Endangered Language Alliance

Arts & Culture

engaging with the artistic, musical, literary, and performance traditions of endangered languages

Languages are fundamentally linked to arts and culture, and ELA is deeply engaged with the music, literature, performance, and artistic traditions encoded and expressed in endangered languages.

In 2014, we created Unheard Of!, an ongoing series — 7 events so far — which presents poetry, music, and oral literature from a wide range of languages and regions, including Indonesia, the Pamir and Himalayan mountain ranges, the Celtic lands, the Jewish diaspora, Mexico, and the southern United States. All events were hosted in conjunction with our friends at the legendary Bowery Poetry Club in New York City.

Part 1: Indonesia presented Betawi poetry by Corin D. Asmara, Tontemboan storytelling by Rosa and Alfrits Monintja, Ngaju Dayak reading by Ben Abel, Acehnese pantun poetry by Yusra Zaini, and a special performance by Amalia Suryani and her Saung Budaya Indonesian Dance GroupView the “Unheard Of Part 1” Slide Presentation


Part 2: Pamirs presented the music of Shughni sitar player and singer Khurshed Alidudov, Shughni reading by Nanish Nazrisho, a Bartangi story read by Gulchehra Sheralshoeva, Wakhi from Husniya Khujamyorova, as well as presentations by Habib Borjian and Rustam Nazrisho. View the “Unheard Of Part 2” Slide Presentation


Part 3: Celtic, in partnership with Breizh-Amerika, included Irish poetry from Hilary Mhic Suibhne, Irish songs and readings from Timothy McKeon, a Breton musical performance and reading by Matyas Le Brun from his book Douar-Neizh (Earth, This Nest); a talk on Breton by Charles Kergaravat and a performance by Fabienne Geffroy, and a special (non-Celtic) performance by visiting Saami yoiker Ánde Somby.


Part 4: Himalayas included Amdo Tibetan songs performed by the Himalayan Language and Culture Project with Tenzing Jempel and Sonam Lhamo, Sherpa music by Phuri Lama, and presentations by Mustang speaker Nawang Tsering Gurung and linguist Chris Geissler. View the “Unheard Of Part 4” Slide Presentation


Part 5: Mobilian Trade Language featured the words and music of the Mobilian Trade Language, spoken as a lingua franca among different Native American groups along the Gulf of Mexico, performed and explained by Grayhawk Perkins and his Mezcal Jazz Unit. View the “Unheard Of Part 5” Slide Presentation


Part 6: Jewish Languages highlighted secular and sacred song in the languages of the Jewish diaspora, with performances by Ladino singer Sarah Aroeste and Rabbi Yohai Cohen, a master of Judeo-Arabic maqam.


Part 7: Mexico, in partnership with Mano a Mano, presented Nahuatl poetry by Irwin Sánchez, Mixtec tongue twisters by Maximiliano Bassano, Totonac from José Juarez, Tlapanec poetry from Zenaida Cantu and Jhoana Montes, and talks from Juan-Carlos Aguirre and ELA Director Daniel Kaufman. View the “Unheard Of Part 7” Slide Presentation


ELA offers occasional informal tours highlighting the deep linguistic and cultural diversity of New York City neighborhoods. When held, tours are open either to private groups by reservation or to the public, and all proceeds go towards ELA’s work and those who make the tour possible. Most include some walking, good food, and encounters with speakers of endangered or less well-known languages. Some past tours — Jewish Languages of Brooklyn, Himalayan Queens, Ridgewood — are below. Other possible tours include the introductory Languages of New York, Asian Queens, African Harlem, Meso-American New York, Post-Soviet Brooklyn, and Jewish Queens. Please contact us for more information!

Our Jewish Languages of Brooklyn tour, part of the Jewish Languages Project,  visited the heart of the tight-knit Syrian Jewish community; learned about a unique Jewish dance tradition from Azerbaijan; heard the singing of a cantor who carries on classical Judeo-Arabic musical traditions; sampled delicacies at a famous Syrian Jewish bakery; and waded into a unique treasure trove of Jewish books with a focus on deep Jewish diversity. In the process we heard examples of Jewish languages from Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, the Caucasus, and elsewhere.

Jlang Fieldtrip HandoutJlang Fieldtrip Handout 2


DSC00012DSC00019Jewish Languages Tour (Yohai)

Our Himalayan Queens fieldtrip, tied to our Voices of the Himalayas project, explored the linguistic superdiversity of Jackson Heights, making contact not just with Tibetan and Nepali, but with the cultural and linguistic heritage of Mustang, Manang, Thak Kola, and the Sherpa area near Mt. Everest in Nepal.

Himalayan Fieldtrip HandoutHimalayan Fieldtrip Handout p2



Our visit to Ridgewood, Queens took in a Sicilian social club, the highly endangered Gottscheerisch language, a street of Coptic Christians from Egypt, and the small Gurung community from Nepal, among other places.


Much of the world’s great vocal music reflects, and is embedded in, its languages. In many cases, song lyrics are still known in communities where the language is no longer used in daily life — music effectively becomes the last carrier of language. ELA records singing and vocal traditions whenever possible, often with seasoned performers and artists, and in many cases the individuals and communities we work with have a special interest in recording song.

Most recently, with support from the National Endowment of the Arts, we identified and recorded 16 different Himalayan singers singing in 6 different languages and representing a wide range of traditions — a reflection of the remarkable diversity of Himalayan vocal traditions and of the major new Himalayan diaspora center of New York. With each singer, we recorded between two and five songs chosen for their variety and distinctiveness, as well as conducting an in-depth interview including information about each song and about the singer’s personal and artistic background. At least one song from each singer in English and/or Tibetan is subtitled to the greatest extent possible, and all videos are now publicly available.

At the conclusion of the project, we created a free three-hour concert on May 27, 2019 featuring 10 of the singers at a major community venue in Queens. The concert had over 140 attendees, many of them Himalayan elders who sang along and danced to familiar songs and listened rapt to unfamiliar ones. The project testifies to the extraordinary diversity of Himalayan vocal music known and practiced in the United States today. Not only are there still traditionally trained masters from the region able to practice their art, like the “drokpa” (nomad) singer Jampa Youden from western Tibet (above), there are also younger practitioners like Pasang Phuti Sherpa attempting to learn and create new work.

img_5715-jpgimg_5714In 2013, ELA helped bring together Breton and Garifuna musicians for a unique collaboration — the Breizh Amerika Collective album “Asambles. Uwarani. Together” was the result. Trust us, you’ve never heard anything like it. Donate $25 to ELA and get a free gift CD, U.S. domestic shipping included, and help support endangered musical cultures in New York and around the world.

Listen to a preview of “Asambles. Uwarani. Together” below!

Garifuna song comes in a remarkable number of varieties. Two examples are below: master musician, educator, and Garifuna activist James Lovell plays the mournful song “Walamiseru”, and New York’s Libaña Maraza group performs a series of Arumahani songs (all-male capella distinctive from all-female Abeimahani), demonstrating a genre that is fast disappearing.


Vocal traditions are strong in the Pamir region of Tajikistan, too. Below, listen to a Wakhi a cappella song of longing (known as “bɨlbɨlik”), recorded in Vrang (in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan), and a special kind of lalajik, or lullaby, only known among the Rushani — a funeral lullaby for one who has passed.

Melodies carry cultures. See below for two very different examples recorded by ELA: Raphael (Refoyl) Finkel demonstrates traditional the Torah trop used by many Ashkenazi Jews, a “cantillation” method pairing melody with set right-handed gestures for reading and remembering holy scripture (in this case, Genesis 39:7-11). And sitar player and singer Khurshed Alidudov shows his mastery of his Shughni tradition.


Languages are central nodes of culture — many people feel that the loss of a language is tantamount to the loss of an entire culture. A language encodes a worldview, a range of unspoken norms and assumptions, and a wealth of historical and environmental knowledge.

Our Circassian collaborator, Jonty Yamisha, has stated the current dilemma aptly: If an old and precious artifact was found lying in the street, few people would pass it by without notice. Sculptures, paintings, inscriptions and other physical artifacts have demanded an extraordinary level of attention throughout the world. But just the opposite is true for the world’s intangible heritage, which we are losing before our very eyes.

Some of the cultural events we’ve hosted, sponsored, or played a major role in:

  • This Is Who I Am, a short film about a young Ojibwe woman reconnecting to her language and culture in the big city.
  • Collaborative events between the Breton- and Garifuna-speaking communities in New York in March 2013 and May 2015.

Ciao Babylon

Ciao Babylon, directed by Kurt Reinhard and Christoph Schreiber and produced by Frank Matter (Soap Factory), is a film about endangered languages in NYC which features ELA linguists and collaborators. The film also follows NYC high school teacher Giancarlo Malchiodi from Brooklyn to the Swiss Alps on his way to rediscover his mother tongue Romanish, a language that may lose its last native speakers within a few decades. Giancarlo spoke perfect Romansh as a boy, but later, as he says, decided out of youthful exuberance to only speak English. He now regrets that he is no longer proficient in the language of his forefathers. This is why he has started to relearn the language and eventually embarks on a trip with his mother, Amalia, to Sagogn, her hometown. There they meet a Portuguese family whose children are growing up with the Romansh language, which they are learning with relative ease given its similarity to their mother tongue. As a result, the many Portuguese immigrants in Grisons are becoming the new hope for the preservation of Romansh in Switzerland.

Ciao Babylon is available via Documentary Educational Resources.

Language Matters

Language Matters with Bob Holman, produced in conjunction with ELA, is a documentary in three acts, describing the struggles and triumphs of language activists in Australia, Wales, and Hawaii who are developing and revitalizing their languages and cultures. Directed by David Grubin and with major funding provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the film aired nationwide on PBS in January 2015, to critical acclaim. The whole film is now free to watch online:

Video: Full Episode | Watch Language Matters Online | PBS Video

Language Matters makes clear everything that is lost when a language disappears: a wealth of ecological, zoological, and botanical knowledge; a world of cultural creativity; and a lens on life, a unique and irreplaceable outlook on the world. Facing a catastrophic loss of cultural and linguistic diversity, people from all over the world are responding with unprecedented efforts to document, develop, and revitalize endangered languages.

In the film, Bob, a poet who is also an ELA board member, flies to the Australia and meets Charlie Mangulda, the last speaker of Amurdak, and the Aboriginal song man Solomon Nangamu, who is single-handedly keeping Manangkardi alive through his “song line.” In Wales, he meets poets, singer-songwriters, and even a rapper bringing Welsh rap to the pub — and Bob himself makes a go of competing (in Welsh) in the National Eisteddfod, a massive celebration of the language and its verbal art. Finally, in Hawaii, Bob observes at close hand one of the most successful revitalization movements, which is bringing the Hawaiian language back from extinction thanks to sheer determination and inspired education initiatives for young people (from birth through college).

To read more about the film, the participants, and the languages, visit http://www.languagemattersfilm.com

Language Matters