An interesting article from The Economist:

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.

There are some nice examples in the article. Ah, to be young and a linguist in NYC!


  1. The five boroughs of New York City are reckoned to be home to speakers of around 800 languages, many of them close to extinction.
    Pure hysteria. New York’s much less dangerous than it used to be.

  2. Makes me wish this was in LA (where I live). What a great project.

  3. Example of crazy language from the article:

    The Mahongwe word manono, for example, means “I like” when spoken soft and flat, and “I don’t like” when the first syllable is a tad sharper in tone. […] the two words are nearly indistinguishable to an English speaker, but yield starkly different patterns when run through a spectrograph. Manono is a particular linguistic oddity, since it uses only tone to differentiate an affirmative from a negative

    So it’s just like I can vs I can’t in American English?

  4. Linguists as supermen:
    The ELA, which was set up last year […], 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.
    Unless these linguists are working on languages that are already studied (by them or others), or very similar to some that they already know, it would take much longer than a year for three people (who all have full-time jobs) to do a complete “codification” of the structure and literature of 12 different languages. These linguists (perhaps helped by some of their students) have obviously made a good start, but I doubt that their work on the 12 languages is already completed. By the way, pronunciation and word-formation are important parts of grammar.

  5. Tone difference: I think that a better example in English would be “uh-uh” for positive and negative. When I first came to North America, I kept hearing this “word” and at first could not figure out whether it meang ‘yes’ or ‘No’. Eventually I realized that there were two words, differenciated only by tone: rising for ‘yes’, falling for ‘no’. I find it a little confusing in reading dialogue, because without a context “uh-uh” could be either.

  6. In fact, the affirmative form has an /h/ in the middle and the negative form a glottal stop. The same is true of the nasalized forms: [mm̥m] vs. [mʔm].

  7. Peter Austin says

    Our MA students at SOAS (London) have initiated a project called “London’s Language Landscape” in which they identify and record languages spoken in London, starting with people who visit SOAS. So far they have identified speakers of a large number of languages and made 60 recordings of them (including songs, proverbs, favourite words) and developed an interactive maps using Google maps. They presented the project in May 2011 (see here) and have just received funding for a second phase which will make the map public and also result in more recordings. While different in scope and coverage from the New York project, it has been a very interesting experience for the students and has enabled them put into real-world practice what they have been learning in class about data and metadata collection and analysis. There is a nice podcast here by two of the students involved in the project.

  8. Not only does the affirmative form have a /h/, but it also has an <h>: <uh-uh> always means “no”; “yes” is <uh-huh>. Incidentally, the two usually differ in stress placement as well: “yes” is /ʌˈhʌ/, “no” is usually something like /ˈʔʌ.ʔʌ/. (But the stress placement isn’t definitive; /ʔʌˈʔʌ/ is a more childish/emphatic variant that also means “no”, and that also blends with “no” to produce /nʌˈʔʌ/.)

  9. marie-lucie says

    Peter Austin, this is great!
    John C, Ran: Thank you, I bow to your native speakers’ observations.
    It occurs to me that these “utterances” (I don’t want to say “words”) may not be as frequent in Canada (at least where I live now) as in the US, and I am probably relying on memory rather then recent observation.

  10. I don’t make any stress distinctions: the natural mode for me is initial stress, with final stress for emphasis.
    I think of them as paralinguistic grunts, comparable to Oh, Ah, Hmm, Ow!, and so on. The artificial language Lojban has some 29 of these grunts for expressing basic emotions, with ways to modify and qualify them.
    I think they got into AmE from Scots, but I have no proof of this.

  11. An example of a minimal pair in English involving tone I gave my students once: PEOPLE LIKE US. With a rising tone on the second word it means “People appreciate us”. With a falling tone on the second word it means “People who are similar to us”. In many (most?) accents in North America the two “like”s are otherwise phonologically identical.
    Even negating through tone is by no means alien to some lects of English: I once had a (rather elderly) neighbor in the American South who fairly consistently dropped DON’T (the pre-verbal negator) if the following verb was KNOW or NEED, so that I KNOW/I NEED had high tone and negative I (DON’T) KNOW/NEED had low tone (on the verb itself in both positive and negative forms, of course): I will grant that there may have been gemination/strengthening of the initial /n/ in the negative form of both verbs as well. To my ear, though, the tone difference was the crucial feature in distinguishing the positive from the negative forms.

  12. marie-lucie says

    JC: I think they got into AmE from Scots, but I have no proof of this.
    If so, you would think that they would be quite prevalent in Canada, especially in Nova Scotia, but I don’t think they are, as I wrote in my comment above.
    On the other hand, I have seen these two “grunts” mentioned in a work on an indigenous language (I have unfortunately forgotten the name), and I remember thinking that this meant they must have had an indigenous rather than British origin – possibly they were used in a geographical area rather than in a single language. I have not pursued the topic, but perhaps someone here would know something about it.

  13. Well, the Dictionary of the Scots Language has an entry for imphm, which despite the different spelling has the right semantics and the right pronunciation for the fully nasal rather than merely nasalized form of uh-huh, namely [mm̥m]. (If you aren’t seeing that correctly, the middle symbol should be m with ring below, a voiceless [m]). I forgot to notate earlier what John Wells points out, that uh-huh is always nasalized, whereas uh-uh may or may not be.
    In addition to the Scottish citations given byt the DSL, Dorothy Sayers uses the spelling imph’m in her novel set in Scotland, The Five Red Herrings, as well as the short story “The Piscatorial Farce of the Stolen Stomach”, set partly in Scotland. Both works contain both English and Scottish characters, and it is only the Scots who use the term. Here’s Wimsey in the short story talking to a local Scot:
    “Where’s the nearest spit of land where things usually get washed up?” he demanded.
    “Eh, well! there’s the Battery Pool, about a mile doon the river. Ye’ll whiles find things washed up there. Aye. Imph’m. There’s a pool and a bit sand, where the river mak’s a bend. Ye’ll mebbe find it there, I’m thinkin’. Mebbe no. I couldna say.”
    Even Thomas Macpherson, a medical student who speaks Scottish Standard English rather than Scots, replies to Wimsey’s question with it, showing that he thinks of it as part of his variety of the standard language:
    “[…] Was that all he left you?”
    “Imph’m. He said a good digestion was the most precious thing a man could have.”

  14. marie-lucie says

    Thank you, JC, perhaps if I keep my ears open while on the street or the bus I will hear the Scottish interjection.

  15. marie-lucie says

    p.s. But does it mean yes or no? if both, is there any info about how to tell the difference?

  16. Trond Engen says

    Mmm or m-m, pronounced as two syllabic m’s combined to a word in the second tone, means “yes” in Norwegian. Or syllabic m? It’s what you get when you’re making sound with your mouth closed. There’s a variant form æ-æ pronounced with whatever vowel you get through an half-open mouth.
    An m-m or æ-æ with high-low (or rising-falling) tone can accompany headshaking for “no”. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a recent loan.

  17. @m-l: ‘Imph-m’ appears to mean ‘yes’.

  18. “The Scottish interjection”! I like that. It reminds me of “the Scottish play” (from the actor’s superstition that it’s bad luck to mention Macbeth). In any case, it definitely means ‘yes’. The ‘no’ version, whether fully oral, nasalized, or fully nasal, has to have a glottal stop at the beginning and in the middle rather than a period of devoicing in the middle. I don’t know if it’s used in Scotland or not.
    There are emphatic forms of both words with final stress as opposed to the usual initial stress: apparently only the emphatic final-stressed form of uh-uh (negative) has been borrowed into the English of England.

  19. Daniel Kaufman says

    To respond to Marie-Lucie’s comment above, as one of the subjects of the article, it was with no little horror and gnashing of teeth that I read the line about codifying 12 grammars and recording all their songs and legends. No matter what pains I go through to present our work as merely a humble beginning, a reporter will always prefer it to be on the grandest scale possible. Please rest assured though that we never held such pretensions about our work. Having spent over a decade working out details of a single, already quite well-described language (Tagalog), I know full well the absurdity of attempting 12 comprehensive descriptions of poorly described languages! 🙂

  20. Heh. Thanks for clarifying; I generally assume foolishness on the part of the reporter rather than of the subject, but it’s good to have it confirmed.

  21. @Etienne the distinction between “People like us” and “people like us” is one of stress, not of tone. If you stress “like”, no matter whether with a rising or a falling tone, it evokes the verb “to like” meaning.

  22. marie-lucie says

    Daniel Kaufman, that’s how I interpreted the reporter’s statement. I know what it is to work on language description, and I did not mean that you and your colleagues had made this claim yourselves! I hope you can keep up the good work and duild on this promising beginning.

  23. PepperjackCandy says

    Regarding the “manono” thing, my first instinct was that it was similar to how we use sarcasm in English. If you invite a friend whose favorite movies are the “Die Hard” series to see the latest blow-em-up blockbuster, you are likely to get a very different “Sure” than you would be likely to get if you asked someone whose favorite movie is “My Dinner with André.”

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