Thursday, November 15, 2007

New York languages

Hi everyone. Resurfacing at last in NYC or to be more precise Greenpoint, Brooklyn, (thanks to I & A for a wonderful time). Reappearing also with a new and exciting Nikon D40 replacing my beloved but limited little Olympus. So without further ado.. above is the Empire State Building, over the East River, as seen from the kitchen window on a grey day. Strange to see it from this angle.

Polish rules and Yiddish lives.

Green Point is a blue-collar Polish neighbourhood: decent, unpretentious, and a bit down at heel. Everyone here speaks Polish. The newspapers are in Polish and every sort of service (food, travel, DVDs) are advertised in Polish. If you go into a shop, people will assume that you are Polish and then be surprised that you aren't since non-Polish speakers are the foreigners around here. This is the perspective I'm getting from this trip. Each neighbourhood in Brooklyn (as in Bronx and Queens) has its own character, quite separate, even segregated, from its neighbours. Just up the road, along Bedford Avenue, is hip, gentrified/student type Wiliamsburg followed by Puerto Rican Williamsburg followed by Hassidic Williamsburg, Italian Williamsburg and so forth .

A poster in Chinatown.

Street art in Spanish Harlem where we ate at a Dominican restaurant. Inside, everyone was Spanish speaking, the TV was on a Spanish language station and the food was good and cheap.

It's a bit of a shock to see how New York's immigrant communities still rely on their native languages despite being resident here for generations. The Jews relied heavily on Yiddish in the beginning but, in their quest for assimilation, their children turned their backs on the language, regarding it at best as quaint and at worst as an embarrassing relic of the Old World. Perhaps because these Jews felt that they had no particular country to relate to (which European country wasn't anti-semitic?) the Yiddish legacy was easier to drop? In any event, it seems that today close-knit immigrant communities are less interested in assimilating into mainstream America and tend to adhere to their original languages (Spanish & Chinese for example) to the extent of barely bothering with English at all.

A poster advertising excerpts from the autobiography (?) of Haim Weizman, Israel's first President - from the exhibition at the New York Historical Museum devoted to the role of the Yiddish language 'Daily Forward' newspaper. The socialist Daily Forward served as a chronicler and a guide to the mass Jewish immigration of the beginning of the 20th century.

As one of the Forward's editors said,

And indeed it still prospers in the ultra-orthodox ghettos like Williamsburg and Crown Heights, although it sometimes gets transliterated into English too.

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