Even as most of the world’s languages become marginalized in their places of origin, more and more speakers of endangered languages are migrating to urban centers across the world. Yet linguistic fieldwork still mostly takes place in remote villages and few city-dwellers fully recognize the substantial linguistic and cultural diversity all around them. Melting pots like New York are home to hundreds of endangered minority languages, from the Otomanguean languages of Mexico, to the Nilo-Saharan languages of Sudan and everywhere between. Religious liturgies, native-language literatures, ethnic newspapers and radio stations quietly struggle and flourish.
New York may be the single area of greatest linguistic diversity on the planet. Half of all New Yorkers speak a language other than English at home, and many others have languages other than English in their family history. Some 200 languages, if not more, are spoken by students in the New York City school system alone. All of the world’s major languages are represented here, but in individual homes we also find languages whose total number of speakers number only a few thousand.
The Endangered Language Alliance (ELA) was founded with the goal of working with immigrant and refugee populations in New York and other cities, helping them document and maintain their languages. At the same time, ELA has worked through numerous outreach and education events to increase the public’s awareness of urban linguistic diversity.
The acronym ELA echoes the Yahgan word aiala /aiawala/ [eɑala] ‘visible; light; knowledge; wise, intelligent; to know, to learn, to understand, to be conscious, to take in the meaning’. Yahgan is an endangered language of Tierra del Fuego – the southernmost human language on Earth – and is famous for its complex and surprising word meanings. Yahgan is one of the few languages to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records for “the most succinct word”, mamihlapinatapai, which means ‘a look shared by two people with each wishing that the other will initiate something that both desire but which neither one wants to start’. However, since there is at present only one known speaker of Yahgan, it is unlikely that mamihlapinatapai and thousands of other Yahgan words will ever be used again.