Parlez-vous Aramaic? Sprechen Sie Vlashki? Habla Euskara? Mazel Tov!
New York is a polyglot city. According to the U.S. census, only 51 percent of the population speak English at home, the other 49 speaking a multitude of languages. How many languages in all? Students in the public schools speak 176, and in the borough of Queens alone there are 138. But those numbers are far too low; estimates range as high as 800.
No wonder, then, that on the street your ear is constantly tickled by the sound of foreign languages, just as your palate can be caressed by foreign food. When I go out on local errands in the West Village, I may hear Spanish, French, German, Chinese, or some other languages – maybe Slavic – that I can’t identify. Some of these are spoken by tourists with their nose in a guidebook or taking photos of one another in front of the famous Magnolia Bakery over which I live, but some are spoken by residents. My partner Bob’s doctor, who makes house calls, is Norwegian by birth, though fluent in English and German; Bob’s home care aides are both Haitian and speak French and Creole; a former aide was a Russian woman from Moscow; and until recently his Visiting Nurse was Cambodian.
From my Jewish friend Ken I learned a bunch of Yiddish phrases and have used (or misused) them ever since. How many of these can you define or explain? (See the answers at the end of this post.)
5. Mazel Tov!
6. Oy veh!
Over the years Bob and I have dined in Chinese, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Jewish, Indian, Mexican, Russian, Thai, and Burmese restaurants; the menus might include English, but the dishes were authentically ethnic, and the waiters or waitresses often were, too. Long ago, on my way to my medical center on the Upper East Side, I used to pass a restaurant that boasted of being the only authentic Romanian restaurant in the city. Memorable among our dining experiences have been Bengali meals of many courses served by a friend from Calcutta; numerous Italian meals at our favorite restaurant at Coney Island; and a sumptuous Japanese meal beginning with octopus (“the Japanese chewing gum,” said our American host) as an appetizer, and climaxed by his Japanese wife’s serving us dishes of sukiyaki that were a feast for both the palate and the eye.
As a freelance editor I edited textbooks in French, Spanish, and German, and at some point met and conferred (albeit in English, except for one whirlwind telephone exchange in French) with authors who were native speakers. On Fifth Avenue near the uptown diamond district I have seen bearded, dark-suited Orthodox Jews waiting for the special bus that would whisk them off to their home, probably in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Indian women in saris are a common sight on the street, and once, here in the Village over near the river, I saw a woman in a burka, covered from head to foot except for slits for her eyes.
But ethnic diversity is seen in more than language and dress. Following a meeting of the St. John’s University strikers long ago, I and others went to the Egyptian Gardens nightclub in the West 40s and saw an impressive and very athletic performance – a combination strut, whirl, and wiggle, but mostly wiggle -- by a bona fide Turkish bellydancer in a flimsy gown that left her arms and midriff bare, who was obviously and especially dancing for the benefit of a good-looking young man (not me!) in our group, a dance that was exotic and suggestive but never gross or salacious. Just as memorable was another visit by me on my own to another such Eastern Mediterranean club in the same area, where I saw an older woman get up and dance, slowly and soulfully, by herself: a revelation to me of another culture where people feel free to dance alone to express their inner feelings. (Think of Anthony Quinn in the 1964 film Zorba the Greek.)
Exotic languages usually reflect ethnic enclaves, of which there are scores in New York City. In two posts long ago (#127, #129) I described several of these communities:
· Sherpas of Nepal, who in their homeland guide climbers to the top of Mount Everest, and here reside in Elmhurst, Queens, many of the men driving cabs or even offering computer services;
· Basques from both the French and the Spanish sides of the Pyrenees who speak Euskara, a mysterious ancient language, and live in all five boroughs and work at various jobs, including restaurants offering Basque dishes;
· Romani (Gypsies), who live in small communities in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens, work at jobs as varied as car salesman or jazz musician or electrician, but keep a low profile here because of prejudice against them;
· Sikhs from the Punjab in India, many of whom live in Richmond Hill, Queens, the males, mostly educated professionals, easily identified by their turban;
· Tibetans, refugees from Chinese Communist-dominated Tibet, many of whom live in Jackson Heights, Queens, the women working as nannies and housekeepers and caregivers, and the men as cab drivers, interpreters or translators, and as vendors in the greenmarkets that I patronize;
· Afghans fleeing the 1979 Soviet invasion and, more recently, American bombs, who now live in Flushing and other neighborhoods in Queens, the men driving cabs or working in restaurants or as street vendors, and the women, if not stay-at-home mothers, as babysitters or housekeepers;
· Mohawks who commute from their reservation in distant Canada to work as construction workers in skyscrapers high above the city, boarding here at various locations during the week and returning to their families on weekends.
And I haven’t even mentioned languages like Ukrainian, Polish, Swedish, Hungarian, Portuguese, Greek, Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Laotian, Korean, Tagalog, and countless others, all of which are spoken here.
But these languages are not uncommon. How about Vlashki, a variation of Istro-Romanian, spoken in Queens? Or Garifuna, an Arawakan language spoken today in Honduras and Belize, but also in the Bronx and Brooklyn? Or Aramaic, a semitic Syrian language spoken long ago by Jesus and his disciples, or Chamorro from the Mariana Islands? Or Bukhari, a Jewish language with more speakers in Queens than in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan? Many of these are endangered, as their few elderly speakers die off, though in some cases there is a concerted effort to keep the language alive. New York is a refuge for lost languages, but as the children and grandchildren of immigrants learn the dominant language, English, it is also a graveyard.
Graveyard or not, New York is a polyglot city, its languages reflecting its rich diversity, and it has been such since its origins. New Amsterdam, its Dutch forerunner and a center of trade from the outset, was inhabited almost from the start not just by the Dutch, but also by English refugees from the strict and dour New England colonies, and by Germans, Norwegians, Italians, Jews, Africans (both slave and free), Walloons, Bohemians, Munsees, Montauks, Mohawks, and countless others. So it’s not surprising that The Donald’s tirades today against immigrants fall on indifferent or hostile ears in Gotham, since immigrants are part of our daily life and culture and help make this city work.
Answers to the Yiddish quiz:
1. chutzpah: arrogance, pushiness
2. kibbitz: to give unwarranted advice
3. kvetsh: to complain, to whine
4. mishegas: craziness
5. Mazel Tov! Congratulations! Good luck! Or, sarcastically: It’s about time! (You finally got a job? Mazel Tov!)
6. Oy veh! Woe is me!
7. shmooze: to chat, to make small talk
8. shtick: your bit, routine, thing you do
9. yenta: a gossipy woman, a female busybody
10. shlep: to drag, to carry unwillingly
11. blitspost: e-mail (lightning + mail)
12. tsvishnminik: transgender (between + type)
If you didn’t get the last two, no matter. They are neologisms coined by the new Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary (826 pages!), which seeks to update Yiddish for the 21st century. Whether these neologisms will stick remains to be seen. Confronted with a new concept, Yiddish speakers often just adopt the English word and shrug. And who still speaks Yiddish? Mostly Hasidim and other ultra-Orthodox Jews in the New York City area, plus a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors and, sometimes, their children. Another endangered language.
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I recently learned of a tragic event that should be better known. On November 22, 1963, the ferry Cornelius G. Kolff left its dock in Lower Manhattan bound for Staten Island, but it never got there. En route, it was entangled in the huge tentacles of a giant octopus that dragged it under the water, with a loss of over 400 passengers and crew, whose remains were never recovered. My first reaction, on hearing this, was total disbelief. Giant octopi no doubt exist, but I've never heard of them in these waters. And why wasn't this tragedy widely reported at the time? This question is easily answered: the tragedy occurred on the very day when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, so that news of the assassination, and the subsequent assassination of the assassin, dominated the media for days, to the neglect of other stories. Even this did not totally convince me, but I was directed to a video where an eyewitness describes the incident in telling and very credible detail. A cast-bronze monument by Joseph Reginella memorializing the victims now stands in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, and fliers direct tourists to the Staten Island Ferry Disaster Memorial Museum on Staten Island, where wreckage is displayed containing strange suction-cup marks -- one more reason to visit this neglected but culturally rich borough, only a short ferry trip away. A safe crossing is almost certain, for to my knowledge no similar attacks by giant octopi have been reported since.
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My poems: For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down. To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here. For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.
My books: No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016. For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here. As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Coming soon: The Sufis and me, and how I swayed and chanted, but didn’t whirl. And the poetry of Rumi, who loved God and wine and a wandering dervish named Shams of Tabriz, and what became of that love.
© 2016 Clifford Browder