A remote region in northeastern India considered a "black hole" in the study of languages has revealed one of its most astounding secrets. Researchers working there have uncovered a new language previously unknown to science, according to USA Today.
The language, which is being called "Koro," is a member of the Tibeto-Burman language family, though it is so distinct from other local languages that it may represent a long lost linguistic lineage which has otherwise disappeared. Only about 800 to 1,200 speakers of Koro remain, nearly all of whom are at least 20 years old, and the language remains unwritten.
"This is a language that had been undocumented, completely unrecognized and unrecorded," said researcher Gregory Anderson, director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and leader of the team which discovered Koro.
Anderson and his fellow researchers speculated that the language may have originated from a group of people who were initially enslaved and brought to the area. Though it vanished elsewhere, a pocket of speakers may have been able to keep their language alive as they integrated into their adoptive culture.
The team of linguists were able to record and even translate much of Koro. They used the English alphabet to put the language in written form for the first time. Some of the words include ala, which means "moon"; dougrey, which means "star"; mugba, which means "cloud"; and laasu, which means "monkey."
Perhaps the most remarkable fact about the discovery of Koro is that it is spoken by a group of people who identify themselves as belonging to a larger 10,000-person Aka tribe, where most members do not speak Koro and instead speak the more typical Aka language. In fact, Koro and Aka share only nine percent of their vocabulary.
Yet despite lacking a common language, both Aka speakers and Koro speakers insist that they are the same people — a remarkable cultural integration that is of great interest to the study of linguistics.
"When did the Koro end up submerged within the Aka, and how did that come to be? Our most pressing task is getting decent documentation out into the professional domain so that specialists in other Tibeto-Burman languages can weigh in," noted Anderson.
The discovery of Koro brings the number of known languages to 6,909 worldwide. Although many of those languages are nearly gone or already extinct, it's reassuring to imagine that there may still be a few left undiscovered.