The Lost Languages

Yiddish YankeeLanguage is one of the aspects of immigration that we explore through exhibits and education programs at the museum. In our Yiddish newspaper interactive activity, visitors become editors of their very own turn-of-the-century paper, mixing articles from socialist presses with editorials from the Orthodox dailies. The display of Yiddish signs from the neighborhood shows the integration of English words into like “clean” and “fix” into the Yiddish language. A recent article in the New York Times discuss issues of language and immigration, highlighting the ways in which immigration can be a death knell for a rare language.

“Listening to (and Saving) the World’s Languages” explores how New York has become the greatest repository of rare languages:

In addition to dozens of Native American languages, vulnerable foreign languages that researchers say are spoken in New York include Aramaic, Chaldic and Mandaic from the Semitic family; Bukhari (a Bukharian Jewish language, which has more speakers in Queens than in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan); Chamorro (from the Mariana Islands); Irish Gaelic; Kashubian (from Poland); indigenous Mexican languages; Pennsylvania Dutch; Rhaeto-Romanic (spoken in Switzerland); Romany (from the Balkans); and Yiddish.

For many of these languages, there are more speakers in New York than in the area where the language originated .”‘It is the capital of language density in the world,’ said Daniel Kaufman, an adjunct professor of linguistics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. ‘We’re sitting in an endangerment hot spot where we are surrounded by languages that are not going to be around even in 20 or 30 years.'” The City Room blog created a list of the least-commonly spoken languages in New York and how many people are known to speak them. Topping the list is Cayuga, with only 6 speakers! Though the number of Yiddish speakers is considerably higher, it too is vulnerable and on the list of the Endangered Language Alliance. Once the vernacular of the Lower East Side community, it has fallen into a state of near-extinction outside of Hasidic communities.

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