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Hidden Languages and Really Hidden Languages

23 August 2009 Sunday

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.”