You Don't Hear That Often
Spinney, Laura, The Independent (London, England)
Linguistics The discovery of a previously unknown language in the foothills of the Himalayas bucks a trend of extinction and decline, says Laura Spinney
Tomorrow is World Languages Day, and it seems appropriate to announce a happy but increasingly uncommon event: the discovery of a previously unknown language in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Koro, as the language is called, is spoken by hill tribes living in the northeastern state of India called Arunachal Pradesh, near the borders with China and Burma. Its discovery bucks a trend, since linguists have estimated that at least half of the roughly 7,000 extant human languages will be dead or moribund - meaning that children will not be able to speak them - by 2100. In fact, Koro was first identified by a team of Indian language surveyors in 2003, but its findings were never published. The three linguists who announced their "discovery" of Koro last month travelled to the remote Indian province as part of National Geographic's Enduring Voices project, to record two other, little-known languages belonging to the Tibeto- Burman language family, Aka and Miju, and rediscovered Koro by accident.
At first, Gregory Anderson, K David Harrison and Ganesh Murmu thought they were hearing a dialect of Aka, but they soon realised it was sufficiently different to be called a language in its own right. The sting in the tail of their find, however, is that Koro itself may be dying. Only around 800 people speak it, few of them are younger than 20, and the language has never been written down.
If it dies, says Harrison, who works at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, a unique culture will die with it. "[Koro] contains very sophisticated knowledge that these people possess about this valley, the ecosystems, the animals, the plants, how they survived here, how they adapted, so if they switch over to another language a lot of that knowledge will simply be lost," he says.
The language may also contain clues as to how the Koro speakers came to be in that valley, and why they identify themselves so closely with their Aka neighbours, even to the extent of downplaying the considerable differences in their languages. The linguists suspect they may have been brought there as slaves, though they have yet to prove it.
Harrison believes that languages such as Koro must be preserved because of the knowledge they contain, and because the sheer diversity of human languages provides a window on the inner workings of the human brain. But the idea that linguistic diversity itself could represent a valuable scientific tool has only recently gained traction in the linguistic world, which has been more or less dominated since the 1960s by American linguist Noam Chomsky's concept of universal grammar.
Universal grammar refers to the idea that children inherit an innate system of rules from which all languages are generated - a "language instinct" - which is why they learn so quickly. According to this theory, what is interesting about languages is what they have in common, not how they differ. There's no doubt that children are gifted linguists. By the age of three, the average toddler has a good grasp of the syntax and prosody of their mother tongue, and a vocabulary of almost 1,000 words. But some researchers are now suggesting another explanation for that aptitude.
As Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist at the University of Reading, sees it, languages evolve just like organisms, and the ones that survive are the ones that are best adapted to the human brain and, hence, easiest to learn. All humans have the same brain, which is why successful languages tend to resemble one another, giving the illusion of a universal grammar. But, Pagel says, they may have arrived at that similarity via different routes, and solved the problem of being easy to learn in different ways.
"What will happen …
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Publication information: Article title: You Don't Hear That Often. Contributors: Spinney, Laura - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: November 16, 2010. Page number: 10. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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