“Linguistic Diversity Is Precious” Because Languages Are “Natural Experiments” in “Ways of Seeing, Understanding, and Living”

(p. A13) Linguistic variety is “often seen as a problem, the curse of Babel,” but for a linguist, New York City is a riotous collection of living specimens—a “greenhouse, not a graveyard.”  . . .  Mr. Perlin, who has a doctorate in linguistics, helps run the Endangered Language Alliance, which works to document such minority tongues.  . . .

The heart of “Language City” is portraits of individual New York-based speakers. Mr. Perlin writes about their work as well as his, capturing the grind of immigrant life with empathy, balance and wit.  (. . .)  “If the country was rich we would never leave,” says Husniya, a Wakhi speaker from bleak post-Soviet Tajikistan. But she savors the city’s entrepreneurial energy: “New York opened my eyes. It shapes you to be a human being, not dividing based on religion, face, or race, or anything.”

. . .

Wonderfully rich, “Language City” is in part an introduction to the diverse ways different languages work. Seke and other “evidential” languages, for example, have different grammatical forms to indicate how the speaker knows what she’s asserting—whether from observation or inference, hearsay or hunch. Other languages syntactically “tag the speaker’s surprise at unexpected information” or have a special temporal marking “just for things happening today.”

. . .

Yet linguistic diversity is precious, Mr. Perlin stresses, and should be celebrated, not just tolerated.  . . .  . . ., languages “represent thousands of natural experiments” that encode wildly different “ways of seeing, understanding, and living.” Constructed by generations of collective effort, they are invisible cathedrals bigger and more democratic than any building.

For the full review see:

Timothy Farrington. “BOOKSHELF; The Words On the Street.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, Feb. 23, 2024): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 22, 2024, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Language City’ Review: The Words on the Street.”)

The book under review is:

Perlin, Ross. Language City: The Fight to Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York. Washington, D.C.: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2024.

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