The Census Bureau recognizes more than 1,300 different languages spoken among Americans. But by the time those languages are aggregated and averaged to statistically represent the population in the Census’s final report, they are simplified into just 42 language groupings. “Other languages of Asia” is a group that might represent Burmese, Karen, Turkish, and Uzbek. “Other Native languages of North America” could include Apache, Cherokee, Lakota, Tohono O’odham, and Yupik.
“The Endangered Language Alliance reported there are between 600 and 800 languages spoken just in NYC,” says Ekene Ijeoma, an artist and the founder and director of Poetic Justice at MIT Media Lab. “I think that says a lot about the limits of representation.”
This lack of lingual representation led Ijeoma to launch an art project called A Counting, a sort of census for languages. It asks people to come to a website, accept an automated phone call, and count from 1 to 100 in the language they were born speaking. The results can be tracked on A Counting’s site, or in exhibitions in New York; Omaha, Nebraska; and Houston.
Why record voices instead of having people fill out a simple poll? “The question for A Counting is how we can count to a whole using everyone’s voices to represent…not just languages, but voices and accents as a way of representing their cultural and ethnic identities,” Ijeoma says.
Attracting participants is tricky, especially in the underrepresented groups that Ijeoma wants to highlight. At the time of our interview, he had recorded 63 languages from New Yorkers alone—but that’s about one-tenth of what he’d like to get. Among the languages of the area is Lenape, spoken by people indigenous to New Jersey, New York, and Delaware—a language that largely died with its last living speaker in 1984. Ijeoma has been able to source some recordings and build Lenape into his project.
After the numbers are recorded, they are translated by the recorder and double-checked by volunteers. Then, A Counting algorithmically mixes the one person’s voice with many other voices. Its software generates new 1-to-100 counts in an ever-changing video, in which each voice speaks a number in a different language in a new order each time (though notably, the number 1 is always spoken in an indigenous tongue). Indeed, indigenous languages, largely lost across the world due to colonization, get the very first word in A Counting.
“New York is one of the most diverse and segregated cities,” Ijeoma says. “So while you live in a city where there’s possibility to hear all those languages in one space at the same time, it doesn’t happen—that’s what A Counting is about.”
The experience of listening to A Counting feels, no matter how linguistically proficient you are, unfamiliar by nature. Ijeoma likens the experience of consuming his art project to that of being an immigrant new to America, unable to speak the language or make sense of what’s going on around you.
And as more people record their voices, this artwork will only get more complex. Ijeoma has listened to the playbacks again and again as they’ve evolved from English to include Spanish, Korean, and dozens of other languages. “You get to see it’s a living artwork that develops over time just like language, or a community, develops over time,” he says. “Hopefully the artwork becomes a reflection of the community. And then when the artwork is presented in the museum, people from a community go into that museum and see their voices represented in that community.”