On a residential block at the border between Brooklyn and Queens, Gottscheer Hall appears like a mirage from 1945.
Blue awnings advertise the space for weddings and events. Inside, an entryway is covered with the saccharin smiles of “Miss Gottschee” contestants from decades past. “Back then you had to know the language to compete,” says 92-year-old Alfred Belay, pointing out his daughter’s beaming face from the 1980s. Nowadays, there are years with only a single contestant in the pageant.
Belay has been coming to Gottscheer Hall since he arrived in America more than 60 years ago. Then, the neighborhood was filled with refugees from Gottschee, a settlement that once occupied the highlands of modern-day Slovenia. Now, he’s one of a few thousand remaining speakers of its language, Gottscheerisch. Every Christmas he leads a service in his 600-year-old native language that few understand.
“Imagine if someone who plays music suddenly can’t use their fingers,” he says. “We’re still alive but can only remember these things.”
Belay and his sister, 83-year-old Martha Hutter, have agreed to let 26-year-old Daniel Bogre Udell film them having a conversation. They walk past the dark wood bar of Gottscheer Hall serving pretzels and sausages, and they climb the stairs to an empty banquet room. Bogre Udell sets up his camera and the siblings begin to banter in their inscrutable Germanic mother tongue.
Hearing such a rare language spoken on a residential block of Queens is not unusual for Bogre Udell, the co-founder of a nonprofit called Wikitongues. There are some 800 languages spoken within the 10-mile radius of New York City, which is more than 10 percent of the world’s estimated 7,099 languages. Since he has decided to record all of them, the melting-pot metropolis is a natural launching point.
Bogre Udell, who speaks four languages, met Frederico Andrade, who speaks five, at the Parsons New School in New York City. In 2014, they launched an ambitious project to make the first public archive of every language in the world. They’ve already documented more than 350 languages, which they are tracking online, and plan to hit 1,000 in the coming years.
Read more: National Geographic