Half of all 7,000-plus human languages may disappear over the next century and—because many have never been recorded—when they’re gone, it will be forever. Ross Perlin, a linguist and co-director of the non-profit Endangered Language Alliance, is racing against time to map little-known languages across the most linguistically diverse city in history: contemporary New York. In Language City, Perlin follows six remarkable yet ordinary speakers of endangered languages deep into their communities, from the streets of Brooklyn and Queens to villages on the other side of the world, to learn how they are maintaining and reviving their languages against overwhelming odds. He explores the languages themselves, from rare sounds to sentence-long words to bits of grammar that encode entirely different worldviews.
Seke is spoken by 700 people from five ancestral villages in Nepal, and a hundred others living in a single Brooklyn apartment building. N’ko is a radical new West African writing system now going global in Harlem and the Bronx. After centuries of colonization and displacement, Lenape, the city’s original Indigenous language and the source of the name Manhattan (“the place where we get bows”), has just one native speaker, along with a small band of revivalists. Also profiled in the book are speakers of the Indigenous Mexican language Nahuatl, the Central Asian minority language Wakhi, and Yiddish, braided alongside Perlin’s own complicated family legacy.
On the 100th anniversary of a notorious anti-immigration law that closed America’s doors for decades and the 400th anniversary of New York’s colonial founding, Perlin raises the alarm about growing political threats and the onslaught of “killer languages” like English and Spanish. At the same time, Language City celebrates the profound linguistic diversity of a single city and the joy of tuning into this unprecedented Babel.
Praise for Language City:
“Panoramic, enthralling . . . Perlin builds his arc from lavish asides and anecdotes . . . These six figures imbue Perlin’s arguments about linguistics in the here and now, surviving and striving and indeed thriving across the five boroughs. He travels with them back to their hometowns, fleshing out encounters large and small, distilling a history of diaspora and pain that reads like equal parts travelogue and thriller. His pursuit of endangered languages is forensic, examining Creoles like fibers left at the scene of a crime: who did what to whom, and why? . . . Language City will be one of 2024’s superlative nonfiction titles, a love letter to this inclusive, quixotic, exuberant metropolis.”—Hamilton Cain, On the Seawall
“Weaves personal stories with history to demonstrate the urgency of preserving minority languages . . . Language City’s depth rivals a graduate class in the linguistic diversity of New York . . . Perlin urges attentiveness to these fading voices in hopes of nurturing a more respected, connected, and understood world.”—Foreword Reviews
“Enthralling . . . Perlin uses language as a window into N.Y.C. history . . . The result is an immersive meander through N.Y.C.ʼs past and present that brings to the fore its multitudinous nature. Readers will be engrossed.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A spirited celebration of a polyglot city. Linguist Perlin, co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance and author of Intern Nation, makes a strong case for the need to support endangered, Indigenous, and primarily oral languages . . . New York’s cultural richness, Perlin asserts, is nourished by languages. A convincing argument for linguistic multiplicity.”—Kirkus Reviews
“This fascinating book for language buffs delves into the past, present, and future of languages in New York City, one of the planet’s most linguistically diverse places.”—Booklist
“Perlin brings the subject of linguistics down from the ivory tower and into the subway car or the corner bodega. He opens up the world of endangered languages to monolingual mainstream Americans by bringing compelling and driven native speakers of those languages to the table, as well as taking care to provide historical and cultural detail.”—BookPage
“This is a guidebook to a secret New York in hundreds of languages, a map of the world written in the conversations of immigrants from places you’ve never heard of, a manifesto in defense of the value and beauty of the smallest language groups, a portrait of six particular speakers, and a celebration of what language is and these languages are. It’s also a joyful, exciting narrative, and though Ross Perlin has wandered through so many languages, he writes this one, English, with vivid grace. Language City is a celebration of one city and all humanity, and you should read it.”—Rebecca Solnit, author of Orwell’s Roses
“Astonishing, fascinating, revelatory, exhilarating. It’s beautifully written, clearly organized, powerfully argued. By taking ethnolinguistic groups as his unit of analysis he magnifies and deepens and sharpens our understanding of New York as the churning microcosm of the world it is, and always has been.”—Mike Wallace, co-author of Gotham and author of Greater Gotham
“Ross Perlin gives us a tour showing the city as a smorgasbord of languages from all over the globe, from its founding (Pieter Stuyvesant spoke Frisian) to right now. Language City makes living in New York feel like travel.”—John McWhorter, author of Nine Nasty Words
“This passionate, learned and fascinating book gives us a portrait of New York like no other: as the home and refuge of one out of every ten languages spoken on earth. Perlin teaches you how to open your ears to the stunning diversity of speech forms on the subway, in the streets of Queens and everywhere else in the city—and it’s not tourists, but New Yorkers you should be listening to. A great service to New York, to language conservation and to us all, this is a wonderful book and deserves to be read by all who want to know what great cities are made of.”—David Bellos, author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything
“A work of sweeping ambition that succeeds on every level: reportorial, explanatory, stylistic, political. Perlin’s clear-eyed, nuanced depiction of immigrant and indigenous speakers fighting to preserve their languages and cultures couldn’t be more timely—and more urgently needed—than it is right now.”—Margalit Fox, author of Talking Hands, The Riddle of the Labyrinth, and The Confidence Men
“What a rich and explosively vital book. Now to all New York’s other superlatives we can add ‘the most linguistically diverse city in the history of the world.’ Perlin chronicles this panoply from the start, augmenting the supposed eighteen languages spoken in New Amsterdam with the likes of Kikongo, Kimbundu, and Frisian. Most importantly, he shows how New York today is nothing less than a sanctuary of endangered languages.”—Russell Shorto, author of The Island at the Center of the World
“Melting pots and mosaics are just metaphors. Ross Perlin reveals the truth of New York’s diversity in this lively, intimate, definitive exploration of the languages it speaks, and the people who speak them. Language City makes it very clear that New York is in no way dying; in fact, it’s the world’s ark.”—Thomas Dyja, author of New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation
“Language City is a treasure. Each page brims with fascinating historical details that somehow manage to give New York more meaning and importance than it already had. Perlin illustrates the universality of humans through a meticulous investigation of our distinctions and, in the process, makes a tremendous case for resisting assimilation. I am in awe of his curiosity and encyclopedic knowledge of language. What a gift to be able to see my city through the lens that Perlin has crafted here.”—Alejandro Varela, author of The Town of Babylon, finalist for the National Book Award