To find new subjects of study, some linguists simply open their front doors
Sep 10th 2011 | NEW YORK | from the print edition
WHERE in the world is the largest number of different languages spoken? Most linguists would probably plump for New Guinea, an island that has 830 recognised tongues scattered around its isolated, jungle-covered valleys. But a place on the other side of the world runs it close. The five boroughs of New York City are reckoned to be home to speakers of around 800 languages, many of them close to extinction.
New York is also home, of course, to a lot of academic linguists, and three of them have got together to create an organisation called the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA), which is ferreting out speakers of unusual tongues from the city’s huddled immigrant masses. The ELA, which was set up last year by Daniel Kaufman, Juliette Blevins and Bob Holman, has worked in detail on 12 languages since its inception. It has codified their grammars, their pronunciations and their word-formation patterns, as well as their songs and legends. Among the specimens in its collection are 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.