Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Babel in New York City

I have a particular fascination with how we use language in this big world of ours. At school, I hear students on campus joking with their friends saying things like, "Oh yeah, she's my b*tch!" (this is one girl referring to another) which translates into "we are best friends." Now, "stupid b*tch" would mean the opposite, so the same word can have different applications depending on not only the adjective but the gender of the speaker (boys can never use the word in a positive way). The f-word is used freely as both an adverb and an adjective, punctuating everyday conversation among friends. If you listen to rap or hip hop you can hear a whole new vocabulary (the urban dictionary online can be very helpful in deciphering the meaning of "stacks" and "boo:). Of course, I believe there is an age cut-off at which time these words can never be used by any speaker of any gender (according to my children, I am in this category).

Then, there are world languages. It is difficult to know how many languages ever existed in the world but experts estimate that between 4,000 and 9,000 have disappeared since the 15th century. Others say that a language disappears on average every two weeks as native speakers die and their children assimilate. Today about 6,800 languages exist with approximately 4,800 spoken in Africa and Asia (and of those, about half have less than 10,000 native speakers). In Papua New Guinea alone there are 830 distinct languages! In Papua New Guinea, pidgin is the lingua franca spoken across the country, comprised of words from English, French and other sources. It is not a hodge podge of phrases but follows particular rules of grammar as do more 'formal' languages.

Linguists are very interested in coding languages before extinction and guess where they are looking? New York City. According to a recent article in the Economist, the five boroughs host speakers of 800 languages, many of them endangered. A group of academic linguists called the Endangered Language Alliance are trying to make a record of those most vulnerable before they are gone and have codified 12 so far including "Garifuna, which is spoken by descendants of African slaves who made their homes on St Vincent after a shipwreck unexpectedly liberated them; Mamuju, from Sulawesi in Indonesia; Mahongwe, a language from Gabon; Shughni, from the Pamirian region of Tajikistan; and an unusual variant of a Mexican language called Totonac." Along with the language, these researchers are collecting stories and cultural artifacts unique to the participants.

Right here in New York City! Fascinating. Can't wait for the online dictionary.

To read the entire article from the Economist, click here.

For more on language and culture read:
Nigeria: pidgin and culture 
Female Bloggers in India: the importance of language.

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