if someone had dropped a bomb on a museum."

By coincidence, just as Kaufman was launching ELA, Blevins was hired by the Graduate Center to teach and direct its Endangered Language Initiative, which was created to encourage linguistics graduate students to study endangered languages. The two have since teamed up to teach a field methods class for which speakers of minority languages including Gurung, spoken by 200,000 residents of Nepal, and Amuzgo, spoken by about 44,000 in the Mexican states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, have visited a Graduate Center seminar room from their homes in Queens.

Kaufman believes New Yorkers would be surprised to learn that many Mexicans who cross the border into the U.S. are not primarily Spanish-speakers: A recent survey by the Mexican Consulate found that while only 5 percent of Mexicans speak indigenous languages, 40 percent of Mexicans living in New York do so. ELA has recorded speakers of Mexican minority languages including Mixe, Totonac, Nahuatl, and--with the help of Graduate Center student Ignacio Montoya--Amuzgo, whose distinctive features include "ballistic" syllables, which are characterized by an added breath; for example, the syllable "ta" might become "ta-huh."

To find Amuzgo speakers, Montoya posted flyers in Sunset Park; a New York Times article published soon after the launch of ELA brought many more speakers of endangered languages, including Irwin Sanchez, a then-32-year-old from the Mexican state of Puebla who grew up speaking Nahuatl with his grandfather and was beginning to teach the language to his son.

The flood of interview subjects has at times been more than ELA, with its part-time assistant director, has been able to handle. "I think it's really almost a crime against humanity that these populations and these individuals are just sitting there and nobody's working with them," Kaufman says.

Kaufman views New York City fieldwork as an alternative to the traditional international fieldwork that--frustratingly, to him--is easier to have funded.

"It's a drop in the ocean," he says of overseas fieldwork. "You meet with people for a couple of months and you have to go back. Nobody's thinking of New York yet as a much more important field station."

Whether research within New York City can not only aid in the study of languages but help revive them is another matter. "All the evidence shows that languages in the diaspora don't survive more than two generations," says Kaufman.

Even so, many ELA projects are conceived with the goal of creating materials that will help prolong a community's embrace of its heritage language. ELA started a YouTube channel with nearly 200 video clips of speakers of endangered languages, from both New York and elsewhere, telling stories of immigration and traditional folktales; one recites nursery rhymes in Garifuna, a language that originated on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent and was brought to Belize, Nicaragua, and Honduras after British colonizers deported the Garifuna people in 1796. Christen Madsen II is one of five Graduate Center students whose transcriptions of a story narrated by New York's only known speaker of Ikota, a language of Gabon and Congo, will serve as the basis for a children's book that the woman hopes to read to her two children.

ELA has also become a locus for speakers of endangered languages who are making their own efforts to revitalize them. One is James Lovell, a Belizean musician who sings in his native Garifuna. Sitting with Lovell in front of two computer monitors on a recent Tuesday night, Kaufman watches with evident pleasure a clip of two Vincentian children narrating, in Garifuna, the story of how that language was expunged from the island over 200 years ago.

"The British would be turning in their graves," he remarks.

For Sanchez, who says Kaufman helped him grasp grammatical rules of Nahuatl that he understood but could not articulate, finding ELA was like "finding a diamond."

Sanchez, who works at Taqueria Lower East Side, now teaches a weekly Nahuatl class for his friends. "Thanks to Dan, many people are learning Nahuatl," he says. "Without him, I couldn't get a start."

Kaufman says such responses continue to drive him. "It would be really worthless if it were just for me or for academics," he says. But, as he watches footage from a recent ELA event at the Bowery Poetry Club, where a kindergarten teacher reads from poetry she has been writing for over 20 years in her native Indonesian language of Acehnese, it's evident that he's also sustained by listening to words that might otherwise have never been heard.

"They were all so moved and overwhelmed at the chance of being able to speak their language into a microphone," he says.

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