Hidden Languages and Really Hidden Languages

by Translation Guy on October 25, 2010

The article Hidden Languages and Really Hidden Languages was originally posted on Technorati on October 23, 2010 by featured Technorati author, Ken Clark.

It’s the sort of language where one needs a permit from the Indian frontier police if one wishes to hear it. So hidden that even with an Arunachal Pradesh Protected Area Permit in hand, one must journey deep into the Himalayan jungle on the border of Tibet and the hermit kingdom of Bhutan. So hidden that a chap must ferry across mighty rivers on bamboo rafts and climb steep mountain trails to enter isolated villages deep in the tribal area.

But if you are looking for hidden languages, you’ve got to go where they are hiding. The steeper the trail, the higher the water, the more likely you are to find the language hotspots where lost languages are to be found. These isolated regions mark the last stand of many of the most endangered languages. This knowledge led Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages linguists Greg Anderson and K. David Harrison to document disappearing languages.

So jolly good to find a new one, and just the kind of exploring that makes the PR mavens at National Geographic go hog wild, as in hogzilla hog wild, over the chance to make a media splash for the edification and entertainment of geo fans and sell a few videos in the process. Once National Geographic gets hold of a cool natural history story, they shake it like a mongoose does a cobra.

So that’s what lead Anderson, Harrison and Ganesh Murumu to start asking grammar questions as they went from stilted bamboo hut to hut within the Aka community of India’s Arunachal Pradesh, documenting the Aka and Miji languages before they disappeared.

And then they came across a group of about 1000 people, mostly hunters and woodcutters, within the Aka community who used different words for body parts, numbers and other concepts than their Aka-speaking neighbours. So different, in fact, that the linguists claim this establishes the unique tongue, Koro, as its own hidden language. Culturally, the Koro speakers are part of the Aka community, and both groups merely considered Koro a dialect of Aka.

So that’s not just a hidden language. It’s a really hidden language. And so secret that National Geographic had to have a press conference to announce its discovery, mentioning, of course, the book about to be published by these two fine American National Geographic Fellows, The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages.

I’m always a bit sceptical when the people who are told they are speaking one language claim they are not. But the local woodcutters aren’t the only sceptics. Geographer Gibji Nimachow has been studying Koro for the last four years. And Nimachow, an assistant professor of geography at the Rajiv Gandhi University near Itanagar, should know. He belongs to the Aka tribe himself. Quoted in the Morung Express, published out of Nagaland, he sounded a bit miffed.

“To say one has uncovered a language known to many in our reasonably educated state is a bit too much,” Nimachow said. “That is half as ridiculous as turning a dialect into a language, although the Koro dialect is distinct from the Hrusso dialect, as I had mentioned in my book.”  The state’s Director (Research) Tage Tada agreed. “I don’t think Koro, or for that matter any dialect or language of Arunachal Pradesh, needs to be discovered,” he said.

What a bother! Not very sporting, I should say. We needn’t have the natives mucking up such a ripping good yarn, so let’s ignore them and continue. Ford Cochran, Mission Program director/blogger something at NG posted a great interview with the intrepid linguists:

Anderson: When we start working on a language, we build from the very basics. We need to get basic vocabulary down so we can start getting basic knowledge of the language, so we start with simple words like body parts, kin terms, color terms, numbers, natural phenomenon like water, sun, moon. Things that every language is likely to have a term for.

“From there, we build up slightly larger structures. So for example with Koro, they have pigs, so trying to find something about noun phrase structure, we asked people things like how do you say the black pig, how do you say two pigs, two big black pigs, so that we just get larger and larger structures. Ultimately, we try to collect stories. As much as we can.

Harrison: There’s a balance between what we need to collect to be systematic and thorough and what the speakers have patience to give us. Some people get tired after awhile of saying “two big black pigs.” On the other hand, if we record the language as it’s used fluently and naturally, somebody telling a life story or something, then it’s hard for us to understand. There’s a tradeoff between systematic data and natural data.”

About 2000 words and some videos in this piece. Very interesting.

And full disclosure: all this pukka sahib teasing is motivated by pure envy. I’d dust off my pith helmet in a minute to come along and provide tiger protection (the grammar stuff sounds a bit too much like client education). I see my role more like this… “Suddenly the jungle fell silent. In the dappled shade of the rhododendron, movement, then stillness. I raised my rifle. All depended on a straight shot. It would be me, or hogzilla.”


  1. Katie Katz says:

    They’re probably just speaking Hindi or Koro in pig latin. It’ll be years before the researchers catch on. Mwahaha.

  2. People don’t “bother” to learn their own native languages because they are difficult or not. It depends on what they are exposed to during childhood. If Hindi is the language of wider communication and almost no children are learning Koro this is one of the reasons it is endangered.

  3. Anita Potty says:

    Just think of all the siblings who made up their own language so they could talk behind their pants backs, those languages are extinct now too, and were never documented.

  4. If this language has just been discovered so God knows how many others are still unknown!

  5. Fizzle says:

    it sounds really cool and fascinating as well. Now i want to learn a new laungauge :)

  6. That’s really cool. I’m not really suprised Koro’s probably going to go extinct though.

  7. I know some people think it would be too much work to try and preserve it, but I truly think something should be done in order to try and preserve this rare language. I know it seems pointless from the outside looking in, but imagine if it was your language. The American language has lost all of its flavor over time and many wish it was back to the way it used to be. Now imagine if our language was gone all together. I think the men from National Geographic got their hunch for a reason and I really hope they further their investigation.

  8. Kerry Huff says:

    I really want to know more about “koro” sounds very interesting…

  9. Mr. Thug says:

    Save The people…Save the language and save the Race!!! The3Principles!!!

  10. foxguy says:

    that langenge shall not be for gotten when i’m around!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. Incredible. Hard to imagine that this could really be happening anywhere in the world… Hope the new exposure will help keep the language alive. Losing a language is a tragedy as it is like the brilliant gem of any culture.

  12. when languages disapear so the ideas that have been transfer way of mouth from generatios to generation that treasure can never be recuperate . thank you very much.

  13. Jizzy Mack says:

    Koro would probably be a hard language because only a few hundred people bother to speak it, choosing instead to speak in Hindi, which is much easier.

  14. shg says:

    thats kwl i want to learn it!!!

  15. Hi i’m from India. i’m felling proud to know this. Hope the team will be able to preserve the language…

  16. Jupiter says:

    Amazing. I wonder how many other languages lie undiscovered, hidden in remote corners of the world where no one has bothered, or dared, to look. I find it sad that this language may die out, though. I hope that people do something to stop it, and I would actually love to learn it myself.

  17. Babykins says:

    Wow this is so amazing!!! I want to travel there and learn the language……I hope it won’t be hard.

  18. this is super awesome. Can’t be too small of a world if an entire language is overlooked for so long. Perhaps they can work to preserve Koro and perhaps some of the young people of their culture can be encouraged to speak it as a second language at the least. If NatGeo can get involved maybe they can help the local population get an education program for the Koro language in place that could be taught by those who speak the language. It would also provide opportunity to spread the language to other Hindi speakers who might have an interest or even other people from the other surrounding nations even. This language doesn’t have to die, sadly most of the time that is the outcome in these scenarios. Let’s hope for better things :)

  19. As for leaning it? No so sure I’d want to, though maybe it’ll be as interesting as Latin albeit not as important.

  20. i would like to have a sample of the letters or signs that that language is formed can you give us a clue do they use fonetics the way we do is it a mixture of what please advise i am curious. thanks and congratulations in keepping us well informed.

  21. It’s part of the evolution of language that languages die out. They usually do for functional reasons, too. A lot of people don’t know that vikings lived in the Northeast part of England for a long time back in the 8-11th centuries. By the time of the Norman Conquest, Norse had fizzled out. This was largely because the Anglo-Saxons and the vikings had to communicate with each other, for business and other reasons too, so their language morphed into the similar language of the Anglo-Saxons, Old English.

  22. Simba says:

    its really interesting that our world is basically becoming one through glaoblization or factors that affect it.anyway my thoughts on this is that national geography has achieved one of the greatest things regarding this language and please please try to conserve it as much as you can.

  23. benkingery says:

    Very reminiscent of the current language crisis here in North America: All the Native Americans in the land under twenty have learned to communicate in English, but rarely go to the “trouble” to learn the language of their ancestors from their elders, unfortunately. It’s a situation where, the language is dying out so fast, we can’t react well enough to preserve it. Thanks for sharing this discovery, though, and I wish the best for the Koro language and the National Geographic fellows who discovered it.

  24. Bunny says:

    It makes you think about how many other languages there are out there… and how many are extinct. It makes me sad to think that anything is close to being extinct, even languages :(

  25. The Quack says:

    Amazing. Ken, u amaze me with real intersting stuff and good stuff every day. How exciting it is to learn something new everyday.

  26. Sophie says:

    Koro-pok-guru, also written koropokkuru, korobokkuru, or koropokkur, are a race of small people in Ainu folklore. The name is traditionally analysed as a tripartite compound of kor or koro (“butterbur plant”), pok (“under, below”), and kur or kuru (“man, husband, person”) and interpreted to mean “people below the leaves of the butterbur plant” in the Ainu language….

  27. Louis Harvey says:

    The idea of trying to conserve a language and keep it from dying out is more or less a waste of time. You can transcribe the words and record the pronunciation and the syntax, but that’s about all you can do. Then you just have records of it so people can study it for one reason or another in the future. There are over 6,000 languages in the world today, and less than half are even written. Many more have become extinct or evolved into other languages.

  28. Leo Lassiter says:

    only 800 people speak it? wow. it seems like a cool language.

  29. Well at least the English language won’t die out for some VERY, VERY LONG time.

  30. Rick Waller says:

    Closer to the English speaking world, 4 languages have gone extinct in the British Isles in a little over 200 years – Cornish (Bretonic Celtic language in Cornwall), Norn (Norse language in Orkney and Shetland Islands), Yola (Anglo-Saxon language in County Wexford)and Manx (Gaelic language on Isle of Man). Irish and Scots Gaelic are the next ones in danger of dying out, so if anyone wants to help save them, knock yourselves out!!

  31. Ricky Hu says:

    This is a great find! I’ve always been fascinated with languages, ever since middle school. I’d be curious as to what this sounds like, did they take any footage or audio samples?

  32. Champ says:

    i’m SO going to learn that langenge!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! )=)whatch out pielover is coming!!!!!! just hang in there!!!!!!!!!!!

  33. Pumpkin says:

    Deciphering this is going to be as easy as deciphering Greek– literally– Words like phu:nggo::(Aka:Koro) are practically like Poseiden:Enesidon….

  34. Chico says:

    Never knew there where still languages no one ever heard of ’til now. Pretty neat. I kind of want to learn it now.

  35. Bambino says:

    youd think that we’d found every type of language by now… i wonder what else we still havnet found. neato.

  36. Gracie says:

    There’s a fairly new language spoken by about 100 people in a section of Montreal, Canada. I don’t know what it’s called. It’s made up of bits and pieces of Michif (spoken by the Métis), French, Italian and English. I don’t think National Geographic discovered it yet.

  37. Baby Face says:

    Maybe people will learn more about other languages someday…

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