Monday, 17 December 2012


Half-listening to the radio this morning I caught the tail end of a programme where a Dr Mark Turin talked to some people in New York who are working to preserve the minority languages of America. They had discovered that it was quite possible to investigate the minority languages of South America in New York City, without expensive field trips to other places, because their are so many languages spoken in New York itself, some 800 or so. They also made use of someone broadcasting in one of the South American languages who asked his listeners to contact the academics if they spoke an unusual language. And so they made contact with speakers of a whole range of odd and probably rapidly disappearing languages. 

One of the interesting things they mentioned was the fall and rise of Yiddish. Apparently there were flourishing Jewish communities in and around New York at the end of the 19th century where most people spoke Yiddish all the time. As the members of these communities became more affluent and spread out into other areas the use of Yiddish diminished but academic interest has led to a kind of rebirth. People are going to classes to learn the language. One of the teachers they interviewed spoke about taking his students to visit a Hassidic Jewish community who still use Yiddish among themselves. There they found that modern vocabulary has been borrowed from English and incorporated into the old language. This is all part of language NOT being set in stone but being a living entity.

One of their interviewees had spent a good part of her life in education, often teaching immigrant children to speak English. In the past she had been involved in movements to educate children of immigrants in their mother tongue. At the time she had been very much in favour of this; Spanish-speaking children were educated in Spanish, Chinese-speakers in Chinese and so on. Now, however, she was very much an advocate of educating them all in English so that they all had a greater chance of equal opportunities in later life when seeking employment. (I wonder if the advocates of education in Basque, Catalan and Gallego have considered this factor.) Interestingly she was not totally convinced about the arguments in favour of the United States having only one official language: English. 

It would probably be possible to do a similar study of language use in Greater Manchester. According to something I read this weekend Manchester has one of the largest ranges of languages spoken in the United Kingdom. Although nowhere near as big a London, Manchester compares very well with the capital in terms of diversity. It’s one of the things that give the city a buzz as you walk around: a linguistically colourful place.

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