The Remarkable Diversity Of Queens, As Seen Through Its Disappearing Languages

The borough is home to 59 endangered languages, which artist Mariam Ghani beautifully visualizes for a show at the Queens Museum.

The acrylic mural of a Queens map that greets visitors to the Queens Museum, in New York, is enormous, abstract, and angular, rendering the borough in a colorful array of polygons. Inside the shapes is the word for “tongue” in each of the endangered languages still spoken in Queens, by residents the artist Mariam Ghani refers to as people with “forked tongues.” There are 59 such languages in total.


“Migrants and the multilingual are constantly speaking with forked tongues, slipping from one language to another,” Ghani writes in her description of her project The Garden of the Forked Tongues, which is part of the exhibition Nonstop Metropolis, a collaborative show based around the work of author Rebecca Solnit and geographer Josh Jelly-Schapiro. “Moving from living in one language, to living in another; or growing up in environments where tongues are constantly in motion, and nominally separate languages share space in the same sentences.”

[Photo: via Queens Museum]

Queens has been called “one of the most diverse places on Earth.” The evidence is in the languages. According to the Endangered Language Alliance, whose data Ghani used to create the mural as well as an accompanying interactive graphic, an estimated 500 languages are currently spoken in Queens. The 59 languages depicted in the map are the ones endangered, which means that Queens residents are some of the last people on Earth who know the language that they speak. Given that there are a total of 574 “critically endangered” languages worldwide, according to UNESCO, 59 is a pretty remarkable number to have just in one borough.

Ghani chose the word “tongue” to put inside of the polygons both because of its dual meaning–tongue as both the organ in your mouth and the language that you speak–as well as its near-universal availability across all languages and cultures. In both the mural and the interactive graphic, the locations of the polygons refer to how the languages are distribution across the borough. The colors show the connection between different languages, so that you can see that the language of Yucatec Maya from Nothern Belize, for example, is in the same Mayan language family as Tzotzil, spoken in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The size of each polygon is based on a couple different factors: the density of endangered language relative to others in Queens and the natural logarithm of the number of living speakers of that language left in the world. In the digital graphic, clicking on a version of “tongue” will bring up more information about the disappearing language, including where it is traditional spoken, how many people still speak it, and where it is spoken in Queens.

See the interactive graphic here. [Image: Mariam Ghani]

Ghani conceived of the work for the show, which features site-specific pieces that correspond with Solnit and Jelly-Schapiro’s soon-to-be-released book, Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas. The book follows up two of their previous books–Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas and Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas–with a collection of essays and artworks that creatively map the history of the city. Gahni’s infographic was inspired by an essay on the languages of the city by Suketu Mehta entitled Tower of Scrabble.

Ghani’s title Garden of the Forked Tongues is a play on the Borges short story, Garden of the Forking Paths, a parable that asserts the future is only one of several futures, or paths, that could have been taken. In the spirit of uncertain futures, Ghani writes, Garden of the Forked Tongues is based on the fact that in the present “we still have the ability to preserve languages in danger of disappearing, by documenting the forked tongues of living speakers who can translate the endangered words into more commonly understood ones.” Ghani’s approach to preservation and documentation is a lovely representation of linguistic data that reveals as much about the story of Queens as it does the diversity of those living there.

[All Images (unless otherwise noted): Mariam Ghani]


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.