Saving vanishing words: Why Queens is the ‘Noah’s Ark of languages’

Jul 8, 2019 by

The loss of a single language, legendary linguist Kenneth Hale used to say, “is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre.” Saving the world’s rarest words means travel – hopping a subway to Queens.

By Harry Bruinius –

To stand out in New York City, all Alex Paz has to do is open his mouth.

The Queens resident is one of only a handful of people who speaks P’urhépecha, an indigenous pre-Columbian language spoken in southern Mexico. P’urhépecha is not only rare, but also one of a kind, linguistically unrelated to any other known language.

“There are things that can only be said in my language,” says Mr. Paz, who’s been working with linguists to preserve P’urhépecha.

Mr. Paz lives in the most linguistically diverse neighborhood on earth. With as many as 800 distinct languages spoken throughout this sprawling borough, Queens has a diversity of tongues and dialects unprecedented in human history.

Linguists estimate that up to half of the 7,000 languages spoken today are likely to die off by the end of this century. Most will succumb to the homogenizing effects of global capitalism and digital media, as well as the efforts of leaders who believe a single national tongue will strengthen cultural cohesion. It’s not simply nostalgia that motivates efforts to preserve the world’s dying languages, linguists say: Every spoken tongue is rich with the experiences of humanity.

Queens is the perfect place to pursue preservation efforts. “This neighborhood in particular is like, I would say, the Noah’s Ark of languages,” says Daniel Kaufman, executive director of the Endangered Language Alliance.

Source: Saving vanishing words: Why Queens is the ‘Noah’s Ark of languages’ –

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