The problem with trying to resuscitate dying languages

Books about endangered languages tend to be laments, full of shocking statistics and portraits of impossibly frail, ancient last speakers in faraway places. Ross Perlin’s exuberant, radical book blasts that away, exploring, instead, New York, now ‘the most linguistically diverse city in the history of the world’, home to more than 700 languages (of approximately 7,000 on the planet), and a ‘last improbable refuge’ for many speakers of ‘embattled and endangered’ tongues. ‘Far from being confined to remote islands, towering mountains or impenetrable jungles, they are now right next door.’ So one block of flats in Brooklyn is a ‘vertical village’, home to 100 of the world’s 700 speakers of

The small world of Polari

In discussing the German low-life cant called Rotwelsch, Mark Glanville (Books, 9 January) referred in passing to Polari, ‘the language of gay English subculture’, being used ‘by members of a marginalised group to converse without being understood by outsiders’. I’ve never been convinced by this description of Polari. Undercover policemen in Soho before 1967 may not have been the sharpest knives in the drawer, but they did share the speech of those among whom they moved. Polari, or Parlyare, was a loosely coherent slang drawing on Italian, Yiddish, back slang, rhyming slang and perhaps Romany. This slang vocabulary was familiar to fairground people, publicans, criminals, theatre folk and the homosexuals

The criminal code of Rotwelsch deciphered

When Martin Puchner was a child, tramps would turn up at his family home in Nuremberg to be fed by his mother. His father explained that they were drawn by a zinken (sign) associated with Rotwelsch, a language spoken by vagrants and criminals whose name is derived from two terms: Rot (beggar) and Welsch (incomprehensible). The zinken, a cross within a circle carved into the house’s foundation stone, told them that lechem (bread) could be had there. Rotwelsch became Puchner’s key to unlocking a cupboard of family skeletons. His grandfather, Karl, the director of the Bavarian State Archive, was one of many unrepentant Nazis who benefitted from the swift changes