In the year 2008, a ‘hidden’ language was documented in an isolated hill tribe in the north-eastern regions of India. The new language, Koro, is spoken by approximately a thousand people in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Wonder how this discovery was made? Let’s see!
A team of linguists had set out in 2008 to study little-known languages, many of which are unwritten and run the risk of falling out of use. The main concern arose from the fact that once every two weeks, a language of the world goes extinct. Arunachal is a state for which very little linguistic data exists, hence, the discovery of this language has been late too.
Image Courtesy – National Geographic
Back to the Beginnings
Koro language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman language family (which is a subset of the Sino-Tibetan family), a language family that has about 400 languages, including Tibetan and Burmese. Within India itself, there are about 150 Tibeto-Burman languages. Despite belonging to this family, Koro is not dialect of the predominant ‘Hruso’ or ‘Aka’ language.
The group of linguists happened to chance upon this language while researching two other poorly known languages; Aka and Miji, which are spoken in small districts. It was Gregory Anderson who claimed that this was a language which was undocumented, entirely unrecognised and unrecorded by the authorities as well as the locals. Only about 800 people speak it, with most of them above the age of 20. The language is spoken by a sub-tribe, locally known as Koro-Aka, which in itself has a low population number of around 1200. When the team came across Koro, it was surprised to see that this tribe language had survived for so long with just this number of speakers.
Same Origins Different Sounds
It was a surprising discovery when the linguists saw how technically and phonetically different the two languages are.
The inventory of sounds, and the sounds combining to form words, are completely different in both. Even the basic structure of sentence differs. For example, an Aka speaker will call a pig ‘vo’, while a Koro speaker would call it ‘lele’. In entirety, both languages share about 9% of their vocabulary.
Despite this linguistic difference, the tribe and the sub-tribe downplay the differences that exist between them. Even though it is a different language set, the locals see this difference as a dialectical difference. The Koro considered their language as Aka. Perhaps, in a place where one is used to hearing multiple dialects, they never realised the novelty of their language. The reason behind this is that tribally, they consider themselves Aka, even though they are linguistically Koro.
Image Courtesy – National Geographic
After observing this, many linguists claim that it will not be long before Aka takes over Koro completely, purely through the demographic power they hold over the Koro. The Koro speaking areas have thus been marked as ‘hot spots of threatened languages’. The threat to the language also comes from the fact that it is an oral language with no script. When the language was found, the sole proof of the existence of the language was in and with the users. Another threat to the language is the pressure coming from the use of Hindi. As stated earlier, very few speakers of this language are under the age of 20. Most of them have shifted exclusively to the use of Hindi, to find jobs in other cities and to fit in with the majority.
There is a need to create an extensive repository of this unique language. A historical timeline, along with a taxonomy of this language is required. The language was brought to notice in the year 2008 and 2009 and a paper was published in 2010 to break the language down and to study the build-up of this new language. Till something more is done, Koro is one more language added to the list of 7000 odd languages in the world, many of them at the brink of extinction.