In 2008, K. David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, travelled to Arunachal Pradesh, India, a remote northeast region of the country, which even Indians need a permit to reach. As a specialist in endangered languages, Harrison was searching for speakers of two little-known tongues—Aka and Miji. But he stumbled upon an incredible discovery: a third, hidden language, Koro. “Koro had never been noticed by outsiders,” says the Canadian-born anthropologist. But Koro was also concealed from within. “The Koro lived closely with the Aka, and downplayed the differences between them, believing they spoke a dialect of the Aka language,” Harrison says. “What’s cool is this is a small language, intermingled with a dominant group. You would think it would be abandoned by its speakers. But it has persisted, and we don’t know why.”
That would be useful information. Right now, there are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world, and at least half of those are in danger of extinction. According to Harrison, a human language disappears every two weeks. So his mission is to travel the world, and record vanishing languages. Tracking them down is no easy feat. Harrison worked in conjunction with National Geographic to identify “language hot spots,” or areas of the world with the highest level of linguistic diversity and endangerment, and lowest levels of scientific study. The model they created predicted where hidden languages exist.
Since then, he’s been visiting the hot spots, and he documented his journey in a new book, The Last Speakers. In it, Harrison profiles “linguistic survivors who hold the fates of languages in their mouths and minds.” Why should we care about languages that are spoken by only a few? “We don’t know everything we need to know about the world,” Harrison says. Many of these languages are oral, and have never been recorded; from them, he says, “I’ve learned how the Siberians classify reindeer, and that the Inuit have 99 distinct words for different types of sea ice. The Kallawaya people in Bolivia have encoded the medicinal use of thousands of plants. We shouldn’t squander this knowledge, we should value it.”