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Endangered Language Watch: The Discovery of the Koro Language in the Himalayas

The announcement this week of findings regarding a previously unknown language has shaken up the field of linguistics. During a 2008 National Geographic expedition in India’s remote Arunachai Pradesh region in the Himalayas, two researchers discovered an unrecorded language they identified as “Koro.” The language has only an estimated 800 speakers, and the fear is that it will — like over half of the 6,909 spoken languages in the world — disappear over the course of the twenty-first century. Since most children who leave the villages where Koro is spoken learn Hindi, linguists speculate that within generations Koro will be replaced by Hindi and that it will eventually die off completely.

In terms of classification, Koro belongs to the Tibeto-Burman language family, a subset of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Comprised of over 350 distinct languages spoken in various central, east, south, and southeast Asian countries, Burmese and the various Tibetan languages have the most speakers (32 and 8 million speakers, respectively). Koro itself has no written form and the only recordings of the language are those catalogued by the researchers in 2008. Although the researchers hope to compile an online dictionary of the tongue, the dictionary will only be useful for academic purposes since the Koro speakers live in remote areas without Internet access.

Interestingly, the researchers found that the Koro speakers didn’t even consider their language separate from other Tibeto-Burman languages, perhaps due to the utter diversity of languages in a region where people are accustomed to hearing hundreds of different dialects and tongues. Koro was even maintained within the Aka community (many of the Koro speakers consider their language to be Aka, even though it’s distinctly separate from Aka). As linguist K. David Anderson pointed out, this situation is unique because the speakers “consider themselves to be Aka tribally, though linguistically they are Koro. It’s an unusual condition, such arrangement doesn’t usually allow for maintenance of the minor language.” An example of the difference between Koro and Aka is the word for “mountain,” which the Aka call “phu” and the Koro call “nggo.”

Like the discovery of a new species, the discovery of a new language is a rare accomplishment. The loss of distinct dialects and languages is arguably a threat to the global community at large, and any depletion of language diversity can be viewed as negative. The National Geographic researchers will publish their findings in an upcoming issue of the journal Indian Linguistics and hopefully, due to their work, Koro will finally be catalogued — with time, maybe even revived.

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