National Geographic : 2012 Jul
e yellow stones for the tradzy necklaces can no longer be found in the river, and so the only way to have a precious necklace is to inherit one. Speaking Aka---or any language---means im- mersing oneself in its character and concepts. "I'm seeing the world through the looking glass of this language," said Father Vijay D'Souza, who was running the Jesuit school in Palizi at the time of my visit. e Society of Jesus established the school in part because it was concerned about the fragility of the Aka language and culture and wanted to support them (though classes are taught in English). D'Souza is from southern In- dia, and his native language is Konkani. When he came to Palizi in 1999 and began speaking Aka, the language transformed him. "It alters your thinking, your worldview," he told me one day in his headmaster's o ce, as chil- dren raced to classes through the corridor outside. One small ex- ample: mucrow. A similar word in D'Souza's native language would be an insult, meaning "old man." In Aka "mucrow" means something more. It is a term of respect, deference, endearment. e Aka might address a woman as mucrow to indicate her wis- dom in civic a airs, and, says D'Souza, "an Aka wife will call her husband mucrow, even when he's young," and do so a ectionately. American linguists David Harrison and Greg Anderson have been coming to Arunachal Pradesh to study its languages since 2008. ey are among the scores of linguists worldwide en- gaged in the study of vanishing languages. Some have academic and institutional affiliations (Harrison and Anderson are both connected with National Geographic's Enduring Voices Project), while others may work for Bible soci- eties that translate Scripture into new tongues. e authoritative index of world languages is Ethnologue, maintained by SIL International, a faith-based organization. e researchers' intent may be hands-o , to record a grammar and lexi- con before a language is lost or contaminated, or it may be interventionist, to develop a written accompaniment for the oral language, compile a dictionary, and teach native speakers to write. Linguists have identi ed a host of language hotspots (analogous to biodiversity hotspots) that have both a high level of linguistic diver- sity and a high number of threatened languages (see map, pages 92-3). Many of these are in the world's least reachable, and o en least hospita- ble, places---like Arunachal Pradesh. Aka and its neighboring languages have been protected be- cause Arunachal Pradesh has long been sealed o to outsiders as a restricted border region. Even other Indians are not allowed to cross into the region without federal permission, and so its fragile microcultures have been spared the in- trusion of immigrant labor, modernization---and linguists. It has been described as a black hole of linguistics because its incredible language variety re- mains so little explored. Much of public life in Palizi is regulated through the repetition of mythological stories used as forceful fables to prescribe be- havior. us a money dispute can draw a recitation about a spirit whose daughters are eaten by a crocodile, one by one, as they cross the river to bring him dinner in the eld. He kills the crocodile, and a priest promises to bring the last daughter back to life but overcharges so egregiously that the spirit seeks revenge by becoming a piece of ginger that gets stuck in the greedy priest's throat. Such stories were traditionally told by the elders in a highly formal version of Aka that the young did not yet understand and accord- ing to certain rules, among them this: Once an elder begins telling a story, he cannot stop until the story is nished. As with linguistic literacy, disruption is disaster. Yet Aka's young people no longer follow their elders in learn- ing the formal version of the language and the stories that have governed daily life. Even in this remote region, young people are seduced away from their mother tongue by Hindi on the television and English in the schools. To- day Aka's speakers number fewer than 2,000, INDIA Palizi ARUNACHAL PRADESH Aka speakers no words for speci c numbers but gets by using "few" or "many. "