New Artwork Charts The Endangered Languages Of Queens, NY

In an incredibly diverse part of NYC, languages are both flourishing and dying.

By Annette Barlow September 16, 2016
Photo courtesy of Cultural Xplorer

We all know that animal and plant species can fall under mortal threat, but did you also know that languages can become endangered? Somewhere out there right now is the last living person who knows a language.

Related: Is Elmhurst Queens The New Frontier For Affordable Rents, Home Buying And Peruvian Food? 

It’s a sobering thought, language being one of the most identifiable and evocative vestiges of particular cultures. But this is particularly upsetting when you learn that UNESCO puts the worldwide number of endangered languages at a very depressing 574—and a surprisingly high number of those can be traced to present day Queens, NY.

It is said that Queens is one of the most diverse places on the planet, with its population of 2.3 million people speaking almost 500 different languages and dialects. With this much diversity, how is it that 59 of its spoken languages are on the endangered list?

It’s a topic that artist Mariam Ghani has set out to explore with her project “The Garden of the Forked Tongue”, a online, interactive installation and physical mural, located in the entryway of the Queens Museum. Part of the Nonstop Metropolis exhibition, which highlights “creative mapping as a means to relay alternative histories of places”, the graphic uses colored polygons to map Queens’ spoken languages and explore how these are distributed through the borough. Each shape is named after the respective language’s word for “tongue”, a play on the title of the project.

Photo courtesy of Fikmik / iStock
Photo courtesy of Fikmik / iStock

Each polygon on the interactive map, when selected, displays a card dedicated to the language The card has statistics about how many people speak it globally, information on its language family and origin and a rating detailing its ethnological scarcity. Each card also features, most importantly, a video where you can hear (and often watch) a native speaker.

It’s a fascinating treatise on the preservation of local and indigenous cultures, but also one that highlights one of New York’s most appealing qualities—its deeply rooted, and often unseen, multiculturalism. Examples included on the map are Purhepecha, more popularly known as Tarascan, spoken in the highlands of the Mexican state Michoacán—and in Corona, Queens; Chantyal, a Nepalese language also popular in Jackson Heights; and Ormuri, an Iranian language hailing from South Waziristan, and spoken regularly in Queens’ Flushing neighborhood.

Moreover, this is a love-letter to a city that has historically welcomed immigrants. After all, America’s first languages hail from the indigenous population, and English only made its way to these shores in the mouths of—gasp—immigrants. In these uncertain political times, where the specter of racism and xenophobia loom larger than Trump’s arsenal of politically incorrect gaffs, it’s a powerful reminder of America’s origins, and an important testimony to preserving and celebrating this country’s richly diverse tapestry.

Annette Barlow



Annette is freelance editor, sub-editor, journalist and proofreader with a fierce love of all things feminist, food and music. She is a regular fixture on the arts, culture and feature desks at The Guardian, and her words have appeared on NME, Great British Chefs, The Fly, The Line of Best Fit and Australian Times.

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