The Koro Language

Posted on October 21, 2010

Language isolates are a really cool phenomenon in the field of linguistics. Briefly, if a language is not distinctly related to any current language, it is considered a language isolate. Basque is an example of a living language isolate, where Etruscan is an example of an extinct one.

Well a new language has been discovered that is truly baffling. There is an area of India, Arunachal Paresh, that, geographically and ethnologically, is more Tibetan than subcontinental. In fact, China tried to take this area over a couple decades ago.

The Koro language was discovered there in 2008 when some nerds were studying the languages Aka and Miji, until then considered to be the languages of the small region. However, they soon discovered that there was a third ‘dialect’, Koro being spoken by a small (800) subset of people.

I placed dialect in quotes because they quickly realized that Koro was profoundly distinct from the other languages. In fact, its grammar and lexicon are only 9% similar with Aka and Miji. English and French have more in common.

Not only is it so divergent, but it is different in key areas. Koro’s words for numbers, body parts and basic vowels are distinct.While it is obviously in the Tibeton-Burmese family, there are really no languages that resemble it.

What is even crazier is that the people that speak all 3 languages, do not consider each other to be different. It would be like if there was a block in New York City that spoke some crazy language, but you considered them to be racially and culturally similar to you. Even deeper is the fact that these different language speakers intermarry, eat the same food and even partake in the same festivals and traditions. In many ways, this language violates many ‘laws’ of linguistics.

So how did this happen? That, by the way, is the central question of linguistics. You get a data set, see that something is very, very weird, and go ‘how did this happen?’ Then you shuffle that data around until something makes sense. Or, you just twiddle your thumbs until Chomsky comes up with a theory that ties it up.

Back on track, the prevailing theory is that these are the descendants of a slave people whose mother tongue died out long ago. Compare this to Basque, a language which cannot be tied to any other language, living or extinct, which is most likely the relic of an early migration of homonids out of the Middle East/Africa.

The sad fact is that this 800 person group is easily on the endangered species list of languages. Hindi, the most common language in India, is spreading its influence into the mountains, and there are relatively few people under the age of 20.

This language was discovered by the National Geographic’s ‘Enduring Voices’ campaign to preserve out cultural heritage by recording endangered languages.

Further reading:

Researchers find previously undocumented language in small villages in India.

“Hidden” language found in remote Indian tribe. <- Nat. Geo.

New language identified in remote corner of India.

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