Mother Tongues is a photographic project by Yuri Marder, in collaboration with the Endangered Language Alliance, featuring portraits of endangered language speakers in NYC. The work was originally exhibited at New York’s City Lore Gallery from January to April 2015 and then at the Queens Museum from April to July 2016.

A portrait of Narayan Gurung and his family in traditional Gurung dress.

Gurung is an endangered Tibeto-Burman language spoken in central Nepal, increasingly threatened by the spread of Nepali and a breakdown in intergenerational transmission. The variety spoken in Sikles, Narayan’s hometown, was little documented until ELA started collaborating with Narayan three years ago.

Honey Hunting (Gurung)

Narayan is a former Gurkha soldier who went on to work at the United Nations and lives in Ridgewood, Queens, where he is a leader in the small Gurung community.

Written in Gurung: If scripture is lost then you lose your tradition. If tradition is lost then you lose your culture. If culture is lost then you lose your identity. – Narayan Gurung

A portrait of James Lovell, a teacher and Garifuna artist committed to the empowerment and advancement of the Garifuna people and culture.

Garifuna is an Arawakan language spoken mainly in Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala — with a lot of speakers now in NYC. The Garifuna have a mix of African and Arawak ancestry and trace their origins to Yurumein, the island of St. Vincent in the Eastern Caribbean. Garifuna is the last living remnant of the indigenous languages formerly spoken in the Caribbean islands.

Story (Garifuna)

James has been working with ELA for several years to share Garifuna music, dance and language with the world — and to teach Garifuna children about their heritage.

Garifuna text:
Determine tomorrow today. – James Lovell


My people don't forget
Our sad experience

Life was so beautiful
In our homeland
We were raised as one in St. Vincent
As the children of one woman, one people, one love

Ever since the death
Of Joseph Chatoyer
The Garifuna race began to fall apart
Ever since the death
Of Joseph Chatoyer
The Garifuna race began to seperate

They burnt our farmland
They burnt our homeland
What will our children eat?
Where will we live?

They killed our leader
They killed our hero
Listen to the crying
Of a people in distress

My people don't forget
Our sad experience

Sing praises to Father the Almighty
The Garifuna race is alive today
Sing praises to father the almighty
The Garifuna race is thriving today

Hallelujah, hallelujah
For giving strength to our ancestors

Hallelujah, hallelujah
The Garifuna race is alive today

A portrait of Marie Reine Jezequel, a Breton teacher and activist sitting in the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Queens at a memorial to Breton sailors who died quarantined on the Hudson River.

Breton is a Celtic language spoken in the Brittany region of Northwestern France. Breton became a severely endangered language due to decades of suppression.

The Quarantined Sailors (Breton)

Marie Reine is one of the founders of the Diwan bilingual school, where children have the chance to master Breton as a living language through the immersion approach of language teaching beginning at a very young age.

The Quarantined Sailors (English Translation)

Written in Breton: Buried in sacred ground so far away from home. Like the famous anthem goes, “Here sleep many brave Bretons.” – Marie Reine Jezequel

A portrait of José Juárez, a speaker of Totonac.

Totonac is spoken by an estimated 280,000 people in the Mexican states of Veracruz and Puebla. Totonac and its sister language, Tepehua, are not known to be related to any other languages on earth. Totonac is losing ground daily to Spanish. Several dialects have no young speakers at all.

José Juárez (Totonac)

José is from the city of Tuxtla in Puebla, Mexico. He is a working shaman based in Passaic, New Jersey who performs traditional ceremonies in the New York area.

In Totonac: The spirit, deeply embedded in the profoundness of being, defeats the monotony of daily life, and creates the possibility of opening doors—no matter how difficult it may seem. – José Juárez

A portrait of Nazir Abbas and his mother, two Wakhi speakers.

Wakhi is an Iranic language spoken by approximately 40,000 people in the remote mountainous Pamir region where Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and China meet. Wakhi is an international language that crosses these borders, but each country has its own national language, and these are fast encroaching upon it.

Nazir and his mother are from the town of Gulmit in Northeast Pakistan.

Wakhi: No one asks anymore. No one cares to ask. The time of indifference has come. – Nazir Abbas

Quote (Wakhi)

A portrait of Daowd Salih, a human rights activist and a speaker of Masalit, a threatened Nilo-Saharan language of Western Darfur.

The native languages of Darfur, such as Masalit, are growing increasingly silent in large part due to refugees fleeing Darfur for Chad and beyond. In refugee camps and in the Darfuri diaspora, Arabic is the common language.

Daowd has been fighting for the survival of his people and his language since the beginning of the Darfur conflict.

Written in Masalit: Our people defeated the French colonisers, and chased them out of our land, and then we rested in the shadow of the doroti tree. –Daowd Saleh

Doroti (Masalit)

A portrait of Zenaida Cantú, a speaker of Tlapanec, also called Me'phaa.

Tlapanec is an indigenous Mexican language spoken by the Tlapanec people, who refer to themselves as Me'phaa, in the state of Guerrero.

Zenaida Cantú (Tlapanec)

Zenaida is a Tlapanec/Me'phaa poet living in NYC. She is originally from the Montaña Alta area in Guerrero, Mexico.

Written on the right in Me’phaa:
A person who has suffered knows to respect and value the things that they have. – Zenaida Cantú

A portrait of Gertrude Rajceck and Dinah Antonoff, both Yiddish speakers.

Yiddish, written in a modified Hebrew alphabet, is considered both a Germanic language and a Jewish “fusion language” with a significant Hebrew and Aramaic component. Though there are many Jewish diaspora languages, Yiddish is the best known and most widely spoken. Despite the horrors of the Holocaust and powerful forces of assimilation elsewhere, Yiddish lives on.

Mein Stetele Belz (Yiddish)

Written on the left in Yiddish:
When there’s no more bread, eat cake. – Gertrude Rajceck

Written on the right in Yiddish:
I’m so lucky I’m an orphan. – Dinah Antonoff.

A portrait of Irwin Sanchez, a speaker of Nahuatl.

Nahuatl is an Uto-Aztecan language, distantly related to the Paiute languages of the Great Basin. During the 15th century at the height of the Aztec empire, Nahuatl served as the Aztecs' language of culture, and commerce. Many Nahuatl words were borrowed into Spanish, and from Spanish into English giving us "avocado," "chili," "tomato," "chocolate," and "coyote."

Poems (Nahuatl)

Although Nahuatl is one of the most widely spoken and best studied indigenous languages of the Americas, it is still losing ground to Spanish due to centuries of suppression. But the recent introduction of bilingual education and a resurgence of interest in indigenous culture could have a significant positive impact on its survival.

Irwin makes an effort to teach Nahuatl to his adorable young son. He is able to count up to twenty!

Irwin Sanchez (Nahuatl)

In Nahuatl: Outside, thunder and lightning, the storm forms a great river in the street. And we stay together inside, making savory cornflour cakes and a drink of hot corn porridge. – Irwin Sanchez

A portrait of Majda Hilmi, a speaker of Kabardian.

Kabardian is a Circassian language of the Caucasus region, currently the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic. Kabardian is rapidly disappearing as speakers shift to the national languages of their diaspora: Turkish, Russian, Arabic and English. Among linguists, Circassian languages are famous for having a wealth of consonants, but very few vowels.

Majda Hilmi (Kabardian)

Majda is originally from Amman, Jordan. A sizable part of the Circassian community in the US currently lives in New Jersey.

Kabardian: If you lose your language, you lose your head. – Majda Hilmi.

A portrait of Maximiliano Bazan, a speaker of Mixtec.

Mixtec is a broad term for a dialect cluster of over 50 closely related language varieties spoken in the region of Mexico sometimes known as “La Mixteca” and encompassing parts of Oaxaca, Puebla, and Guerrero.

Maximiliano Bazan (Mixtec)

While Mixtec as a whole is vibrantly spoken, with the number of speakers possibly even growing slightly, UNESCO considers nearly a dozen Mixtec varieties to be endangered, and in addition a dozen others are thought to have fewer than 2,000 speakers. Some Mixtec communities are shifting to Spanish under economic and demographic pressures.

The population of Mixtec speakers in the New York area has grown significantly in recent years. ELA’s work on Mixtec has been focused on varieties spoken in the New York area that have not yet been well-documented anywhere else or have small numbers of speakers.

Mixtec: In order to prevent your history from getting lost in the world, you must speak your native language. - Maximilano Bazan

Credits: Story

Photography by Yuri Marder

Thanks to all of the speakers who took part in this project.

"Mother Tongues" is a work in progress, with the aim of bringing wider attention to language endangerment and linguistic diversity through art and performance.

Originally exhibited at New York’s City Lore Gallery from January to April 2015 and on digital installation at the Queens Museum from April to July 2016.

Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

For more information, visit our site: The Endangered Language Alliance

Exhibit prepared by Jessica Holtz

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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