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Linguists Discuss 'Hidden' Koro Language, Search for Last Speakers

Linguists working in India’s remote Arunachal Pradesh state have uncovered the hidden Koro language, which was previously undocumented and unknown to science. In an exclusive interview, they describe Koro’s survival, the Enduring Voices Project’s search for last speakers, and their efforts to promote humanity’s threatened linguistic diversity. By Ford Cochran

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Yesterday, linguists and National Geographic Fellows Greg Anderson and K. David Harrison announced the identification of the Koro language, which was previously undocumented and completely unknown to science, during an expedition to India’s remote Arunachal Pradesh state. Working with Indian linguist Ganesh Murmu of Ranchi University, the National Geographic Enduring Voices Project team had been documenting the little-known Aka and Miji languages spoken in the region. Harrison describes the find and others in his new book The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages.

I spoke with Anderson and Harrison about Koro’s surprising survival, their search for last speakers, and their efforts to promote humanity’s threatened linguistic diversity. Given that it’s so important, what do you ask? What do you record? And how many speakers of a language will you try to interview?Anderson: When we start working on a language, we build from the very basics. We need to get basic vocabulary down so we can start getting basic knowledge of the language, so we start with simple words like body parts, kin terms, color terms, numbers, natural phenomenon like water, sun, moon. Things that every language is likely to have a term for.

From there, we build up slightly larger structures. So for example with Koro, they have pigs, so trying to find something about noun phrase structure, we asked people things like how do you say the black pig, how do you say two pigs, two big black pigs, so that we just get larger and larger structures. Ultimately, we try to collect stories. As much as we can.

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Harrison: There’s a balance between what we need to collect to be systematic and thorough and what the speakers have patience to give us. Some people get tired after awhile of saying “two big black pigs.” On the other hand, if we record the language as it’s used fluently and naturally, somebody telling a life story or something, then it’s hard for us to understand. There’s a tradeoff between systematic data and natural data. You need to make your own Rosetta Stone.Anderson: Exactly. And different people have different skills, so not only are certain things unbearable. Certain things are enjoyable and certain things are really unpleasant for people, and it may be that one person is really good at listening to a story and telling you what it’s about, but could never give you a story. And another person might be able to sit there and translate phrases or sentences. And another person might find that to be absolutely unbearable. You have to gauge individual speakers.

To answer the question about how many speakers you interview, it’s really whoever’s willing to sit down and work with you. Ideally, as many as we can, representing as broad a spectrum of the community in terms of age, gender, location, different demographic features which often contribute to language variation.

The language hotspots are places of high diversity, high language endangerment, and relatively low documentation. Within a hotspot, where do you look? What are the things you’re looking for to lead you to a language that may never have been documented before? Harrison: A language hotspot is an area that has very high linguistic diversity–many languages and many different families of languages. It has high levels of language endangerment, so people are shifting over to speaking the dominant language, and maybe the children aren’t speaking it. And it has low levels of scientific documentation: Nobody’s recorded it, nobody’s written a grammar or dictionary of the language.

Within a hot spot, we would prioritize the languages that are smallest, that are most endangered, perhaps, that are most unusual. Koro really fits all of those. It is within a hot spot, and within that hotspot it’s one of the smallest languages. It’s an endangered language. And it’s a completely undescribed language. So it’s basically a hot language within a hotspot. Anderson: We targeted that specific area within that specific hotspot because it was particularly unknown. There were reports of half a dozen or so languages in the area which had at most a couple of hundred words from them, maybe a few sentences, and so we figured that was an area that we should concentrate on first, because it was known to have a number of languages which were extremely poorly documented. As it turned out, it had one more language which was undocumented. You mention that, when you first encountered Koro, it came as a complete surprise. You were recording someone naming body parts, and I gather you expected to hear what you’d heard before from several other speakers of the language you expected to hear, and what you got was something completely different. Was it indeed a complete surprise to encounter this language?Harrison: This was a surprise encounter. We went to India to visit the community shown here [on the cover of the new book The Last Speakers], the Aka people, and when we began talking to the Aka people, they said there’s another dialect of our language. If you go down to this other village, you will hear the other dialect. So we went down to that village, we sat down with a speaker, and after hearing just a few words of the language which turned out to be Koro we realized that it wasn’t a dialect. It was completely different in every possible way, and hadn’t been really noticed. Locally, they downplayed the difference, they called it just a dialect. But in fact it’s very, very different. Anderson: At first we just marked “There’s another dialect spoken in X, Y, and Z village. Make sure we find someone who speaks this dialect.” Because we want to make sure we get as broad a variation there as we can. We figured, oh, it’s a dialect, we’ll have some variation, they might say “oo” instead of “ah,” or something, have a couple of different words, and it’ll be neat to see what it is.

We finally met a speaker two or three days later and started talking to him, and instantly said my God, this language sounds so different from standard Aka that you don’t even have to be a linguist to recognize that these languages were not the same. They really sound quite different from each other.

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In your book The Last Speakers, David, this is one of the stories that you relate, the story of discovering the Koro language. Through the Enduring Voices Project, you’ve actually been traveling to a number of different parts of the world. What are some of the other places that you’ve visited that are described in the book The Last Speakers? And are some of them hotspots in places a person might not expect, places that don’t seem nearly as remote as Aranachal Pradesh in India does to many of us here in the U.S.?Harrison: In The Last Speakers, I talk about many of the expeditions that Greg and I have been on, to Siberia, to Bolivia, to Paraguay, to Papua New Guinea. Some places are well known, and are in fact famous for having lots of languages, like Papua New Guinea. Other places like Paraguay are really very poorly known, but they are also language hot spots. Anderson: Of course, we have language hotspots in our own backyards here in the United States. Oklahoma is one of the hottest of hot spots, and that’s something I think most people in the United States are unaware of. Even if they know the history of Oklahoma as Indian territory, they don’t process the fact that, not unsurprisingly, there are a large number of remnant native languages still preserved in some form or another in Oklahoma, and really good language revitalization movements going on there. So there is some hope for the Oklahoma languages. Presumably, many of those are transplanted languages. When tribes were moved from the eastern United States out west to Indian territory, they brought their language with them. And it’s still managed to survive in some relict form?Anderson: Cherokee language in Oklahoma would be an example of a transplanted language which has managed to survive there. You mention that it’s so surprising that the Koro language has managed to survive within a tribe where another language is spoken, treated as a dialect but it’s not really a dialect. Could you speculate on why it’s been able to survive? I know you’re going to do further research to ascertain the reasons in more detail. And also could you talk about some of the things that help isolate a language and keep it living?Harrison: One thing that helps languages to survive is physical, geographic isolation. The Koro are isolated from the rest of the world, but they’re submerged within a more dominant group, and that’s a very unlikely scenario for language survival. In fact, that’s a recipe for language endangerment. What makes a language survive is the attitudes of its speakers. They value it, they keep it, they use it. So it’s a kind of mindset. It’s an ideology. Our language is valuable, we’re going to keep it.

Again, Koro is a very unlikely candidate. It’s so small, and it’s so completely submerged within a more dominant ethnic group that it’s really surprising. We’re still surprised that it has managed to survive. Anderson: Because they are culturally subsumed in another group, it is only their linguistic practices, their language, their use of this language that identifies them as a different group. So perhaps that correlation of language so specifically with their identity as a separate but similar group within the Aka tribe has helped maintained the core language. It has a very strong association with being Koro, and that has obviously kept the language around in the face of strong pressure to assimilate. Harrison: Other than the Koro language, they look the same, they dress the same, they live in the same houses. They do everything exactly the same as the more dominant Aka tribal group. So it is really the one thing that their distinct identity rests upon. Almost every other aspect of their culture is shared?Anderson: Exactly, except they happen to use different words for everything.

I know that in some communities, part of the goal of the Enduring Voices Project is to help revitalize and thoroughly document the languages. So there’s been a leave-behind: You’ve left kits with people so that they can continue to document stories and parts of the language that you may not have had time to record in your relatively brief visits. Were you able to do that in the Koro community? Harrison: Our job as scientists is to document the languages and to bring attention to them. Only the community that owns the language can save the language and ensure its survival. But we want to assist in that process. We want to help them revitalize the language. So we provide technology: video and audio recording devices. We provide training to people who are what we call language activists, who are doing something active to save the language. And we believe that we can assist as outsiders. We can not only document, we can help the community revitalize its language. Anderson: For the Koro, on our next trip we’ll be leaving some equipment with them. The kit has gotten more streamlined then we had last time we were there, so now we have an appropriate set of equipment for them, which we didn’t when we were last there. So I think that we’ll have a better kit to leave with them this time. Beyond the actual words used to describe various ideas and objects, what are some of the sorts of things we can learn from a unique, previously undocumented language? Harrison: Every language presents a unique worldview. It presents all of the accumulated wisdom and the knowledge base that these people have kept over the centuries, over the millennia, that have allowed them to survive in this environment. We don’t even really know everything that’s there. It’s a huge knowledge base. We’ve only just begun to appreciate what Koro represents. We’ve collected words and sentences, but we want to continue to the next level: What are the knowledge systems contained in the language? Anderson: We have a couple of hints about it, because we’re starting to get a better understanding about the grammar of the language and the content of the vocabulary. Again, these mostly remain mysteries, but there are little tantalizing windows of opportunity to expand our knowledge here I think. Finally, could you say a few words to me in Koro?

Anderson: Okay, here’s one: “Nay numa giddy-yaw-yu” [note: watch the video of the interview to hear Anderson and Harrison speak Koro], which means “I’m looking at you.” And “Kop-li-ay.” It means “Thank you … It’s good,” literally. Harrison: Kop-li-ay. You’re welcome and thank you.Harrison: Kop-li-ay. Kop-li-ay.

K. David Harrison will share stories of The Last Speakers at a National Geographic Live event next Tuesday evening, October 12, 2010. Get tickets.

View a gallery of “Faces of Koro,” read news of the Koro find, learn more about the Enduring Voices Project, and get K. David Harrison’s new book The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages. Photos of Koro speakers by Chris Rainier

Ford Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.

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