Hidden language found in foothills of Himalayas

And because few young people speak it, said a linguist, it is fast disappearing.

A speaker of the endangered language Koro talks with National Geographic fellow Gregory Anderson. Koro is a language spoken by as few as 800 people in northeast India.

In the foothills of the Himalayas in northeast India, a team of linguists has identified a "hidden" language spoken by as few as 800 people, the scholars said Tuesday.

The language, an unwritten tongue called Koro, was hitherto unknown to the Indian government and to the outside world, said team member David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College. And because few young people speak it, it is fast disappearing, as are thousands of other tongues, he said.

"We're losing an immense body of knowledge that we don't even know is there," Harrison said in a media conference call.

Languages disappear for various political and economic reasons in an increasingly globalized world, at an estimated rate of one every two weeks, he said. And their disappearance is a problem not just because of the loss of the actual words, said Harrison and colleague Gregory Anderson, both fellows of the National Geographic Society.

Along with the vanishing words goes information that often does not exist in other languages - for example, scientifically valuable information about local plants, animals and climate.

The findings on the Koro language are to be published in the journal Indian Linguistics, authored by Harrison, Anderson and Ganesh Murmu of Ranchi University in India. Harrison also describes the research in a chapter of his new book, entitled The Last Speakers.

Harrison said it was hard to pinpoint how often linguists identify a "new" language. It is an uncommon occurrence, though somewhat less so in the language family that includes Koro, called Tibeto-Burman. Linguists have identified about a dozen previously unknown tongues in that family during the last 30 years, said Scott DeLancey, a University of Oregon professor of linguistics.

DeLancey, who was not part of the new research on Koro, said the language was quite distinct from anything linguists have encountered.

"This is not just a dialect of something else," he said. "To a linguist, we're just always excited to find a new language, the same way a biologist is to find a new species."

The people who speak Koro typically speak other languages as well, such as Hindi, another uncommon language called Aka, and even English, Harrison said.

The researchers initially went to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh to study Aka, which is spoken by several thousand people. Anderson, director of the nonprofit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, based in Oregon, said that Aka and Koro were about as close as English and Russian.

In addition to documenting langages, the researchers use technology to help ensure their survival. As they visited bamboo houses to meet with speakers of Koro, for example, they made recordings that will be used to create online "talking dictionaries."

Contact staff writer Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or tavril@phillynews.com