The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 11-JAN 12

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DEC 11-JAN 12 Issue

YOU CAN’T PUT A LANGUAGE IN A ZOO: Bob Holman and Endangered Languages

Portrait of Bob. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Bob. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

One of the first languages spoken in Brooklyn is already extinct. Yours could be next.

Conservation efforts in Brooklyn are saving the land humans explore and the landmarks we create, while our very system of consciousness is in jeopardy.

Walk the streets of the borough and you’ll encounter Polish in Greenpoint, Greeks in Bay Ridge. With the largest population of any of the five boroughs in New York—2,504,700 people, according to the 2010 census—42.8 percent self-identify as white, 34.3 percent as black, 19.8 percent as Latino or Hispanic, 10.5 percent as Asian, and the rest identify as another race or a mixture of races. Break those statistics down—or just walk around the streets—and you’ll encounter Polish in Greenpoint, Greeks in Bay Ridge, Chinese in Sunset Park, West Indians in Crown Heights, Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg, and many others speaking their native tongue. According to the 2000 census, 46.71 percent of people over the age of five in Kings County speak a language other than English. Spanish is the most represented language, but Urdu, Patois, and Punjabi all make the list. Authentic ethnic restaurants pop up, cultural parades dance down the streets, music booms forth from the band shell, and Hollywood shines its light on various Brooklyn enclaves—but formal institutions to preserve the rich and diverse languages of Brooklyn are lacking. 

At one time, Lenape Native American names were endemic to Brooklyn. Evidence of their language can be found in the naming of the neighborhood Canarsie, which takes its name from the phonetic interpretation of their word for “fenced land” or “fort.” Most of Brooklyn’s place names, however, come from the imposition of the Dutch settlers. Vlacke Bos, meaning “flat woodland,” became Flatbush; Midwout, meaning “middle woods,” became Midwood; and Boswijk, meaning “town of woods,” became Bushwick. Brooklyn itself was named after mansion-strewn Breukelen in the Netherlands. Today, the Lenape’s Unami language is completely extinct, and you can count the number of their Munsee speakers on just one hand.

“Of the 6,500 languages spoken in the world today, only half will make it to the next century,” says poet Bob Holman, one of the founders of the Endangered Language Alliance and host of a new travel series spotlighting the cultures of endangered languages, premiering February 1, 2012, on LinkTV. Holman asks, “While endangered plants and animals are protected by law, who is looking out for the cultures and ways of life held in these words?”

The colorful Dogon mask ceremony from Episode 2 of the show.

On the Road with Bob Holman is the first television series to focus on endangered languages. “Ok, ok, so I'm the Anthony Bourdain of poetry,” opines Holman, “but somehow I think food is an easier sell than poetry. Poetry, however, is just as nutritious, if you ask me. And the ecology of consciousness that is shaken whenever a language dies is just as real as the natural ecology where endangered species are protected by law.” Holman is known as the founder/proprietor of the Bowery Poetry Club, which regularly hosts poetry series that explore culture and language, including the American Sign Language Slam, the Urbana Slam, and readings in many foreign tongues including Tagalog, Tamil, and Farsi. The winner of three Emmy Awards for the poetry shorts he produced for WNYC-TV, Holman tracks down the roots of spoken word and shows how poetry traditions both get to the essence of a culture and give ideas for language revitalization and preservation in On the Road with Bob Holman. He participates in ceremonies, dances, and parties—exchanges poems, songs, recipes, jokes, and insight with the writers, musicians, historians, and language activists he meets—and brings awareness of the poetic economy and its opportunities to be the David to the horrific triumph of capitalism’s Goliath. 

Starting February 1, you can throw yourself into the adventure and go On the Road with Bob Holman. In the first two episodes, the second airing February 8, Holman journeys to West Africa to meet the griots (pronounced gree-ohs), who keep tribal genealogy through poetic songs played on a stringed instrument called the kora. After learning how to make a kora by hand, he travels on and observes a kora–guitar jam session between griot Karamo Susso and Ali Farka Toure’s son, Vieux. He moves up the crocodile-infested Niger River toward Timbuktu, once the center of African learning, and visits the Timbuktu Library, which houses volumes from the 16th century. Attempting to ride a camel, Holman ventures into the Sahara. Amidst the gorgeous desert backdrop rises the hypnotic music of the Tuaregs, the nomadic “blue people,” called that because of the indigo-dyed clothing that rubs off onto their skin. Before long it’s on to a spectacular mask ceremony performed by the Dogon people in Mali.  

Bob getting his fortune told in a Divination ceremony in Dogon region.

In the third episode, airing on February 15, Holman travels to Israel, where he investigates the rise of a single language, Hebrew, in a land that was traditionally polyglot. He gets a tour of Jaffa from a “true Israeli poet from Iraq,” Ronny Someck, and then on the other side of the Wall he hangs out with Palestinian hip-hop poets who incorporate the words of Mahmoud Darwish into their beats. Throughout the journey, Holman hears Yiddish, Ladino, and other tongues, struggling to survive in the face of the Zionist resurrection of Hebrew, which was a dead language that needed the addition of 700 years of vocabulary to become the Zionists’ national language.

Bob taking a boat up the Niger River.

Holman gets to the core of the endangered language crisis that threatens not just a few obscure words but whole systems of consciousness. We see how language becomes tied to food, religion, song—and power. Back home in New York City, Holman founded the Endangered Language Alliance with linguists Daniel Kaufman and Juliette Blevins, which seeks to “further the documentation, description, maintenance, and revitalization of threatened and endangered languages, and to educate the public about the causes and consequences of language extinction.”

In 2010 the Brooklyn Botanic Garden ran the headline: “Some Plants Native to NYC Area Have Become Locally Extinct As New Flora Has Moved In.” The article went on to say that scientist “Dr. Moore notes that changes to plant biodiversity also affect insect and animal life, as well as other aspects of the local ecosystem.” If the same holds true for human languages, our whole infrastructure may be in danger if we fail to preserve our native tongues.

    TUNE IN: On the Road with Bob Holman is produced by Rattapallax in association with Bowery Arts and Science. It will air on LinkTV, which is available on local cable channels, DVD, online, and on DirectTV channel 375 and Dish Network channel 9410. Check out


Stephanie Nikolopoulos


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 11-JAN 12

All Issues