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Previously unknown language emerges in India

October 8, 2010

By Christine Theodorou
October 6, 2010

Linguists announced Monday they have identified
an endangered language known as Koro that is
spoken by about 800 people in northeast India.

The language was unknown to science and recently
came to light during an expedition by linguists
traveling in India on fellowships for National
Geographic, the linguists said in telephone interviews.

Koro belongs to the Tibeto-Burman language
family, which is composed of a group of about 400
languages spoken primarily in east, central,
south and southeast Asia and includes Tibetan and
Burmese, according to linguist K. David Harrison.

Some 150 Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken in
India alone, but no other language has been
identified as closely related, said Harrison, an
associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore
College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

Like most languages, Koro is unwritten and
transmitted orally. It is neither a dialect nor a
sister language close to Hruso-Aka, despite being
considered such by both Hruso and Koro people.

Koro shares some vocabulary with other languages
spoken in the region but shares more features
with languages spoken farther east, such as
Milang and Tani, the linguists said in a news
release issued by National Geographic.

Harrison and another National Geographic Fellow,
Greg Anderson, led the expedition, called
Enduring Voices, which brought Koro to light.
Enduring Voices documents vanishing languages and
cultures and assists with language revitalization.

Harrison and Anderson, director of the Living
Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, in
Salem, Oregon, focused on Arunachal Pradesh, a
remote area of northeast India that is considered
the black hole of the linguistic world.

It is a language hotspot where there is room to
study rich, diverse languages, many unwritten or
documented. A permit is required to visit, few
linguists have worked there and a reliable list
of languages has never been drawn up.

"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 his book, "The Last Speakers."

"Koro brings an entirely different perspective,
history, mythology, technology and grammar to what was known before."

In the news release, the linguists described
their discovery as bittersweet: Of the
approximately 800 people who speak Koro, few are
under the age of 20, meaning the language is endangered.

"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."

The team set out in 2008 in Arunachal Pradesh to
document Aka and Miji, languages spoken in a
small district there. The expedition went door to
door among homes propped up on stilts to reach
potential speakers of those little-known languages.

While recording the vocabularies, they detected a
third language -- Koro. It was not listed in
Indian language surveys, Indian censuses or standard international registries.

"We didn't have to get far on our word list to
realize it was extremely different in every possible way," Harrison said.

The inventory of sounds and the way these sounds
were combined to form words were distinct from
other languages spoken in the region.

An Aka speaker would call a pig "vo" and a Koro
speaker would call a pig "lele."

"Koro could hardly sound more different from
Aka," Harrison writes. "They sound as different as, say, English and Japanese."

Anderson and Harrison said Aka is the traditional
language of the region's historic slave traders,
and they hypothesized that Koro may have sprung
from the slaves; though they said more study is needed to determine the origin.

The project reports that a language becomes
extinct every two weeks. By 2100, it is estimated
that more than half of the 6,910 languages spoken
on earth will vanish. The team will return to
India to continue studying Koro in November.
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