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 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, Ore., 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.
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 that of 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 its speakers frequently marry Aka speakers (who number 4,000 to 6,000) and people who use another tongue, Miji (who number 6,000 to 8,000). And because the villages had been largely 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 M. Paul Lewis, who edited the 16th edition of "Ethnologue: Languages of the World;" he was not affiliated with the work. "The lesser-known languages quite often are overlooked and understudied."
Anderson and Harrison, along with Indian colleague Ganesh Murmu, came across Koro by chance in 2008. They previously had identified the area in Arunachal Pradesh state as a hot spot of language diversity. After obtaining a permit to visit the area, they rode for two days into the Himalayan foothills and then crossed a river on a bamboo raft to get to the remotest of the villages.
The researchers had been told about the so-called dialect of Aka. But when they sat down to record the words of a villager they assumed to be speaking it, they were surprised by the unfamiliarity of the words and could tell this was no mere dialect.
"We noticed it instantly," Anderson said. "We started with a body-part word list, and there wasn't a single word in common." After further study, they realized that Koro was not only a language in its own right, but one as different from Aka as English is from Russian.
The linguists say there are still many mysteries they hope to unravel, such as why the speakers don't seem to notice how vastly different their languages are, and how the Koro speakers, who seem to blend in with Aka speakers in every other way, have managed to preserve their distinct language for so long.
The answers, said the linguists, are probably related to the community's relative isolation from the rest of the world.
Now globalization is ending that isolation, and it may end Koro's existence, too. In many families, the parents speak Koro while the children speak Hindi, the politically dominant language in India. Few Koro speakers are younger than 20.
The announcement comes in the same year that India lost the last speaker of Bo, one of the world's oldest languages.
The endangerment of languages such as Koro threatens more than a loss to history, anthropology and human cognitive studies, Harrison said. Speakers in remote regions that contain rich ecological diversity hold knowledge as yet untapped by science.
"They've learned to live sustainably in harsh environments. The knowledge they have about the medicinal use of plants is uniquely encoded in a way that cannot be translated," he said.