New York City is home to nearly 9 million people and attracts tourists from absolutely every corner of the globe. As well as being a great place to party all night and shop till your credit card is rejected, it is also a haven for linguists and home to approximately 800 different languages.
It’s not difficult to hear a wide selection of languages in the city, by simply walking through the streets or jumping on the subway you can hear many different tongues from the people around you. It is also completely normal to see things advertised or displayed in different languages, such is the massive cultural diversity of New York.
Even though so many languages are spoken here, it is becoming more apparent that a great many of them are in fact dying out. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) have predicted that of the world’s approximate 6,500languages, as many as half of them could soon become extinct.
Of these languages which are under threat, many of them can still be heard in the city of New York. Due to the amount of languages that are being spoken here and dying out here simultaneously, it has become a centre of linguistic research for those who want to understand the use and decline of certain languages.
In a recent Census Bureau report, it was reported that ‘the number of people speaking a language other than English at home increased by 140% over the last 30 years’.
Daniel Kaufman, co-founder of the Endangered Language Alliance, said of New York, “this is the city with the highest linguistic density in the world and that is mostly because the city draws large numbers of immigrants in almost equal parts from all over the globe – that is unique to New York. There are these communities that are completely gone in their homeland”.
It is suggested that languages most commonly die out because often whole communities can be eradicated due to disease, disasters or even war and of course when they go, their language goes with them.
The system which UNESCO uses to determine how at risk a language is looks like this:
- Vulnerable – most children speak the language but perhaps only in certain domains – like home
- Definitely endangered – children no longer learning language as ‘mother tongue’
- Severely endangered – spoken by older generations, while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves
- Critically endangered – the youngest speakers are grandparents or older – and they speak it infrequently
- Extinct – there are no speakers left
As people continue to come and go from New York, the languages they speak travel with them. It is not only in this part of the world that the tragedy of language loss is occurring. Around the globe as communities evolve or die out, their spoken tongue changes or disappears with them. A sad fact for lovers of linguistics and a concept that will continue to be explored and documented in great length, hopefully with the result of preserving some for the future.