Thursday, October 07, 2010

Introducing Koro, an entirely new language like nothing you've seen!

As reported in an article about the discovery of a Tibeto-Burman language previously unknown to linguistics, researchers made two interestingly contrasting claims. The first involves the claim that this language, Koro, is somehow linguistically isolate:
"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. [...] 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."
This claim of Koro's unusual separateness would seem to conflict with the researchers' report that the speakers themselves don't see that they are so isolate:
Moreover, it was masked by the unusual language diversity of the area, where so many languages are spoken that they seem to intermingle effortlessly in streams of thought. Indeed, the local Koro speakers themselves didn't consider theirs a separate language, even though it is as distinct from those spoken by other villagers as English is from Russian, the researchers said.[emphasis added]
As distinct as English is from Russian, how... not orthographically, since Koro does not have a written form, but syntactically? Lexically? It is a shame that the article in The Wall Street Journal couldn't extract more specific information from the researchers. What we are left with is a tantalizing report, of quite generic content: something new has been found! And it is quite unusual, let us tell you! Linguistic relativism rears its head again, providing support to those advocating for the preservation of linguistic communities under threat of extinction, but furthering the unfortunate belief that languages create barriers between cultures that obstruct mutual understanding.

My optimism prompts me to wonder if the unique uniqueness of Koro isn't just a bit of hard work translators, rather than evidence of human linguistic fragmentation.


NB: Perhaps this discovery is not completely recent, though it sounds like the research team mentioned did the leg-work to analyze the language for publication in a forthcoming issue of Indian Linguistics. According to Wikipedia,
Koro was recognized as a separate language in 2008 by a linguistic team of David Harrison, Gregory Anderson, and Ganesh Murmu while documenting two Hruso languages (Aka and Miji) as part of National Geographic's Enduring Voices project. It was reported to them as a dialect of Aka, but turned out to be highly divergent. However, it was apparently noticed by earlier researchers. Ethnologue reports that "A 2005 survey identified a group of Aka in East Kameng District called Koro Aka, distinct from Hruso Aka in West Kameng."

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Found in Translation

An Op-Ed piece by Michael Cunningham that was printed in the NY Times this weekend.