October 6, 2010 in Nation/World

Hidden language found in India

Koro spoken by 800 to 1,200 people
Amina Khan Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

This undated handout photo provided by National Geographic shows Kachim, a speaker of Koro, talking to National Geographic fellow Gregory Anderson.
(Full-size photo)

By the numbers

6,910: Number of documented languages in the world

400: Number of languages in the Tibeto-Burman family

1,000: Estimated number of Koro speakers

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES – A previously unknown language has been uncovered in the far reaches of northeastern India, researchers reported Tuesday.

Koro, a tongue brand new to the scientific world that is spoken by just 800 to 1,200 people, could soon face extinction as younger speakers abandon it for more widely used languages such as Hindi or English.

Koro is unlike any language in the various branches of the Tibeto-Burman family, a collection of 400 related languages used by peoples across Asia, according to the two National Geographic fellows who announced the discovery. The findings will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Indian Linguistics.

The researchers, linguists K. David Harrison of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and Gregory D.S. Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Salem, said they are not sure yet how old Koro is or how it developed. But they believe it could yield a wealth of knowledge about the way humans develop and use language.

Until now, the speakers of Koro had remained invisible to outside observers because their bright red garments, the rice beer they made and other details of their lives seemed no different from the speakers of Aka, the socially dominant language in the region, Harrison said.

“There’s a sort of a cultural invisibility – they’re culturally identical in what they wear, what they eat, the houses they live in … they just happen to have a different word for everything,” Harrison said.

Koro also blends in because speakers frequently intermarry with speakers of Aka (who number 4,000-6,000) and another tongue, Miji (6,000-8,000).

And because the villages had been effectively cut off from the outside world for so long, the languages in the region remain poorly studied.

“I expect that there are many such hidden languages around the world,” said Paul Lewis, editor of the 16th edition of “Ethnologue: Languages of the World,” Lewis who was unaffiliated with the work.

“The lesser-known languages quite often are overlooked and understudied.”

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