Laden with microphones, cameras, a laptop computer, and spare batteries, David Harrison and his colleagues trekked to a secluded corner of India to document a precious cultural resource: a disappearing language, kept alive by just a few thousand people.
That turned out to be just the beginning.
In one village, a shopkeeper who spoke the dwindling language, called Aka, told the scholars about a nearby community where "the other Aka people live."
"We can't understand them," she told Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College.
The other people, the scholars discovered after taking a bamboo raft across a swift mountain river, did indeed speak a different language - an even rarer tongue, called Koro, that was previously unknown to the outside world.
That 2008 encounter was just one of many globe-trotting exploits for Harrison and Gregory Anderson, director of the nonprofit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, in Oregon. In announcing their Koro finding last week, the two aimed to highlight what they call a language extinction crisis, which they spoke of with the same gravity as biologists who study endangered plants and animals.
They estimate that half the world's 7,000 languages - most of them unwritten - are withering away for various political and economic reasons, disappearing at the rate of one every two weeks when their remaining elderly speakers die.
As linguists, Harrison and Anderson study the structures, sounds, and origins of such tongues, and even the migrations of their speakers' ancestors. They make recordings of vanishing words to help younger generations pass them on.
Yet the scholars are interested not just in how native speakers say things, but in what they say - in the very knowledge that is conveyed about local culture and the physical environment. It is knowledge that often does not translate to more common languages, and thus is in danger of disappearing with the words themselves, says Harrison, who came to Swarthmore in 2001.
Koro seems to have a lot of words for bamboo, for example, Harrison says, though the research is at an early stage.
Elsewhere, the Kallawaya people of Bolivia have information about medicinal plants, while the Yupik of Alaska have ways to describe 99 different types of sea ice, Harrison writes in a new book, The Last Speakers. Some of the rarer languages are spoken by no more than a handful of people.
"The recordings that we make of these speakers are often the first, and in some cases they may well be the last," Harrison says.
On the 2008 excursion when they identified Koro, Harrison and Anderson traveled by plane and car for four days to reach Arunachal Pradesh, a northeast Indian state that is home to the foothills of the Himalayas. From there, they must travel by dirt road - and occasionally by raft - to arrive at the remotest villages.
"It's a nontrivial path to reach a Koro village," says Anderson, in a bit of scientific humor.
During the initial two-week trip and a subsequent visit, primarily funded by the National Geographic Society, the team located a dozen villages where Koro was spoken, by a total of perhaps 800 people. They were joined in the research by Ganesh Murmu, a linguist at Ranchi University in India.
Koro was an important find, says Scott DeLancey, a University of Oregon professor of linguistics.
"It is clearly not just a variant, or a closely related language to something we already know about," says DeLancey, who was not involved in the research.
It is hard to say how often linguists identify "new" languages, but it is uncommon and becoming more so as they disappear, DeLancey says.
Harrison, 43, who lives in Center City, got his start in the field almost by accident.
As an international studies major at American University in Washington, he had fulfilled all his academic requirements before the end of senior year and was looking for something to do. The school's foreign study office suggested an exchange program in Poland.
Harrison had previously struggled when learning a language in a classroom environment, but the 1988 trip to the Eastern European country was a revelation. After graduation, he went back to Poland to teach English to university students, then spent years traveling the region. He went to Yale for graduate study in Slavic languages, then switched to linguistics and earned his Ph.D. in 2000.
Harrison often is asked how many languages he speaks. While some linguists tire of this question, he does not - so long as people understand that linguistics is not about learning to speak languages, but about studying them scientifically.
Along the way, the Swarthmore professor has picked up at least five: Polish, Russian, French, Lithuanian, and Tuvan, which is spoken in Siberia. He can get by in a few other Siberian tongues.
The research on Koro is to be published in the journal Indian Linguistics. After crossing the river to reach the village where it was spoken, the team realized almost at once that it was a distinct tongue, with short, "melodic" syllables, Harrison says. It sounded as much like Aka, for example, as English sounds like Japanese.
Yet the people who speak Koro share a culture with the Aka people, and some speak both tongues. Clothing is often made of handwoven cloth with ornate designs in red. Women wear lots of beads and large silver earrings. Villagers live in bamboo houses on stilts, raising pigs, rice, and barley. Some have motorcycles and cell phones.
As they've done for other languages, Harrison and Anderson plan to create an online "talking dictionary" for the use of both scholars and natives.
The researchers identified Koro as a member of the Tibeto-Burman language family, a grouping that includes Tibetan and Burmese, as the name suggests. But Koro does not appear to come from any known branch of the family, suggesting that it may be quite ancient, Harrison says.
"We don't know what the forces keeping it in existence are," he says. "Where did it come from? Why is it so different from all the languages around it?"
The linguists are headed back to India next month to learn more. And to help preserve another rare tongue before its speakers disappear.
SOURCE: David Harrison and Gregory Anderson
Contact staff writer Tom Avril
at 215-854-2430 or firstname.lastname@example.org.