Welcome to our language
—Reesom Haile, Eritrean poet (translation by Charles Cantalupo)
The interview was ending. I was anxious to get on with my day. But the interviewer had one last question for me: “So what is your hope for the future?”
As I pondered the question, it occurred to me that there is something even deeper and more precious to me than the goals I work toward as the director of City Lore, New York’s center for urban folklore. Founded in 1985, we work to preserve places that matter, highlight the work of traditional artists, document stories, bring folk and community-based artists into schools, project poems from the POEMobile, and operate a gallery. Our mission is to further New York City’s—and America’s—living cultural heritage.
Yet my hope for the future goes beyond this: it is that every soul, whose existence happens to manifest itself on the planet, continues through the generations to bring something new into the world, retains their individuality, develops their own sense of humor, and tells their own unique story in a distinctive way. Indeed, I was inspired to become a folklorist because of the expressions and humor I shared with my brothers. That was our language. As human beings, we rely on our language—the language we live in and in which we feel at home—to fully express ourselves. For each of us to live fully as sentient and distinctive individuals, we need to emerge from a diversity of dialects, languages, and cultures. To explore these ideas more deeply, City Lore has held exhibits such as What We Bring: New Immigrant Gifts and Mother Tongues: Endangered Languages in New York and Beyond. Yuri Marder’s photographs from the latter are featured in this article.
The dissolution of a language diminishes each speaker’s ability to be oneself. Half the languages in the world today will disappear in this century. In New York City alone, the Endangered Language Alliance suggests that many of the more than 600 languages spoken are endangered. The Slovenian and Germanic endangered language, Gottscheerisch, is holding on in Ridgewood, Queens; Himalayan languages are still spoken in parts of Brooklyn and Queens; and the Arawakan Garifuna language can still be heard in the Bronx. For me, there is a global imperative to preserve endangered languages—no matter the scale—whether within a nation, a tribe, or village. As Joseph Albert Elie Joubert from the Abenaki tribe in Quebec province put it, “the secrets of our culture lie hidden within our language.”
But why is preserving endangered languages and cultural diversity as important as, say, climate change, or income inequality? Clearly, they are different issues, but they stem from some of the same causes and harbor the same potential solutions.
Read more: The Smithsonian