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Endangered Language Portraits

It all started when Dan Kaufman, of the Endangered Language Alliance, walked into an immigration office on 23rd Street and saw one of Yuri Marder’s astonishing black and white portraits. Dan knew immediately that the scrawled text on the photograph was in Malagasy, the national language of Madagascar. And he knew that this photographic portrait carried all the information of endangered languages. People cut off, unable to speak with others, the sadness of solitude.

Marder had not had endangered languages in mind when he began this work—he just felt that the language in its handwritten state somehow carried the essence of the culture. The child of European refugees, Marder has won many grants and prizes, including fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and Art Matters. His work has been featured in solo exhibitions at Abrons Art Center, Henry Street Settlement, New York, NY; Photography Gallery, Notre Dame University, Notre Dame, IN; Jamaica Center for Arts  and Learning, Queens, NY; the Robert B. Menschel Photography Gallery, Syracuse, NY; Grand Central Station, New York, NY; and the School of Art and Design Gallery, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA.



Pictured here is Narayan Gurung and his family in traditional Gurung dress. Narayan is a former Gurkha soldier who has been working with linguistics students at the Endangered Language Alliance to document his language and culture.


“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.”



Irwin Sanchez is a Nahuatl language teacher and activist from La Resurreción, Puebla, Mexico. He teaches Nahuatl at the Endangered Language Alliance, and is renowned for his knowledge of Nahuatl food etymology. He also knows, for example, that the best mole in New York City can be found at La Adelita, in Woodside Queens.


“Outside, thunder and lightning, the storm forms a great river in the street. And we stay together inside, making savory corn flour cakes and a drink of hot corn porridge.”



Nazir Abbas lives with his mother in Long Island. They are from the town of Gulmit in Northeast Pakistan. Nazir has worked with the Endangered Language Alliance to describe Wakhi grammar and dialectology.


“No one asks you. No one would ask you. The age of coldness has come.”



Zenaida Cantú is originally from the town of Malinaltepec, and now makes her home in the Bronx. She writes in Spanish but performs the text in Me’phaa. This is a technique that arose from necessity: Tlapaneco was not written, and indigenous languages have only recently entered the educational system.


“A person who has suffered knows to respect and value the things that they have.”



James Lovell is a Garifuna musician and language activist. He works tirelessly to teach children Garifuna, an Arawak Indian language, through song and performance in Belize, New York, and St. Vincent. He has been working with the Endangered Language Alliance on Yugacure, a project to repatriate Garifuna to its origins in St. Vincent, under the direction of Trish St. Hill. A Garifuna word which translates to yucca, a staple Garifuna food source, yuga is also a Vincentian colloquialism meaning “you got.”


“Determine tomorrow today.”



Daowd Saleh, originally from Sudan, is a human rights activist. Daowd has been fighting for the survival of his people and his language since the beginning of the Darfur conflict. He teaches classes and records his language, Masalit, at the Urban Field Station for Linguistic Research, the home office of the Endangered Language Alliance.


“Our people defeated the French colonizers, and chased them out of our land, and then we rested in the shadow of the doroti tree.”




Yuri Marder


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

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