Catching disappearing languages
Around the corner from my apartment is a crummy bodega, once a bar called The Wigwam, where Mohawk ironworkers drank Montreal ale. Down the block is a Syriac church, where a kind of Aramaic was once sung in the choir and whispered in the pews. At the corner of Court and Atlantic, now straddled by Trader Joe’s, stood the Philo-Celtic Society, where Irish Gaelic speakers sat reading An Gaodhal, the world’s first Gaelic magazine, published in Brooklyn.
It’s three miles to South Williamsburg, one of the last Yiddish-speaking neighborhoods in the world, where a whole new dialect, some say a separate language, is coming into being. Farther out in East Bushwick, James Lovell is teaching Garifuna, an Afro-Indigenous language of the Caribbean. The Garifuna are descendants of African slaves who escaped a shipwreck off the island of St. Vincent in 1635 and intermarried with the Arawak and Carib natives. On a free island in a sea of slavery, the Garifuna mixed West African words and indigenous Caribbean grammar with loanwords from Spanish and English, evolving a hybrid language that mirrored their exile. Deported by the British to the coast of Belize and Honduras, they became sailors and merchant marines, and many set sail for New York.
In any direction, out to the city limits and into the first diversifying ring of suburbs, there are languages large and small, famous and unknown, arrivals from every corner of the globe. The way Mexico sounded before Cortés, now in El Barrio; the languages of West Africa, arrayed along 116th Street; the Circassian diaspora, in several of its dialects, in the homes of Wayne, New Jersey; the languages of Luzon and Java alive on the Asian streets of Elmhurst, Queens. All the big ones are here — if a language has a million speakers anywhere in the world, most likely one of those speakers lives in New York — but so are many of the world’s endangered and vanishing languages.
At the Endangered Language Alliance, we document these disappearing languages, the words of immigrants, refugees, and exiles, but also of students, businessmen, shamans, activists, and retirees. So far we’ve made recordings in thirty or so of the world’s smallest and most endangered languages: Shughni from the arid valleys of southeastern Tajikistan, Kabardian from the northern Caucasus, Amuzgo from the Mexican states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. We might record just a song or a story before a domestic worker has to hurry back to her sixteen-hour day. We might work slowly with a community over months and years, deep into the lexicon and through all the elements of grammar. Some of the languages we document, like Purhepecha from Mexico, are “isolates,” the last remaining representatives of a whole language family. Others have sounds or structures found nowhere else in human speech. It might be the way clauses are chained together, the play of stress and accent, the liberation of word order, the almost endless complexity of verb endings. The “personality” of a language is the hardest thing to study. Whatever it sounds like, every language is a sophisticated, irreplaceable record of both a world and a worldview; all have features, as the linguist Carol Genetti writes, “that give a language its beauty, its unique personality, and its genius.”
Half of all New Yorkers speak a language besides English at home, and many of the rest have non-English-speaking parents or grandparents. This linguistic diversity goes back a long way: as soon as the Dutch arrived, establishing more of an entrepôt than a colony, New York became a Babel of tongues. “On the island of Manhate, and in its environs,” reported the Jesuit Father Jogues in 1646, “there may well be four or five hundred men of different sects and nations: The Director General told me that there were men of eighteen different languages.” (That number probably doesn’t include the varieties of Munsee spoken by New York’s native inhabitants; today Munsee lives on, but with just a few speakers left, the youngest in her seventies.) By the late 19th century, New York had become a melting pot of footloose Europeans — with Brooklyn a Scandinavian port and Manhattan a great Irish metropolis, New York was also the third-largest German-speaking city in the world.
The great migrations, increasingly diverse by the early 20th century, came to a sudden halt with the Immigration Act of 1924, with its hard cap on total arrivals and its racist quotas in favor of Northern and Western Europe. The city’s diversity was becoming just a little less radical. By the time the United Nations arrived in Turtle Bay in the 1950s, New York was mostly a town of seven particular tribes: Irish, Italian, Jewish, African American, Puerto Rican, West Indian, and Dominican. This is what many now think of as the dynamic “old New York” — Woody Allen, James Baldwin, Al Pacino — but it was the most static the city has been, linguistically speaking, since its founding.
Then, in 1965, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, abolishing the quotas and making immigrants’ skills and family relations paramount. America’s annual intake of immigrants started climbing again, back toward seven figures. Asians and Africans and South and Central Americans started arriving in waves. Fleeing the Khmer Rouge, several thousand Cambodians came to the Bronx, where they soon faced a different kind of violence — and melted away west of the Hudson. Thousands of Albanians moved into Italian neighborhoods, many running the old pizza parlors. The secret language of candy-stripe barbers changed from Italian to Russian and even Bukhori. The Vietnamese settled into the Chinatowns, already bursting at the seams. Mexicans appeared in East Harlem, and Tibetans began selling Christmas trees on the sidewalks. No one could say why. The former Soviet Union, in all its multicultural, polyglot variety, arrived on the shores of Brooklyn.
The larger changes are obvious to everyone. But immigration in New York is so fast and fluid, suffusing the city in so many different ways, that the specific effects can be easy to miss. So the guy spreading flour on the pizza peel doesn’t speak Italian — will you even notice if one day he stops speaking Albanian? As E. B. White wrote in “Here Is New York,” the city is “peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along . . . without inflicting the event on its inhabitants”; as a result, “every event is, in a sense, optional.” He meant the gatherings of thirty thousand that happen every night for sports or for music, the launches of the great oceangoing vessels, the visits of dignitaries, the UN being “stashed away” in Manhattan’s East Forties. But couldn’t much the same be said of these waves of immigration, at first almost invisible, that the city is endlessly metabolizing? No one doubts that immigrants deeply and palpably shape the city. No other archetype — not the actor, artist, or banker — is as perennially linked to New York as the figure of the immigrant. But there’s still an unease: we may well be swallowing up the world’s diversity and spitting out a monoculture.
New York now takes in more and more immigrants from ever more far-flung places, speaking more languages than ever before and making up a more plausible microcosm of global linguistic diversity than any city in the history of the world. Yet the place, almost by design, seems ever less than the sum of its parts, an endpoint for cultures, “a Babel in reverse,” in the words of its most famous newspaper.
The Endangered Language Alliance is our attempt to “catch language” in New York, to hear all the ways the city speaks before they blend together and disappear. It amounts to this: a registered 501(c)(3) in an old commercial building high above 18th Street, three desktop computers, a pile of tangled wires and overworked recording equipment, a website, a digital archive, and a scattered group of linguists who make ends meet elsewhere, who field requests and chase leads across the thousand cultures of the tri-state area. I’m one of them.
Of the world’s more or less 7,000 languages, up to 800 may now be spoken in the New York metropolitan area, more than in any other city — only London and Paris come close. Of the estimated 176 languages indigenous to and still spoken in the United States, at least fifty are nearly extinct, with fewer than ten speakers; only a handful can be considered “safe.” Similar figures hold for Australia. Centers of deep linguistic diversity remain in West Africa, the South Pacific, the Himalayas, the Amazon, and the far reaches of Siberia, but these too are disappearing. English, Spanish, and Chinese are on the march, but so are Tok Pisin, Bengali, and Hausa. Nearly everywhere, centuries of imperialism, capitalism, urbanization, environmental destruction, and nation-building are now having their full linguistic effect. It’s another extinction event, parallel to the massive, ongoing loss of plant and animal species. At least half of the world’s languages are likely to disappear within the next century or two: those that are unwritten, least documented, and in some cases completely unknown outside their speech communities. And newly created natural languages are few — the recent appearance of Light Warlpiri, in Australia’s Northern Territory, is a celebrated exception.
There are powerful arguments for the value of linguistic diversity. Education research shows that children learn best in their mother tongue. Being raised multilingual — the norm outside the Anglophone world — can improve cognitive development, and possibly have an effect on one’s capacity for empathy. The active suppression, stamping out, and shaming into silence of so many languages should also be understood as a question of justice and human rights — it’s the powerful, over and over again, who impose their words on the powerless. Evidence seems to indicate that indigenous peoples with resilient languages and cultures are better able to withstand the unending emergencies of depression, suicide, alcoholism, poverty, and social breakdown. And consider the massive loss of knowledge and wisdom and art that comes with the loss of any language, which no amount of last-minute translation can stop. Each language’s vanishing, as the linguist Ken Hale writes, would feel “like dropping a bomb on the Louvre,” if we only knew how to fathom it.
But can you really preserve languages? It’s up to the speakers to go on speaking, and many prefer to slip out of an inconvenient and ridiculed identity and swim in the mainstream. Some communities aren’t interested: bread, then languages. Chains of transmission this vulnerable can snap for good in just a generation or two, and revivals led by grandchildren and great-grandchildren rarely work, if the former culture is still remembered at all. In other communities, the struggle is on, the desire to keep speaking intense, however much mainstream society, the media, the government, and the education system may be arrayed in opposition.
My own view is that, whatever happens, there is a responsibility to document what we can. We can still record and recognize the master storytellers, jokers, and singers of a language; admire the affixes and accents; delve into the lexicon, the idioms, the proverbs. If nothing else, this record can “sleep” until a later generation is ready to hear it, whether that means the grandchildren or the scholars of a future age. In the meantime we learn about the world, and we preserve something, however local and transitory, about the way it once sounded.
At 18th Street, where we work, the walls are covered with language maps of Southeast Asia and calendars culled from ethnic restaurants. I’m here to edit footage I recently recorded of Juhuri, a language spoken in just three enclaves: in the Eastern Caucasus, in Israel, and in Brooklyn. Time for such work is a luxury — like many shoestring linguists I’m mostly a one-man research team, building relationships in a community, reading up on the language and the region, arranging and planning recording sessions, acting as my own cameraman and audio guy, editing the footage, and then annotating, translating, and analyzing what I’ve recorded with software and help from the speaker. Only on a long-term project can you write up a (sketch or full-length) grammar, compile a dictionary, and assemble a corpus of texts. For now, we do what we can.
The founders of ELA are a poet and two linguists. They imagined a research outpost, set in the urban jungle, for documenting and celebrating little-known languages, a place where linguists, activists, and speakers could meet and collaborate. The poet is Bob Holman, founder and proprietor of the Bowery Poetry Club, whose masterwork in progress, “Khonsay,” will be one hundred lines long, each in a different endangered language. One of the linguists, Juliette Blevins, is a professor at the City University of New York; her first book was a detailed description of Nhanda, a now-extinct aboriginal language of western Australia. The other is Dan Kaufman, who knows the languages of New York better than anyone.
On a typical day, Dan is wading through a multilingual mountain of email. Beside him a curandero, a shamanic healer from the Mexican state of Puebla, who is a longtime resident of New Jersey, is speaking Totonac verbs into a microphone held by a linguist from Ball State. A sous chef named Irwin Sanchez is talking about the Mexican restaurant in Queens where he works six days a week; the seventh he spends in Brooklyn teaching his mother tongue, Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Before he started cooking and teaching, Irwin organized day laborers across the city. Nyasha — a Belizean American lawyer, writer, and filmmaker active in the Garifuna community — is going through video footage she shot in Jamaica. Her new project is on the musical lineages of the Caribbean and their great meeting place, New York.
Dan has an almost supernatural ability to ferret out the city’s languages. He knows the fluid dynamics of immigration (when the Cambodians came, what regions they came from, where they settled, what professions they entered) and the microgeography of ethnic enclaves (which buildings are Fujianese, which streets Lebanese). It’s one thing if a language is spoken on the streets, if there are signs hanging in shop windows, if you can hear it in restaurants, temples, social clubs, and hair salons. The city has theaters, dance troupes, literary journals, a massive “ethnic press” — New York has long been a critical site for many non-English traditions of arts and letters — but that’s a story unto itself. These languages, minorities in the US but major players in their homelands, probably aren’t going away anytime soon.
The vast majority of the city’s languages, however, are spoken only by the smallest minorities, and they come out only in private, inside families and clusters of friends. Largely unwritten and unstandardized, they yield to “languages of wider communication” whenever their speakers step outside their homes. Few of these speakers ever encounter outside interest in or knowledge about their cultures. They remain subject to a double (and sometimes triple) assimilation, with suspicion and ignorance on all sides. As a researcher, you have to build trust and be alive to the mechanisms of chance. Just across 18th Street at the glorified bodega where he buys lunch, Dan met a cashier from Nepal who speaks Ghale, a virtually undocumented language with some 20,000 speakers. Then he befriended the guy behind the deli counter, who speaks a Mayan language and lives in Fairlawn, New Jersey, a recent center of immigration from Guatemala.
Through a friend, Dan heard about an immigrant living in Albany who speaks Naso, a tiny indigenous language of Panama otherwise unreported on American soil. The family of a toddler in his daughter’s playgroup spoke Nones, an Italic language of northern Italy, and Dan is determined to record the 90-year-old matriarch who still speaks it. And on it goes: he plans to scour Brooklyn’s Yemeni community for a speaker of Soqotri, a Semitic language from an archipelago in the Indian Ocean that retains more of how ancient Semites spoke than either Hebrew or Arabic.
Some people in New York still think and dream in their languages, but now have no one to talk to. As far as we know, the city has a single speaker of Burushaski, a language isolate of northern Pakistan. A few years ago at a wedding in Queens, Dan found himself sitting next to Husni Husain, a Mamuju speaker from West Sulawesi, Indonesia. Husni’s wife is from Java, and his children were born in Jakarta. In Rego Park, he’s lucky to find other speakers of Indonesian, let alone another Mamuju speaker. Soon enough, Dan had Husain in front of a camera, narrating the story of the Dar ul-Islam rebellion in Indonesia in the 1940s and ’50s. It was probably the first time Mamuju had been recorded on film.
Dan argues that the city is potentially a greenhouse for languages, and need not be a graveyard. The city’s dependence on the world’s far-flung diversity — on Bialystok and Oaxaca and Fuzhou and Samarkand — for its own dense linguistic contrasts should give us pause. To be sure, the city’s benign neglect has served some languages well, far from old-country violence and standardization drives, but the sources are not necessarily permanent; languages like Yiddish and Gottscheerish have been stranded here. Without continuous infusions, few immigrant languages survive beyond the third generation. The process seems to be accelerating, so that even the immigrants’ New York accents may now fall away by the second generation. If there are almost 200 languages spoken by students entering the New York City school system, as one (probably conservative) estimate has it, how many will the system’s graduates speak?
Or to put it in best-practice speak: the city’s “long tail” of languages is part of our human and cultural capital, too. We see it in the French chefs and the Russian ballerinas and the masters of Chinese martial arts — established forms that cross cultures well — but not in the Totonac shamans, the Wakhi speakers, the Garifuna singers. We see them as “just” cobblers and doctors and cooks and construction workers. There may not be venues, performing traditions, or accepted modes of translating, interpreting, appreciating their arts. The market doesn’t know from their languages. We’ll have to build the greenhouse ourselves.
My own story may be instructive. Like many New Yorkers, my great-grandparents were immigrants, embedded in Old World multilingualism: Yiddish, Polish, Russian, German. The grandparents grew up first with Yiddish and learned their English in school or in fast-assimilating neighborhoods. My parents spoke New York English, muzzled over time. I grew up monolingual in Manhattan in the ’80s and ’90s, fed the All-American Standard: the accent from nowhere inculcated at school, piped in by TV, quietly pushed in a thousand ways.
Only later did I fully comprehend the blessings of speaking Standard. I could talk to many and sound good to most, set above the particulars of region, class, or ethnicity (but also lacking those solidarities). All reading and writing hewed close to the Standard, making book-learning that much easier. The New York accent was already retreating to the burbs and the outer boroughs, on the slow road to extinction. The famous front-rising diphthong — toity toid for “thirty-third” — was a remnant curiosity or a punch line. The linguistics of gentrification: dese, dem, dose was giving way to these, them, those. The beer-schleppers at Yankee Stadium called out Getcha beeyah heeyah, but otherwise “R-lessness” was on its way out.
New Yorkers have long played “New Yorkese” for laughs, like the Cockney (and Mockney) speakers of London. It was always a class thing: Bugs Bunny, Groucho Marx, wise guys, and Brooklyn bums had the accent, not the Roosevelts and Rockefellers, whose transnational accents suited transnational capital. In a famous 1966 study, the linguist William Labov visited three New York department stores: the upper-class Saks, the bourgeois Macy’s, and the working-class S. Klein. At each one, he asked the shop assistants for the location of departments which he knew were on the fourth floor. Fourth floor, they said at Saks. Fawth flaw, came the answer at S. Klein. And at Macy’s something in between — flaw and then floor when the assistant was asked a second time. Labov’s study was the first time any researcher had looked at language differences by class, establishing the new field of sociolinguistics. “New York is the most extreme case of local speech having low local esteem that I know,” Labov later said.
Obviously, I was not going to be a fawth flaw kind of guy. I never thought to speak like my grandparents, and I never heard them enough to have a chance. Standard American English was a bit of semiotic turf I could take with me anywhere. In the power dynamic of any given conversation, at least I had that. I figured there were up to half a billion people — a loose estimate of the global English-speaking population — to comfortably shoot the shit with, and another billion-plus (L2s and EFLs, as second-language learners are called) with whom I could get by pretty well. Not that I usually talk to more than a dozen people on any given day, or more than a few thousand in a given year, but these days we dream of what can happen “at scale,” as they say in Silicon Valley. In 2000, I started learning Chinese, feeling that another billion-plus interlocutors should be within reach. (I had a friend who dreamed of unmediated access to everyone in the world, and was trying to learn the official UN languages one by one.)
All of which is to explain how in 2003 I found myself in Beijing in a generic room at the Central Minorities University, the elite academic institution representing the more than 100 million Chinese citizens who are not ethnically Chinese. From an enormous thermos, someone poured cups of hot water, which hissed over dry tea leaves. In careful Standard Mandarin, Professor Sun Hongkai, a distinguished Chinese linguist, was explaining his life’s work: over five itinerant decades, he had documented as many of China’s two-hundred-plus languages as he could. There were that many languages in China alone? This could be a life?
After hearing Sun, I waded in. I’d long been committed, as a matter of earnest principle, to understanding and upholding difference in the world. My cultural politics were simply: Let differences live. Yet I’d had no premonition of differences so deep and so various, that all these languages could exist and a curious and educated person would simply not know about them, and have no way of knowing. The greatest universities taught but a handful of them, the greatest libraries had no records of most. On the internet I found evidence of just a few hundred languages — and my faith in the internet was forever shaken. With the wide-eyed idealism appropriate to that time of life, I predicted that terrorism and technology and subprime mortgages would all wither into insignificance in comparison with the extinction of languages, the drastic shrinking of human expressiveness and communication.
The movement to preserve the world’s languages was then less than a decade old. While all kinds of people have recorded languages and mapped their morphologies, the idea that the world’s languages should be documented systematically for posterity dates more or less to 1991, when the linguist Michael Krauss first publicly discussed what’s now called “the endangered language crisis.” Following my encounter in China, I enrolled in what was then the world’s only degree program in language documentation, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. There I took in the painstaking detail of Nancy Dorrian’s Language Death: The Life Cycle of a Scottish Gaelic Dialect; the hopeful reports of Maori and Hawaiian revivalists and the famous precedent of modern Hebrew; field notes on the semantic wonders of the Solomon Islands. I learned the “elicitation” techniques that help linguists ferret out a given language’s sound system, its prepositions and postpositions, its approach to the semantics of color, space, time, and so on.
When I finished my coursework, I followed in Sun’s footsteps, taking buses across southwest China, where languages and cultures change by the valley. I based myself in Kunming, the provincial capital, which has internet, batteries, books, and coffee. After I found a valley I could work in — documenting Trung, a Tibeto-Burman language with fewer than 7,000 speakers — I also found an unlikely source of funding. Part of the Tetra Pak fortune had filtered down from the multinational food packaging firm to Lisbet Rausing, an Anglo-Swedish historian of science who cares about languages. On a morsel of that inheritance, I recorded stories and songs and conversations, analyzed the sounds and sentences of Trung, probed its different dialects, documented knowledge about the local environment, and began compiling a dictionary together with three members of the community. You could do such work, in one valley, for a lifetime.
Three years later I came home. For the first time I could hear New York.
There I found the Endangered Language Alliance. But I also found myself face-to-face with establishment linguistics, whose dogmas have actively prevented linguists from documenting languages before they disappear. What other field would stand by while its objects of study were vanishing?
In 1959, the unknown Noam Chomsky published a devastating review of Verbal Behavior, the magnum opus of the famous psychologist B. F. Skinner. One of the most cited academic articles in history, Chomsky’s review is a thorough takedown of Skinner’s attempt to explain human language through behaviorist notions of input and output, stimulus and response, reinforcement and punishment. Begin with the (possibly apocryphal) story that Skinner himself was conditioned by his students to deliver all his lectures from one side of the room. Now imagine that all the words he spoke were also conditioned, one way or another. Chomsky objected to such brutal reductionism: How could it be just a question of inputs and outputs when we’re able to produce an infinite variety of original utterances after being exposed as children to just a small subset? Despite “the poverty of the stimulus,” as Chomsky called it, we all seem to have an inborn “language acquisition device” hardwired into our brains, giving us the ability to generate utterances on the fly, using just a small number of rules and a limited vocabulary. Out of this critical observation came modern linguistics.
According to Chomsky, our common, deep-seated “linguistic competence,” rather than the messy “performance” of everyday use in 7,000 languages, should be the ultimate object of linguistic study. From the “deep structure” of any language we can discover the Universal Grammar underlying all human language, a dream that Chomsky traced back to the 17th-century Port-Royal Grammar, an epitome of rationalism. “According to Chomsky,” as Steven Pinker glosses the master, “a visiting Martian scientist would surely conclude that aside from their mutually unintelligible vocabularies, Earthlings speak a single language.”
The debate still rages about how deep our linguistic differences go, but linguists following Chomsky largely tried to explain them away, if they acknowledged them at all. The fate of linguistics as a discipline and of individual researchers’ careers seemed to hang on having big claims to make, on stressing the universal. And if Universal Grammar is everywhere, immanent in every utterance, then linguistic diversity has no special scientific worth, just sentimental value. This was the standard message to a young linguist: Don’t learn Spanish, investigate how Spanish handles “wh-movement,” the syntactic mechanism that connects questions and relative clauses. Don’t geek out on Russian — coauthor a paper on optimality theory, with nicely annotated examples from Russian. Profess theories and equations, not languages, or you’ll end up like a college Spanish teacher, stuffing kids’ heads full of vocab — atheoretical, untenurable.
While linguists tackled Earthling, the documentation and description of the little-known, actually existing languages of earthlings fell to a very different crowd: the Protestant missionaries of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), based in Dallas, Texas, who fanned out across the third world to translate God’s word into every human tongue. Portions of the Bible have now been translated into about 2,800 languages, and the work continues. SIL commands the single largest group of language researchers and translators, having developed almost a shadow linguistics. Sometimes their aim was absurdly narrow — to forge a Bible translation just in time for the last speaker to read it — while at others it prefigured and dovetailed with the modern language preservation movement, with the establishment of bilingual schools and an emphasis on literacy.
So things have gone in linguistics for the past five decades. The cracks in the Chomskyan facade appeared only slowly. Chomskyan theory had heralded gadgets of tremendous potential, cold war and otherwise: universal translators, fluent robots, automatic parsers. None materialized. Only when the quants at BabelFish and Google Translate took over, flush with the massive corpus of the internet, did things get moving, but even there progress may have its limits. Back in the academy, intelligent minds avidly pursued more obscure theoretical concerns: parameter interaction, linear incrementation, semantic binding, and covert movement — work that proved illuminating, as long as the broader framework held. But that framework is under attack. The problem, as the linguists Nicholas Evans and Stephen Levinson wrote in 2009, is that there have turned out to be “vanishingly few universals of language in the direct sense that all languages exhibit them,” and those few are “unprofound.” It may be Earthling that is now endangered.
Recursion was supposed to be one universal, the repeating of elements in a self-similar way, a cornerstone of cognition for the way it allows us to construct infinitely long sentences with embedded clauses, as in the tongue-twisting Passover song Chad Gadya (“the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat . . .”). But not in the Pirahã language of Brazil, said one linguist; nor, by the way, do the Pirahã have time or colors or numbers in their language (nor, most distressingly to me, do they sleep for more than a few hours at a time). What about the basic parts of speech? We’ve long known that adjectives and adverbs are not universal, but it turns out that even nouns and verbs may not be clearly distinguished, according to a linguist who works on the Salish languages of the Pacific Northwest. And on it goes. Guarani has nominal tense when by any standard theory it shouldn’t; Riau Malay has neither fixed word order nor case endings; many languages show no evidence of wh-movement, no matter how many nulls and empty sets and exceptions you allow.
Where were the Universals? What if there were just Tendencies or Principles — and if the specifics of languages had their own intrinsic interest, their own claims to value?
Habib is a middle-aged engineer from Iran and longtime resident of eastern Queens who was captivated by the study of language and finished his linguistics PhD in Armenia. Moving to New York, he became an editor at the Encyclopedia Iranica and eventually found his way to the Endangered Language Alliance. We were driving together to an ordinary middle-class house in the Nassau County suburbs. Remember, Habib said to me, Judeo-Kashani is effectively a dead language. No recordings have ever been made.
Habib had found one of the last partial speakers, thanks to the owner of a grocery store in Queens. The owner of this store knows all the Persians in New York, Habib told me, or at least all the old ones who are devoted to the classic ingredients and the prepared specialties, which you can’t get anywhere else, or at least not as cheap and as fresh. Knowing the kinds of speakers Habib was looking for, he put him in contact with another customer, Yaqub “Jack” Tabari, an elderly Persian Jew and a perfect gentleman.
Judeo-Kashani is one of the language varieties that Jews and Christians spoke in the cities of Iran’s central plateau, such as Yazd, Isfahan, Hamadan, and Kashan. Jack grew up in Tehran but had a Kashani mother, so his command of the local language is good, though he’s had almost no one to speak to for decades and has never known the language as the living, breathing heart of a community. The so-called “Central dialects” — quite different from the Teheran standard, which was promoted in draconian style like all national languages from Parisian French to Beijing Mandarin — had long been preserved, for historical and sociological reasons, among the non-Muslim religious minorities. As a result of urbanization, these language varieties were already effectively extinct by the Revolution of 1979, when most speakers left the country altogether. In terms of history, the language has much to teach us — about the development of the Persian languages in general, about the movement of populations, about the history of the Jewish diaspora and of Christians in Iran, about folklore and place-names and local history and the relations of different religious groups and social classes. And from the language itself, with its fiendishly complex verb endings, there are potential insights into what linguists call ergativity, a linguistic feature which challenges and deconstructs our (English-language) notions of active and passive voice, of transitive and intransitive verbs.
We pulled up to Jack’s house, which looked just like any other except for the absence of Christmas lights at that time of year. But inside it was formality over American-style comfort, plastic covering the furniture, all white and gold and black, trays of immaculate fruits and sweets on the table. The old man gave us a courtly reception. His wife brought tea in little glasses and disappeared; we dinged in the sugar with little spoons. Not speaking Persian, I confined myself to smiles and the technical side of things.
Unwinding all my wires, I pinned a lapel mic to Mr. Tabari and set up the equipment while the two of them talked. I grimaced at the sound of a distant jackhammer and listened through my headphones for household noise, some of which would unavoidably be recorded forever. The new digital recorders are so good that sometimes while doing fieldwork you can’t help but pick up the crowing of roosters, the buzzing of flies, the white-noise rush of nearby rivers.
We recorded for an hour, maybe more. Some of it was about the language and its speakers, but in standard Persian: descriptions of the region and its past, discussions of individual words and sounds and bits of grammar that Habib was probing. And then there were a few minutes of pure speech, the simple telling of an old story Jack remembered from fifty, sixty years ago. What linguists call “naturalistic data” is the gold standard — it’s not planned or written out or carefully done or geared toward outside researchers, but spontaneous speech, spoken the way it should be to another speaker. The language caught “in the wild,” without constraints, just doing its thing. Of course, Jack had no other speaker there — Habib could only follow the gist, and he occasionally translated for me — so it was a strangely profound, half-imaginary act, as it is whenever last speakers speak.
Jack was telling a story that once crisscrossed half of Eurasia. Tales of the caustic and clever Sufi, Molla Nasreddin, were known from Bosnia to the borders of China, with as many variants as there were storytellers. In this one, Molla gets married, though he can hardly support a wife. She begs him for clothing, food, adventures, but he makes excuses, claiming he’s a failure in business: “I’m just not making enough money to make your dreams come true.” Enraged at her requests, he beats her — but she takes him to court with the help of her neighbors. At the end, we see the good-for-nothing pleading pathetically before a traditional judge, greasing his mustache with the membrane of a sheep’s tail — a gesture whose significance has been lost to time.