Seke in Brooklyn.

Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura writes in the NY Times about “a Brooklyn building that is home to about 50 speakers of Seke, one of the world’s most obscure languages”:

The apartment building, in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, is a hive of nationalities. A Pakistani woman entered the elevator on a recent afternoon with a big bag of groceries, flicking a dupatta over her shoulder as a Nepalese nurse and the janitor, a man from Jamaica there to mop up a spill, followed her in.

It was hardly an unusual scene in New York, one of the world’s most diverse cities. But this nondescript, seven-story brick building is also the improbable home to some of the last speakers of a rare, unwritten language from Nepal that linguists worry could disappear within a generation, if not sooner.

The language, Seke, is spoken in just five villages cloistered by craggy cliffs and caves in a part of Nepal called Mustang, a region close to the border with Tibet. There are just 700 or so Seke speakers left in the world, according to a recent study by the Endangered Language Alliance, a New York-based organization dedicated to preserving rare languages in the city. Of those, a little over 100 are in New York, and nearly half of them live in the building in Flatbush. […] The remaining Seke speakers live in another building in Flatbush or are scattered across Queens. […] Seke is one of 637 languages and dialects that the Endangered Language Alliance has identified as being spoken across the five boroughs of New York and in New Jersey, which also has a diverse, global population. […]

Another language, Wakhi, from eastern Iran as well as parts of Pakistan, China, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, is believed to be spoken by less than a handful of people in New York, according to the language alliance. One speaker, Husniya Khujamyorova, 31, who works as a linguist at the organization, is writing children’s books in Wakhi in the hopes of passing down the language, which is spoken by about 40,000 people worldwide. “People like me, they move at an early age from their country,” Ms. Khujamyorova said. “There is not enough material to pass their language to the new generation.” […]

In New York, young Nepalese, like Ms. Gurung’s cousins, speak very little Seke. She says she is the most fluent speaker among the diaspora’s younger members and has been helping the Endangered Language Alliance compile a Seke-English dictionary. […] Other factors are also causing Seke’s demise, said Mr. Gurung, the translator. In New York, native speakers tend to work long hours with little time to teach their children — and there are no cultural or language centers. There is also no real demand for Seke. Younger Seke speakers prefer learning far more common languages like Spanish or Mandarin. “They say, ‘What’s the purpose of learning the language when there is no use for it in the future?’” Mr. Gurung said. Instead, a new dialect called Ramaluk is developing among the Nepalese diaspora, Mr. Gurung said, which borrows and mixes words from English, Nepali, Hindi and some Seke. “It’s a new language,” he said.

There are photos and more stories at the link, along with a half-minute audio clip of a conversation in Seke over dinner. (Incidentally, I posted about Mustang back in 2003.) I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, and I particularly enjoyed the reference to Wakhi, with which I was inexplicably fascinated as a grad student in Indo-European (it’s one of the Eastern Iranian languages, spoken in the mountainous, oddly shaped Wakhan District). Thanks, Eric and juha!


  1. Wakhan District

    aka the Wakhan Corridor:

  2. David Marjanović says

    with which I was inexplicably fascinated as a grad student in Indo-European

    You’re in good company; the Soviet and post-Soviet Iranists have been all over it.

  3. Something to read in Wakhi:

    Luqo Injil. Луқо Инҷил, 2001

Speak Your Mind