Thursday, October 07, 2010

lost horizon

American researchers have discovered a dying language spoken by a tiny remnant of about 1,000 tribespeople in the remote Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Linguists previously thought that Koro was a dialect of the more widely-spoken Aka language, but the most recent investigations have uncovered its vocabulary for such things as numbers, body parts, and other concepts, which distinguishes it from Aka. The two languages have completely different repertoires of sound, and the sounds are produced differently.

Arunachal Pradesh is nestled on the lower slopes of the Himalayas and shares borders with Bhutan, Tibet, China, and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Its tribal residents live by subsistence farming and hunting, and weave their own clothing which favors the more brilliant shades of red. Because their lifeways and languages are fragile and endangered by outside influences, travel there is possible only for those receiving a permit for entry from the Indian government at Delhi. Even if a traveler obtains permission to enter Arunachal Pradesh, access to the people of the region is not easy. The National Geographic team pursuing the present investigation had to cross a wild mountain river on bamboo rafts and scale steep hillsides to reach the settlements of bamboo houses resting on stilts.

I find this story doubly interesting because I'm currently re-reading James Hilton's 1930's novel "Lost Horizon," about a quartet of westerners who are spirited off to the remotest possible human habitation concealed in the fastness of the impenetrable Himalaya, a small, gem-like valley which rests in the shadow of a mysterious and inscrutable lamasary called Shangri-La. That it proves to be the closest thing to a paradise on earth is essential to the story, of course, along with the impossibility of such a place actually existing. But now I have to wonder whether Shangri-La might actually exist after all, and if we've found it.

You can judge for yourself by watching the National Geographic special that will inevitably follow upon this fascinating discovery.

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