An article by Sam Roberts in today’s NY Times describes some of the many obscure languages spoken in New York City, and the efforts to document them before they disappear. I knew there were a lot of languages spoken in the city, but I had no idea of the variety: the article mentions Vlashki (“a variant of Istro-Romanian”), Garifuna (an Arawakan language now “virtually as common in the Bronx and in Brooklyn as in Honduras and Belize”), Mamuju, Ormuri (“believed to be spoken by a small number of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan”), Massalit (from Darfur)…

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) and Romany (from the Balkans) and Yiddish.

There are some interesting personal stories, and an amazing coincidence. Thanks, Bonnie!
Update. There’s a great video (four and a half minutes) associated with the story in which you can hear several of the languages spoken. Thanks, Gary!


  1. Bill Walderman says

    I’ve known speakers of at least two of the languages mentioned in the article. When I was in the Army, a sergeant who was my supervisor for a while was Guamanian. He would speak Chamorro on the phone with another Guamanian sergeant stationed in the Munich area. It seemed like a very forcefully enunciated language. The numerals were Spanish. And a young colleague in the office next to mine grew up in an Aramaic-speaking household in Detroit. His family is from a village near Mosul, Iraq and he went there to visit his uncle about two years ago.

  2. Chammorro is unsurprising. Guam is an American dependency and Chamorro is spoken by almost 50,000 people.

  3. Yeah, I met a cabbie in New Haven many years ago who knew some Chamorro. (I was carrying a grammar of the language with me when I got into the cab, which is how the subject came up.)

  4. Charles Perry says

    When a friend of mine was stationed in Guam, he killed time by translating “Hamlet” into Chamorro (with the help of a local). Had a bit of trouble with the business about the Swedes in their sleighs, if I remember the passage right.

  5. LH, I don’t know many people who carry grammars of Chamorro with them in the street. It sounds like an excellent way to strike up interesting acquaintances. The only even remotely similar experience I’ve had is practising Mongolian script in a Beijing cafe. Several foreigners (never Chinese) couldn’t contain their curiosity and asked me what the script was.

  6. Mattitiahu says

    While I’m impressed with the Neo-Aramaic speakers in general, I’m even more impressed that they’ve found speakers of the Mandaic variety. 🙂

  7. Poles, not Swedes. maybe? “smote the sledded Polacks on the ice”?

  8. Actually I was the one who directed Sam Roberts to the Mandaic speakers in NYC and gave him some of the info on them that he used in his article; I’m surprised he didn’t at least give me a hat tip.

  9. Engaging speakers of foreign languages in the US can be difficult though. I used to love visiting Chicago because you could practice many Balkan languages in one place, what with the bank teller being Serbian and the check-out girl at the supermarket Romanian (you could determine their language from their name tag and the presence of a foreign accent). But fairly often people were offended by my addressing them in their native tongue, saying things like “Don’t speak Romanian to me, I’m *American* now!”
    How awful it must be for researchers to locate native speakers of endangered languages in the US, only to find that the speaker considers his native language an obstacle to the full assimilation he desires.

  10. I’ve talked to Swedish-Americans born about 1920 whose parents refused to let them learn Swedish. Basically they hated Sweden because of the rigid class system of the early 19th century (“hated” was the word the guy used). I’ve talked to a Croatian-American who felt the same way — “we came here to get away from that stuff”. In some ways it’s unfortunate, but a lot of people came to American for a reason. (Cuisine and church are usually the last to go).

  11. My mother’s parents tried to get their kids to learn Norwegian (this was in the 1910s-’20s in Iowa), but they all refused, even when bribed.

  12. I would have taken a bribe, but nobody offered one.

  13. John Emerson, you should see “A Serious Man”, by the Coens. It takes place in Minneapolis, it’s really good.

  14. I learned Swedish; can I have my bribe now please? (I regret I am currently unable to visit Iowa to collect it. Or for any other reason.)

  15. marie-lucie says

    My mother’s parents tried to get their kids to learn Norwegian (this was in the 1910s-’20s in Iowa), but they all refused, even when bribed.
    The parents probably spoke to their children in English, and tried to teach them Norwegian once they were of school age, but there was no reason why normal kids (not the ones who might become linguists) would want to learn a different, difficult way of communicating with their parents when they already had a perfectly normal one.

  16. Bill Walderman says

    “My mother’s parents tried to get their kids to learn Norwegian (this was in the 1910s-’20s in Iowa), but they all refused, even when bribed.”
    A college friend of mine from Minnesota, after a divorce, looked up his high-school girlfriend, who turned out to be teaching in Norway and also divorced. They’re married to one another now and living back in Minnesota, together with the two teenage boys my friend’s wife had adopted, who were originally from Peru. Last I heard, the two boys were refusing to learn English and insisting on speaking only Norwegian.

  17. marie-lucie says

    BW: Living in Minnesota (for how long?), they were refusing to learn English? Were they home-schooled in Norwegian, having no contact with other kids their age? Or does this mean that they insisted on speaking only Norwegian at home, if that was the language they had always used with their mother?

  18. The same English-only movements as we have now were active in the Midwest from 1880 or so on, and they really intensified around WWI. Many Scandinavians and Germans wanted to educate their kids in the native language, and there were a number of bilingual public schools and maybe even some German-only public schools (as well asn many German Catholic or Lutheran schools). But that died out, partly because of external pressure and partly just because kids wanted to talk the ambient language.
    A guy around here married a Danish woman after he’d learned Danish over there, and their kids were raised bilingual and all spend a year of HS in Denmark. That was an individual exception, though, almost everyone has lost the ancestral language by now.

  19. DeeXtrovert says

    But fairly often people were offended by my addressing them in their native tongue, saying things like “Don’t speak Romanian to me, I’m *American* now!”
    This happened to me a lot (I’m Bosnian) before my English became what it is now. In Chicago, too! I can appreciate that this is a way of being nice and practicing a tongue which might not provide many opportunities for practice . . . but boy, did I hate it!
    What followed this question, in my experience, was an unwanted discussion about the war, questions of my feelings about Serbs or Croats, a whole lot of personal things I wanted to put behind me. I also felt that it was slightly insulting towards my English, which I was then working quite hard to perfect. Every time I was put in a situation where I had to hear to Serbo-Croatian, it felt like some sort of linguistic tide was dragging me out to sea to drown in a mix of bad memories and the hazily-remembered ticks of a language from a world I’d left behind.
    Now some of that seems a little silly, though I’ve forgotten a lot of my native language with no regret. But I’ve found myself doing this same thing when I encounter a speaker of Hungarian or Romanian or some other language in which I am interested!
    Assimilation’s hard, and I understand these people’s retinence to speak the old language . . . even as I pine for the preservation of rare and unusual tongues.

  20. Surely a language such as Irish, which is an official language not only of Ireland, but also of the European Union, cannot be described as “vulnerable”?

  21. Re: bruessel, well, Latin is the official language of the Catholic Church, with over a billion adherents. How’d that work out for it?

  22. Latin is vulnerable?

  23. Trond Engen says

    Latin is vulnerable?
    Biologically. Its speakers are all of the same gender and until now all attempts on reproduction have failed.

  24. Per various Irish I’ve talked to, Irish native speakers are dwindling and few people really learn Irish in school.

  25. Bill Walderman says

    ML: The boys had grown up in Norway but came to Minnesota with their mother as teenagers. I’m not sure exactly how strong a resistance they were putting up to speaking English outside the home, but I thought the story about the two boys from Peru insisting on speaking Norwegian in Minnesota was too good not to share.
    Of course, most people in Scandinavia (well, maybe just Denmark) seem to learn English and speak it better than we do in the US. (Not necessarily better than people in Canada like ML, though.)

  26. marie-lucie says

    two boys from Peru insisting on speaking Norwegian in Minnesota was too good not to share.
    Yes, two South American-looking boys, and they speak Norwegian, in Minnesota! something for the fans of racial profiling to ponder.
    As for me, I have lived in (English parts of) Canada for a long time but I did not grow up there.

  27. mollymooly says

    A fair number of children –of hardcore nationalists in Northern Ireland and middle-class suburban southerners– go to Irish-medium primary schools; the creolized Irish they learn there may be a status-enhancing accomplishment, like French for nice young Victorian ladies. But I wonder how many will speak it to their infant children.
    My mother’s family switched from Irish to English in the home when they got a new housekeeper; she was from down the valley in the town, where English had already taken over. My mother’s boarding school was in Irish, but the teachers were not native speakers and their errors grated.
    One of the advantages of switching from a marginal language to English is that you don’t need to wait for a friend of Charles Perry to translate Hamlet for you.

  28. m-l, didn’t you ever get tired of hearing English all day long and consider moving to a French-speaking part of Canada? Surely there are native languages to study in the French parts too.

  29. marie-lucie says

    AJP, I have sometimes been asked this question, but no! I am not the only francophone around here, and I do have good friends I speak French with, but I don’t feel a need to restrict my social life to people who are or speak French if we don’t have much else in common, or to be surrounded by large numbers of them. My professional interest for many years has been with native languages closer to the Pacific, and I wouldn’t give that up for languages on the Atlantic coast (not that they are not interesting, but that’s the way it turned out).

  30. Anyhow, hexagonal French is not an in-group language of Canada: if you don’t speak Joual or Acadien, as the case may be, you’re still an outsider.

  31. marie-lucie says


  32. I just remember the words of the apartment building superintendent (janitor) in the film El Super, who is woken up by a phone call from one of the residents, and says to his wife “If there’s one thing I can’t take, it’s English first thing in the morning”.

  33. The funniest line from El Super is when the depressed and homesick Cuban super is asked what he is drinking. He peers morosely into his cocktail glass and says “Cuba Libre”, (rum, Coke, and lime juice), literally “free Cuba”.

Speak Your Mind