Language City: The Fight To Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York

Atlantic Monthly. Feb. 2024. 432p. ISBN 9780802162465. $28. LANG
Linguist/translator Perlin (Intern Nation: How To Learn Nothing and Earn Little in the Brave New Economy) is the codirector of the Manhattan Endangered Language Alliance. A born-and-raised New Yorker, he recounts efforts (by his organization and by everyday New Yorkers) to conserve and maintain six endangered languages and to pass them and their cultural significance on to future generations. Among these languages is Lenape, the language of the New York area’s original Indigenous inhabitants, who called Manhattan “Manahatta,” which means hilly island. For this book, Perlin found only one fluent speaker of Lenape in the city today, but a few others are trying to revive it. Perlin also talks to speakers of Yiddish, the lingua franca of the Lower East Side; Wakhi, spoken today in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and China; Nahuatl, part of a group of Uto-Aztecan languages spoken by some in Mexico; Seke, one of the Indigenous languages of Nepal; and N’Ko, a West African writing system that’s taught in some schools in the Bronx and Harlem. The book includes examples of different sentence structures from these languages, discusses their sounds, and recounts their histories.
VERDICT An in-depth, fascinating analysis of endangered languages and efforts to preserve them in New York City. Give to readers who enjoyed John McWhorter’s Words on the Move.
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