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From Five Continents to Five Boroughs: A Language Map for New York City

By Ross Perlin

Ross Perlin, codirector of the Endangered Language Alliance, explores five languages—Lenape, Nahuatl, Seke, Irish, and Mandinka—that are featured alongside scores of others on the organization’s language map of New York City.

In December, the Endangered Language Alliance—a nonprofit whose mission is to document and support endangered languages—released the first-ever linguist-designed language map of New York, one of the most linguistically diverse cities not only on the planet, but in the history of the planet.

With more than three times the number of languages recorded by the Census Bureau in New York, the Languages of New York map shows a city of much deeper diversity than previously understood, in part because it includes Indigenous, minority, and endangered languages that are primarily oral. A network of linguists, community leaders, language activists, and ordinary New Yorkers drew on hundreds of conversations, as well as all available sources, to map over 600 languages (as well as some dialects, ethnolects, and liturgical and other languages) to approximately 1,000 significant sites around the metropolitan area. The result is now out in print (available for a donation supporting linguistic diversity), and an interactive digital version is in the works.  

Here are five of the many languages that appear on the map, each from a different continent and each now spoken in one (or more) of New York’s five boroughs:

  1. Lenape (Manhattan)

Besides the southern bit of what is now New York state, traditional Lenape territory encompasses New Jersey, northern Delaware, and eastern Pennsylvania, where people lived across a constellation of separate, but linguistically and culturally similar, bands—forty or more, with a few hundred members each. In New Jersey, there were the Raritans, the Haverstraw, the Tappan, the Hackensack, the Minisinks, and others; in what is now New York City, the Canarsee, the Nayack, the Rockaway, and others. Across the Lenape world, at least three closely related languages were probably spoken: Southern Unami, Northern Unami, and Munsee (the variety associated with present-day New York City). Today, after centuries of dispersal and diaspora, the Lenape are in Ontario, with three officially recognized Lenape clusters at Moraviantown, Munsee, and the mixed Six Nations Reserve. They also live in Oklahoma—two federally recognized Lenape tribes in the west and the east of the state—and at Stockbridge in Wisconsin, and there are groups and individuals across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. There are a few native speakers of Munsee remaining in Ontario, and revival efforts—including classes taught by Lenape language keeper Karen Hunter at the office of the Endangered Language Alliance on 18th Street in Manaháhtaan—are ongoing.

  1. Nahuatl (Staten Island)

With approximately 1.5 million speakers in central Mexico, Nahuatl is one of the most widely spoken Indigenous languages of the Americas and retains a direct connection to the Classical Nahuatl used in the Aztec Empire. Along with Mixtec, Nahuatl may have thousands or even tens of thousands of speakers in the metropolitan area. Some thirty-plus Nahuatl varieties have been identified, sometimes seen as constituting six distinct languages. There are Nahuatl-speaking individuals and communities in every borough, including Staten Island. La Red de Pueblos Transnacionales represents sizable organized communities that have, in effect, migrated together from Mexican towns to New York neighborhoods, including a group from Necoxtla (Puebla) now in Corona, Queens; one from San Francisco de Tetlanohcan (Tlaxcala) in Coney Island and New Haven; a community from Teopantlán (Puebla) now living across the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn; and as many as one hundred people from San Lucas Atzala (Puebla) now in Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. There is a growing contemporary literature in Nahuatl as well—read Gabriel Pacheco’s story “La Pesicola.”

  1. Seke (Brooklyn)

Seke is spoken in five villages in the lower part of Upper Mustang in Nepal, but a majority of the language’s approximately 700 speakers now live outside the region, whether in the nearby town of Jomsom, the larger city of Pokhara, the national capital of Kathmandu (sometimes on a seasonal basis), or in diaspora centers such as New York City. Younger speakers are shifting to Nepali and in some cases speaking Loke, Tibetan, and English. New York City is now home to a significant Seke population of 100–200 people, primarily from Chuksang and Chele. Most of the community lives among Baragaunle speakers in the Ditmas Park area of Brooklyn or with the larger Himalayan community in Queens, near Jackson Heights. Like other Himalayan communities, many of these Seke speakers have an active samaj (community organization) and hold large annual gatherings.

Central Brooklyn as depicted by the language map.

  1. Irish (Queens)

Irish immigration to New York began early in the history of the city, accelerating dramatically during the mid-nineteenth century in the wake of the Great Famine, and there is evidence that a significant percentage of those arriving at that time came from Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) areas in western Ireland. (Irish is sometimes also called “Gaelic.”) Many significant figures and events in modern Irish culture have New York connections, from Eamon de Valera (born in Manhattan) to John Kilgallon (the “Rockaway Rebel” who joined the Easter Rising). The first regular journal ever printed in Irish, An Gaodhal, was launched in Brooklyn in 1881. Historic Irish neighborhoods include Hell’s Kitchen and much of Manhattan’s West Side; Sunnyside, Rockaway, and Breezy Point in Queens; and large sections of Brooklyn (Park Slope, Windsor Terrace) and the Bronx (Woodlawn), among many other neighborhoods and suburbs. From the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan to the New York Irish Center in Queens, a large number of organizations in and around the city are involved in teaching, maintaining, and spreading the language among both native speakers and second-language learners—and there is an active literary scene. Read Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s poem, translated fom the Irish.

  1. Mandinka (Bronx)

The Mande languages, including Mandinka, comprise dozens of closely related language varieties spoken across West Africa and connected to the historic Mali empire. Today, these languages are widespread across Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Ivory Coast, with a host of related names: to give just a few examples, Mandinka (in Mali, Guinea, and elsewhere), Mandingo (in Liberia), Malinké (in Ivory Coast), and sometimes Maninka. Bambara (Mali) and Dioula (Ivory Coast) are also major related languages with large communities of speakers in New York. Today, New York (especially Harlem and the Central Bronx) is home to a vast swath of Mande languages from across the region—over 11,000 according to the Census Bureau’s 2013–2017 American Community Survey data (though this figure is likely very low). Flourishing poetic and oral traditions, embodied by djeli and griot at the center of Mande cultures, are now a vital part of New York.

With the 2020 census coming, the city is making an unprecedented push for a complete count, and a lot is at stake. If the new map is any guide, a full understanding of New York’s diversity can only begin when we listen to all of its languages.

Ross Perlin is codirector of the Endangered Language Alliance, where for the last seven years he has overseen research projects focused on mapmaking, documentation, policy, and public programming for urban linguistic diversity. Ross has also written on language, culture, and politics for the New York Times, the Guardian, and Harper’s, and published a book on unpaid work and youth economics (Intern Nation). He teaches linguistics at Columbia.

Founded in 2010, the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA) is a nonprofit dedicated to supporting linguistic diversity and endangered languages in New York City and beyond. ELA’s unique network of researchers, activists, and students documents the speech, stories, and songs of immigrant, refugee, and diaspora communities, bringing it to a wider audience. ELA’s work has been recognized by the New York Times, the BBC, NPR, CNN, and the New Yorker.

Published Feb 3, 2020   Copyright 2020 Ross Perlin

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