October 7, 2010
There are times when I wish that everyone in the world spoke the same language. I’m in awe of people who have mastered languages other than their own because I find it so difficult. While I might want English spoken everywhere I visit for my own ease, though, I’m also saddened by the loss of any of the thousands that currently exist. These languages are windows into the lives, histories and cultures of the people who speak them. Researchers estimate that at least half of the world’s 6,909 recognized languages are endangered, and one language dies out about every two weeks.
But as scientists rush to document languages before they disappear, sometimes the scientists also make incredible discoveries. This week two National Geographic Fellows announced that they had discovered a new language—called Koro—in the remote northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh in India. That area of the world is considered a “language hotspot,” host to a diversity of little-studied languages, often ones that have no written counterpart.
The researchers had gone to Arunachal Pradesh to study two poorly known languages, Aka and Miji, when they detected the third. Koro has a distinct set of sounds and word combinations, and the structure of words and sentences is also different. (Example: a pig is called a “vo” in Aka and a “lele” in Koro.) Despite the differences, though, area speakers consider Koro a dialect of Aka. The scientists hypothesize that the two are connected by the regions’s historical slave trade: Aka was spoken by the slave traders and Koro may have developed among the slaves.
Koro may not survive much longer, however. Only about 800 people currently speak the language, few under the age of 20, and it has not been written down.
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