A new language discovered in India!

Oct 7, 2010 by

The recent report of a new language being discovered in the remote northeast corner of India highlights several important points.

First, the realization that Koro, this newly discovered language, is not just a dialect of previously known language Aka (that would be an exciting discovery too, by the way!) emphasizes that the distinction between a language and a dialect is not an easy one to make. This topic has been discussed in several previous postings of this blog, but in some many instances around the world speakers themselves perceive their linguistic varieties to be more distinct than they actually are because of cultural, ethnic or religious divisions. This is the case of Serbian vs. Croatian, Muslim Tat vs. Judeo-Tat, and Hindi vs. Urdu. Linguistically speaking, these should be considered dialects of the same language. as the degree of mutual comprehension between them is very high. But speakers of these languages perceive them as distinct enough to qualify as different languages. Religion, cultural tradition and geopolitics are at the root of this perception. With Koro, the situation is the reverse. Speakers of Koro perceive themselves as tribally/ethnically the same as speakers of a linguistically distinct Aka.

Another important point that this discovery highlights is that new languages can arise all the time. Presumably, in not too distant past Koro and Aka were indeed the same language (which is what makes them closely related languages), but with time they have diversified and become different dialects and then different languages. Even in the age of globalization, new languages may and do emerge. Yet their fate hangs in the balance: the main threat to Koro’s future survival is from the spread of Hindi, a dominant language in India. The current study estimated the number of Koro speakers to be between 800 to 1,200, but the intergenerational transmission of the language is decreasing since many youngsters go to boarding schools where they learn Hindi or English.

Which brings me to the third point: the importance of language documentation if not preservation. Gregory Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, said about the Koro expedition: “… if we had waited 10 years to make the trip, we might not have come across close to the number of speakers we found”. And this is true of many other languages around the world: if we don’t manage to document them now, we may never have another chance.

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