October 6, 2010

Linguists Find ‘Hidden’ Language In Remote India

Linguists looking for dying languages have discovered a "hidden" language spoken by just 800 people in the remote northeast region of India near the border of China and Bhutan.

The researchers first believed they were documenting a dialect of the Aka farming and hunting tribe, but later realized they were working with a wholly different vocabulary and linguistic structure.

The newly discovered language, called Koro, belongs to the same family of languages as Tibetan and Burmese, said linguists Gregory Anderson of Oregon's Living Tongues Institute, David Harrison of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Ganesh Murmu of India's Ranchi University.

The researchers, supported by National Geographic, had to seek special permission from the Indian government to visit the Arunachal Pradesh state.

"We were finding something that was making its exit, was on its way out," said Anderson in a statement.

"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," he said, referring to the primarily elderly residents of the Himalayan region.

The people there, who farm rice, barley and pigs, spoke two known languages called Aka and Miji. But the linguists also heard unfamiliar words that turned out to be Koro.

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

For instance, the Aka word for a pig is "vo", but Koro speakers call it "lele". 

Koro's inventory of sounds was also different, along with the way sounds combine to form words.

"Koro could hardly sound more different from Aka," writes Harrison in a book entitled "The Last Speakers", which is being published by National Geographic.

"They sound as different as, say, English and Japanese," said Harrison, who has been reporting for years on dying languages.

Koro also has a unique grammar, and may have originated with the slave trade, the linguists said.

Harrison estimates that one tongue becomes extinct every two weeks, with many languages spoken by only a few elderly residents of a particular area.  Many languages, such as Koro, have never been recorded in any way.

"On a scientist's tally sheet, Koro adds just one entry to the list of 6,909 languages worldwide," he said.

The researchers describe Koro in a scientific report to be published in the journal Indian Linguistics.


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