Language City, by Ross Perlin

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From the co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance, a portrait of contemporary New York City through six speakers of little-known and overlooked languages, diving into the incredible history of the most linguistically diverse place ever to have existed on the planet

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.

Praise for Language City

“[A] gorgeous new narrative of New York, as told through the hundreds of languages spoken in its five boroughs . . . Perlin’s excellent account of the present-day city chronicles six New Yorkers all working, in some way, to extend the lives of their languages.” Deirdre Mask, New York Times Book Review

“Superb . . . The heart of Language City is portraits of individual New York-based speakers. Mr. Perlin writes about their work as well as his, capturing the grind of immigrant life with empathy, balance and wit . . . Perlin can set a scene with quick, sure strokes . . . Wonderfully rich, Language City is in part an introduction to the diverse ways different languages work . . . It is also a brief survey of U.S. immigration, full of piquant detail about its tortuous history.”Timothy Farrington,Wall Street Journal

“This is a guidebook to a secret New York in hundreds of languages, a map of the world written in the conversations of immigrants from places you’ve never heard of, a manifesto in defense of the value and beauty of the smallest language groups, a portrait of six particular speakers, and a celebration of what language is and these languages are. It’s also a joyful, exciting narrative, and though Ross Perlin has wandered through so many languages, he writes this one, English, with vivid grace. Language City is a celebration of one city and all humanity, and you should read it.” —Rebecca Solnit

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