Touring The Niche Language Communities Of New York City

You don’t have to travel far in New York to find a diverse linguistic landscape.

New York City has welcomed immigrants for pretty much its entire history. With hundreds of years of people moving in to make the city their home, New York is a rich linguistic tapestry. It’s estimated that there are at least 600 different languages spoken across the five boroughs. To celebrate this language diversity, we’re exploring a few of the most interesting niche communities that have taken root around the city.

Chinatown, Manhattan

Covering over two square miles of Manhattan, New York City’s largest Chinatown — there are eight others! — was originally established as a safe haven for immigrants at a time when anti-Chinese sentiments were rampant in America. It’s now the largest Chinatown in the USA and one of the largest communities of Chinese speakers outside of China. It’s culture, however, is entirely unique from its Chinese roots. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, American newspapers sensationalized the exotic qualities of Chinatown, so the residents decided to capitalize on the stereotypes of curious tourists. They created new Chinese-American foods like Chop Suey to appeal to visitors’ palettes. Ever since, Chinatown has been a culinary hub, characterized by bustling markets and homey restaurants.

Little Odessa, Brighton Beach, Brooklyn

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, a flood of Russians emigrated from their homeland. Many of them found a new home at the southernmost point of Brooklyn: Brighton Beach. Brighton Beach had been a Russian-oriented community since the 1800s, but the new wave of residents rejuvenated the neighborhood, which sprouted a fresh multitude of Cyrillic restaurant signs and Russian baths. Take a trip down in the winter to witness Russian ice swimmers brave the frigid Atlantic with only bathing suits for protection!

Little Guyana, Richmond Hill, Queens

Most New Yorkers would be hard-pressed to point out Guyana on a world map, which makes it even more surprising that Guyanese make up the fifth-largest immigrant group in New York City. Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America, and its population consists mainly of former Indian families who were lured to the British Colony to become sharecroppers and sugar producers. This gives the Guyanese culture in their home-away-from-home in Queens a unique flavor, one that features saris and spices, roti and rum.


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♬ Spin Monkeys Speed Up (Remix) – Daulay Fam

Little Italy, Manhattan

Little Italy was once home to over 40,000 Italian immigrants, making it one of the largest and most lively immigrant communities in New York City. Its larger than life personalities and mobsters inspired the fascination of the American public. Little Italy native and director, Martin Scorsese, set his critically acclaimed first feature film, Mean Streets, in the neighborhood, and it’s featured in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films. Today, Little Italy has shrunk to little more than a city block due to many Italian families moving away and nearby Chinatown’s rapid growth. Still, the area has a unique charm, fantastic Italian eateries and the yearly Feast of San Gennaro, which pulls in Italians and tourists alike.

Bonus: Italian-American Language

The Italian-American families in Little Italy and New Jersey are famous for their bizarre versions of the Italian language; Italian “Capicola” is Italian-American “Gabagool.” What accounts for this incredible dissimilarity? Much of the Italian immigration came from southern Italy. These immigrants poured into New York and New Orleans with their own unique regional dialects, which they passed on to their children. Back in Italy, however, the country underwent revolutionary changes in 1871 as northern Italian powers unified Italy’s independent regions under one flag and one language: “standard Italian” (Dante’s Tuscan Italian). All Italians speak more or less the same standard language now, while their American counterparts still speak remnants of the old dialects.

How To Speak Like A Little Italy Paisan

Italian is a fluid and lyrical language, which is why vowels are added and dropped from words according to what will flow better with the next word. Think of the stereotypical and silly, “It’s a-me, Mario!” The “a” is added because flowing from consonant to vowel is much smoother than the alternative: “It’s me, Mario.” But there’s more to it than throwing in vowels at random. Normal “O” portions of words are elongated to sound like “Oooh.” Additionally, Italian-Americans substitute “hard consonants,” which vibrate the vocal cords, for “soft consonants,” which do not. For example, touch your Adam’s apple and make a “kuh” sound, then make a “guh” sound. You should feel your throat vibrate only for the “guh.”

Let’s look at the classic example of how “Capicola” transforms into “Gabagool.”

  1. Capicola (drop that useless vowel!)
  2. Capicol (Let’s try pronouncing that “o” again)
  3. Capicool (Finally, replace all the soft consonants, “c” and “p,” with hard ones, “g” and “b”)
  4. Gabagool!
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