New language discovered in India

By Laura Spinney

Today is World Languages Day, and it seems appropriate to announce a happy but increasingly uncommon event - the discovery of a previously unknown language in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Koro, as the language is called, is spoken by hill tribes living in the northeastern state of India called Arunachal Pradesh, near the borders with China and Burma.

Its discovery bucks a trend, since linguists have estimated at least half of the roughly 7000 extant human languages will be dead or moribund - meaning children will not be able to speak them - by 2100.

Koro was first identified by a team of Indian language surveyors in 2003, but its findings were never published. The three linguists who announced their "discovery" of Koro last month travelled to the remote Indian province as part of National Geographic's Enduring Voices project, to record two other, little-known languages belonging to the Tibeto-Burman language family, Aka and Miju, and rediscovered Koro by accident.

At first, Gregory Anderson, K. David Harrison and Ganesh Murmu thought they were hearing a dialect of Aka, but they soon realised it was sufficiently different to be called a language in its own right. The sting in the tail of their find is that Koro may be dying. Only about 800 people speak it, few are younger than 20, and the language has never been written down.

If it died, said Harrison, who works at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, a unique culture would die with it.

"It contains very sophisticated knowledge that these people possess about this valley, the ecosystems, the animals, the plants, how they survived here, how they adapted, so if they switch over to another language a lot of that knowledge will simply be lost," he said.

The language may also contain clues as to how the Koro speakers came to be in that valley, and why they identify themselves so closely with their Aka neighbours, even to the extent of downplaying the considerable differences in their languages. The linguists suspect they may have been brought there as slaves, though they have yet to prove it.

Harrison believes languages such as Koro must be preserved because of the knowledge they contain, and because the sheer diversity of human languages provides a window on the inner workings of the human brain.

As founders of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, Harrison and Anderson are dedicated to preserving endangered languages to protect linguistic diversity. But whether linguists should try to save languages is a contentious issue.

According to Dr David Lightfoot of Georgetown University in Washington DC, documenting dying languages is important but saving them is another matter. That, he says, is a political decision - not one scientists should get involved with.

Paul Lewis, who edits the world's most comprehensive language catalogue, Ethnologue, says that there are probably other languages like Koro waiting to be discovered, but language erosion will continue to be a problem.

SPEAKING IN TONGUES

7000 Languages in existence

800 People speak Koro, a just-discovered language used by hill tribes in a remote area of the Himalayas

- Independent

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