Last month, I read a fascinating article in The New York Times* about the discovery of a new language, spoken by a remote group of about 1,000 people in India. There are approximately 7,000 recorded languages in the world, yet many are rapidly disappearing. On an expedition to record and preserve endangered languages, a team of linguists traveled to a remote area of Northeastern India, in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. They were interested in the Aka language, spoken by approximately 6 to 10 thousand tribal villagers. These people live near the borders of China, Tibet and Burma, and subsist on hunting and farming, raising pigs and growing rice and barley. Small villages consist of bamboo houses set on stilts.
In the tiny mountain village of Kichang, the linguists heard villagers speaking a language that did not sound like Aka. The new language was Koro, with words, syntax and sounds that were entirely different from Aka. Although the Koro speakers live in close proximity to the Aka speakers, they had a completely different language, which had never before been recorded or identified. Researchers are not entirely sure how Koro has survived as a language, as its speakers presently number only about 800 to 1,000.
Why is it important to preserve languages that are in danger of becoming “extinct”? Why should we attempt to document and recognize them, when they are spoken by so few people? Language represents a people’s history, its culture, its place in the world, and sometimes, its future. It is critical that these languages are preserved, recorded, and studied, for understanding a culture’s language is how we eventually understand the people as well … how they think, how they behave, how their society is structured, how they use and process information. By documenting and attempting to understand threatened languages, we can explore a small glimpse of living history.
* “Hunting One Language, Stumbling Upon Another” John Noble Wilford, The New York Times, October 11, 2010