Half of all 7,000-plus human languages may disappear over the next century and—because many have never been recorded—when they’re gone, it will be forever. Ross Perlin, a linguist and co-director of the non-profit Endangered Language Alliance, is racing against time to map little-known languages across the most linguistically diverse city in history: contemporary New York. In Language City, Perlin follows six remarkable yet ordinary speakers of endangered languages deep into their communities, from the streets of Brooklyn and Queens to villages on the other side of the world, to learn how they are maintaining and reviving their languages against overwhelming odds. He explores the languages themselves, from rare sounds to sentence-long words to bits of grammar that encode entirely different worldviews.
Seke is spoken by 700 people from five ancestral villages in Nepal, and a hundred others living in a single Brooklyn apartment building. N’ko is a radical new West African writing system now going global in Harlem and the Bronx. After centuries of colonization and displacement, Lenape, the city’s original Indigenous language and the source of the name Manhattan (“the place where we get bows”), has just one native speaker, along with a small band of revivalists. Also profiled in the book are speakers of the Indigenous Mexican language Nahuatl, the Central Asian minority language Wakhi, and Yiddish, braided alongside Perlin’s own complicated family legacy.
On the 100th anniversary of a notorious anti-immigration law that closed America’s doors for decades and the 400th anniversary of New York’s colonial founding, Perlin raises the alarm about growing political threats and the onslaught of “killer languages” like English and Spanish. At the same time, Language City celebrates the profound linguistic diversity of a single city and the joy of tuning into this unprecedented Babel.
Join the New America Fellows Program for a conversation with 2024 National Fellow Atossa Araxia Abrahamian and 2023 New Arizona Fellow Ross Perlin about Language City.
Ross Perlin, @RossPerlin
2023 New Arizona Fellow, New America
Author, Language City
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, @atossaaraxia
2024 National Fellow, New America
Copies of Language City are available for purchase here through our bookselling partner Solid State Books.