Saturday, October 09, 2010

"Language ‘found’, doubt creeps in"

You've read the reports by now about the recent discovery in northeast India of a previously unknown Tibeto-Burman language, Koro, by David Harrison and Gregory D.S. Anderson. (If not, here's one of the stories.) I didn't post about it because, I guess, I didn't have anything to say on the subject. But I noticed something that kept bugging me a little: It's somehow weird to talk about the "discovery" of a language. These folks certainly have long known that they talk very differently than others around them. And it doesn't sound like this is a secret language in any sense, so that neighboring groups must have been aware of this too. Koro was really unknown to, say, the compilers of Ethnologue, making this a more limited discovery than news stories seem to imply. (As a curiosity, Ethnologue lists three languages called Koro, from the Ivory Coast, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. I wonder if there are other names that could refer to four completely different languages.)

The Telegraph of Calcutta is running this article, including this bit:
the Assam chapter of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) has disagreed with the report, saying Koro was not an unknown language in the region and linguistic experts were aware of existence of the language, adds our Guwahati Bureau.

Dinesh Baishya, the convener of the state chapter of Intach, told The Telegraph that an international conference on endangered languages of India last year discussed the language.

I have no idea what the facts are here, and it doesn't change the actual situation in substance, but it seems plausible that local organizations in Assam would have known about the language. Happily, at least we can be pretty sure that this won't become a Tasaday-like story.

Update, 6:00 pm: According to this AP story, Koro is a "hidden" language, and David Harrison says that "Even the speakers of the tongue, called Koro, did not realize they had a distinct language". I'm curious to hear how that works … extremely little contact with speakers of the (apparently distantly) related language?


Jesús Sanchis said...

When I saw the video I had the impression that the story was too good to be true, with its Indiana-Jones-looking linguists and dramatic presentation. American linguistics is full of such things: phantom theories, phantom discoveries. For example Universal Grammar. It's a game of 'I propose/discover something' and then we have a good excuse for some useless scholarly debate, like the one about the Piraha language. I suppose the very existence of much of American linguistics is based on this circus.

Ellen K. said...

My first thought was the the idea of an unknown (human) language is preposterous, since the speakers of the language know it, of course. The default for unknown being, my thinking was, human beings, since it's not otherwise stated. So no human language can be unknown.

Upon further reflection, it occurs to me that what's meant is unknown to scholars. I suppose it's okay in some contexts to use "unknown" to mean "unknown to scholars". A newspaper for a general audience, however, is not one of those contexts.