Koro: A Unique Rare Language of India

By Sarah-Claire Jordan

Aka_Tribal_Lady_5Around the world today, there are tons of rare languages that are still being spoken, many of them in danger of disappearing altogether. However, it is entirely possible that linguists and researchers have only managed to scratch the surface of the treasure chest that is rare languages. Certain things can factor into keeping a rare language from being discovered, such as lack of any written record and restricted access to areas where it is spoken. Whatever the reason may be that a rare language hasn’t been discovered and documented yet, there are still plenty of linguists working at discovering them all. Let’s take a look at one country in particular that has a wealth of languages, and is where Koro, an extremely rare language, is spoken: India.

India is an interesting country in that it has no national language, only an official language. This is Hindi, the most widely-spoken language in the country and the language used by the government. English acts as a sort of second official language, used by businesses and for administration purposes. English is also very important in the educational system. Indians who speak English generally enjoy a higher social status than those who don’t.

Though Hindi and English may be the most prominent languages in India, there are 122 major languages spoken in India as well as over 1500 other ones, most of them belonging either to the Indo-Aryan or the Dravidian language families. Since no one is required to learn a national language, this can make communication between regions of India extremely difficult to deal with. However, the government can’t pick one language over all of the others to be the national language, as this wouldn’t be fair to everyone whose native language is something else.

One of the less common (but still prominent) language families found in India is the Tibeto-Burman language family. This family is made up of languages from the bigger Sino-Tibetan family that are not related to Chinese. The two most common languages of this family are Tibetan and Burmese, thus the name of the language family. There are over 400 languages in this family, many spoken by very small groups of people. Some haven’t been documented very well, which is the case with both Aka and Miji, two rare languages spoken by communities in Arunachal Pradesh, a state found in northeast India.

Back in 2008, a group of researchers visited this part of India, which is said to be one of the most linguistically rich and diverse areas in Asia. In order to get to where the Aka live, in the foothills of the Himalayas, the researchers had to get a special permit. This in and of itself shows how hard it can be to document languages like this, when governments require all kinds of hoops to be jumped through just to get a chance to meet native speakers. Anyway, while documenting the Aka language, they picked up on something else as well, which turned out to be a whole new language. The language they found was Koro.

Koro is not a member of the Tibeto-Burman language family, though it is a member of the bigger Sino-Tibetan family. Koro itself belongs to an even smaller family within the Sino-Tibetan family, or possibly a completely independent family, known as the Siangic languages. The only other language in this family is Milang. Since this language family has a lot of vocabulary that clearly does not come from the Sino-Tibetan language family, it’s difficult to tell whether it can be classified as part of the Sino-Tibetan family or not.

Though it was found in an Aka village, Koro is very different from the Aka language. The two languages only share about 9% of their vocabulary, with the rest differing greatly. Koro has an extremely different set of sounds that are used than Aka. Words are formed in a totally different way as well, with these distinct sounds. Sentence structure is very different in Koro as well. Just to give you some examples of how different the two languages are, here are a couple of words in both Aka and Koro: “vo” (pig in Aka) is “lele” in Koro, and “phu” (mountain in Aka) is “nggo” in Koro. They really couldn’t be any more different.

Probably one of the most interesting things about Koro is that those who speak it live within the Aka community, yet they don’t identify any differently in terms of culture. Koro speakers are almost completely integrated into the Aka community, marrying Aka people, living in the same villages, eating the same foods, and carrying out the same agricultural activities. Both the Aka and Koro wear clothing made of cloth they weave by hand, mostly reds. Ethnically and culturally, the two groups are indistinguishable. The only difference is the language.

In 2008 when the group of researchers went to the Aka village, there were only 10,000 speakers of Aka, and 800 to 1200 Koro speakers. Of the Koro speakers, very few of them were under 20, which means that the transmission of the language may have stopped already. The fact that researchers were able to document Koro when they did is very important, as it is in danger of dying out, mostly due to an aging population. Aka could also become more useful than Koro, causing speakers of Koro to switch over to using the Aka language, but this isn’t likely given there is not real pressure for them to not speak Koro anymore.

The Aka and Koro speakers think of Koro as just a dialect of Aka, which ties in with the fact that they are identical culturally and ethnically. Despite the obvious differences in language, the Aka accept the Koro as a sub-tribe and don’t seem to try to make them speak the Aka language. They must understand each other’s language, however, in order for that to work. Either Koro speakers understand Aka and vice versa, or Koro speakers only speak Koro with each other and speak Aka with everyone else. No matter how they manage it, it seems to be working to keep Koro alive and well for now.

Very little is known about Koro besides where it is spoken and what the researchers were able to document of the language itself. Many aspects of it still remain a mystery, namely where it comes from originally, and how it became part of Aka culture while still remaining a separate language. Aka itself is thought to be a language isolate, even though many believe it to be part of the Sino-Tibetan language group. So Koro occupies a small pocket of the Aka community, whose main language also has mysterious origins. There is some speculation that Koro may have been brought to the area through slavery and somehow wormed its way into the community, but it’s only a theory.

To top it off, there are no written records of Koro, so there is no real documented history of the language, only what native speakers told researchers back in 2008. It could very well be that Koro doesn’t have a writing system, since it seems that no one has ever written anything down in Koro, or at least it hasn’t been found and copied. This makes Koro a purely oral language that can only be taught and passed down via speaking and listening. Researchers did write down some of what they learned of Koro, but this was using the English alphabet and phonetics, so it still doesn’t give us much insight as to how Koro might be written.

Probably the most puzzling thing to the group of researchers who traveled to the Aka village in 2008 is the fact that the Koro speakers did not do what they were expected to do as a minority group speaking a language different from that of the majority. First of all, as stated before, the Aka don’t see those who speak Koro as culturally different from themselves, so they probably don’t see them as a minority group either except linguistically. The label of “minority group” was probably something used by one of the researchers as a way to better understand the relationship between the two groups and languages, but the truth is there is only one group and two languages.

Generally, when there is a minority group (which in this case is only different linguistically), the language spoken by that group either dies out and is taken over by the language of the majority group, or the minority language survives because the minority group establishes and defends a cultural identity distinct from that of the majority group. An example of this would be a group of Spanish speaking immigrants forming a small community within a big city in a country where another language is spoken as the official language. They maintain and in a way create their own new culture in their new home, and keep their language alive that way.

On the other hand, Spanish speaking immigrants could be pressured to stop speaking Spanish and learn English or some other language instead, depending on where they settled. When it comes to Koro, neither of these things happened, and yet it remains alive as a spoken language to this day. What is the secret to its survival, and where did it really come from? Hopefully more research will be done to find out.

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Category: Foreign Language

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