Discovering a lost language

koro1There are more undiscovered languages than you’d expect — a lot more. Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that two linguists working for National Geographic have found a new one in the Himalayan foothills of India’s northeastern state, Arunachal Pradesh.

More than 120 languages are spoken in the area, which is very isolated because of the mountainous terrain. The villagers who speak what is called Koro number about 1,000. They’re hunters and farmers and live in bamboo huts built on stilts.

Koro was discovered by outsiders in 2008 and announced this past Tuesday in Washington, D.C.:

“Their language is quite distinct on every level — the sound, the words, the sentence structure,” said Gregory Anderson, director of the nonprofit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, who directs the project’s research. Details of the language will be documented in an upcoming issue of the journal Indian Linguistics.

Prized for its rarity as an unstudied linguistic artifact, the Koro language also offers researchers a catalogue of unique cultural experience, encoded in its mental grammar of words and sentence structure that helps shape thought itself.

Languages like Koro “construe reality in very different ways,” Dr. Anderson said. “They uniquely code knowledge of the natural world in ways that cannot be translated into a major language.”

A newly discovered language is a big deal. According to the article, about 3,500 known languages are expected to disappear in this century alone — that’s about half of the languages known to specialists. Linguists are in a rush to record and name as many as they can.

Koro has no written form; translations have been made using voice recordings. So let me be the first person to teach you a word of Koro:

Kah-plah-hey (Thank you/you’re welcome)

Zoe Romanowsky

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Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in "Catholic Digest," "Faith & Family," "National Catholic Register," "Our Sunday Visitor," "Urbanite," "Baltimore Eats," and Godspy.com. Zo

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