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Linguists find ‘hidden’ language in Arunachal
Published on 7 Oct. 2010 1:20 AM IST
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Say “kaplaye” to a hidden language that’s emerged from remoteness of India’s famed diversity – the word means “hello” in Koro, a previously unknown language that linguist say they have identified and recorded in Arunachal Pradesh.
At a time of rapid globalization, when languages are dying at the rate of one every fortnight, Koro could be the latest addition to the 6909 known tongues recorded in Ethnologue, a journal that chronicles languages of the world. The hitherto unrecognized vernacular, initially mistaken for a dialect of a language called Aka because of the cultural similarities of its speakers, was identified during a 2008 expedition conducted as part of National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project.
In a conference call in Washington DC on Tuesday, researchers who stumbled on the latest hidden language said Koro, spoken by only 800-1200 people, could soon face extinction in the same way as Bo, the Andamanese language whose last speaker died earlier this year, reports Times News Network.
Younger speakers are abandoning Koro for more dominant and widely used languages such as English or Hindi, the researchers said, citing the example of a father, Katia Yame, who was a torchbearer for the language, while his son, Sunil Yame, had taken to Hindi.
The researchers, linguists David Harrison of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Gregory Anderson of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Oregon, recounted how they came across Koro by chance during an expedition with their Indian colleague, tribal language specialist Ganesh Murmu, to Arunachal Pradesh, a state with some 120 languages which they had previously identified as a linguistic hot spot.
They were initially led to believe Koro was a dialect of the more dominant Aka (spoken by 4000-6000 people) because speakers of both languages dressed similarly, had similar dietary preferences, and they intermarried.
But when they sat down to record the ‘dialect’ they found it had a different word for everything. “It is a distant sister language but quite distinct... like English and Russian,” Harrison, who has documented dying languages in his book The Last Speakers, said.
In terms of classification, Koro belongs to the Tibeto-Burman language family, a group of some 400 languages of which more than 100 are spoken in India alone.
The researchers said Koro had not been included in the Indian census or in any study of languages in India. In part, this may be because the area is isolated and not much linguistic work has been done here; even Indian nationals need special permits to visit the region.
The researchers said they will be publishing their findings in the journal Indian Linguistics and hope to have it listed in Ethnologue, which continues to document new hidden languages even as half of the world’s 6900+ languages are considered endangered and expected to die in this century.
“We hope it will be accepted in Indian and international charters,” Anderson said, adding that the demise of Bo had highlighted the fragility of languages and identified India as a language hot spot.
An area is considered a language hot spot when it has a high degree of language diversity with high endangerment and low level of scientific record.
The researchers said endangered languages need technological support (they plan to put it Koro on You Tube) for their survival, so that the knowledge base on everything from medicine to cuisine passed down through the language could be preserved. Koro, incidentally, only has an oral tradition; no script.
“New languages are noticed and documented from time to time; it is rarely considered being newsworthy,” Dr Harrison said. “But we are in the middle of a language crisis... Unless the trend is reversed, we will lose our diversity in the next century.”
“Preserving languages contributes to human history,” he added.

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