Oct. 5, 2010 Linguists reporting from a National Geographic expedition to India's remote northeast corner have identified a language completely new to science.
The language, known as Koro, belongs to the Tibeto-Burman language family, a group of some 400 languages that includes Tibetan and Burmese, the linguists said. Although some 150 Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken in India alone, the expedition team has been unable to identify any language closely related to Koro, so distinct is it from the others in the family.
The expedition was part of National Geographic's Enduring Voices project (http://on.natgeo.com/dDyLox), led by National Geographic Fellows Gregory Anderson and K. David Harrison. Before the expedition, the team had targeted the remote Arunachal Pradesh state in northeastern India as one of its "Language Hotspots" -- a place on the world map that hosts a rich diversity of languages, many unwritten, that are little studied or documented.
"On a scientist's tally sheet, Koro adds just one entry to the list of 6,909 languages worldwide…. But Koro's contribution is much greater than that tiny fraction would suggest," Harrison writes in "The Last Speakers," newly published by National Geographic Books. "Koro brings an entirely different perspective, history, mythology, technology and grammar to what was known before." A scientific paper on the newly identified language will be published in volume 71 of the journal Indian Linguistics.
The revelation of the new language was bittersweet: Koro is highly endangered. Only about 800 people are believed to speak it -- few under age 20 -- and the language has not been written down. "We were finding something that was making its exit, was on its way out," Anderson said. "And if we had waited 10 years to make the trip, we might not have come across close to the number of speakers we found."
Arunachal Pradesh is considered a "black hole" on the linguistic map: Because a special permit is required to enter the region, few linguists have worked there, and no one has drawn up a reliable list of languages spoken there, their locations or numbers of speakers.
The Enduring Voices team began its search in Arunachal Pradesh in 2008 for two poorly known languages -- Aka and Miji -- known to be spoken in one small district. The team, which included Indian linguist Ganesh Murmu of Ranchi University, climbed steep hillsides to reach speakers' villages, going door-to-door among the bamboo houses that sit on stilts; villagers eke out livings raising pigs and cultivating rice and barley.
As they listened to and recorded the vocabularies of these poorly known tongues, Harrison, Anderson and Murmu began to detect a surprise third language, one locally known as Koro. None of the scientific literature they had studied had reported the existence of a third and completely distinct language in the region -- it's not listed in standard international registries of languages or even in Indian language surveys or censuses.
"We didn't have to get far on our word list to realize it was extremely different in every possible way," Harrison said.
To reach the tiniest Koro village, the team crossed a rushing mountain river by bamboo raft. They sat on shaded verandas of the stilt-supported houses, making recordings as people shared their vocabularies and life stories in the hidden language of Koro. Thousands of words were captured -- the first known time that Koro was recorded as its own distinct language, Harrison said.
Koro shaped up as distinct from the region's other languages on many levels, the linguists said. Its inventory of sounds was completely different, and so was the way sounds combine to form words. Words also are built differently in Koro, as are sentences.
For example, the Aka word for "mountain" is "phù" while the Koro word is "nggõ." Aka speakers call a pig a "vo" while to Koro speakers, a pig is a "lele."
"Koro could hardly sound more different from Aka," Harrison writes in "The Last Speakers." "They sound as different as, say, English and Japanese."
Strangely, the Aka and Koro speakers didn't seem to see -- or hear -- it that way. Aka speakers considered their Koro-speaking neighbors and cousins as speaking a dialect of the same language as they did.
Anderson and Harrison said that Aka is the traditional language of the region's historic slave traders; they hypothesize that Koro may have sprung from the slaves, though they say more study is needed to determine precise origins.
Languages are dying around the world; one blinks out about every two weeks. Linguists consider about half of the world's nearly 7,000 tongues are endangered, the victims of cultural changes, ethnic shame, government repression and other factors.
National Geographic's Enduring Voices project works to identify language hotspots, document vanishing languages and cultures, and assist with language revitalization. Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, and Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, work with National Geographic Fellow and photographer Chris Rainier on the effort.
What is the value to the speakers of identifying the world's "hidden" languages? "Part of the uniqueness of very small languages is that their speakers may feel a sense of ownership over them," Harrison writes in "The Last Speakers." "In the case of Koro, even though they seem to be gradually giving up their language, it remains the most powerful trait that identifies them as a distinct people. Without it, they are merely part of a larger group within India's population of a billion-plus."
The National Geographic Enduring Voices scientific team will return to India in November to continue studying this enigmatic, newly classified language.
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