Song from the Mountains: Voices of the Koro Aka at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

by Allison Taylor-Adams (guest blogger from Polyglossic)

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival took place over two weekends on the National Mall in Washington, DC. I’m lucky enough to live in DC, so it was just a short bus ride for me to get to spend a whole day exploring the “One World, Many Voices” program. The program participants had much longer journeys, having traveled from such far-flung locations as Hawai’i, Colombia, Russia, and Bolivia. One group, the Koro Aka speakers of the Himalayan Mountains of northeastern India, had to travel for nine days to arrive at the Festival – a trip that involved taxis, buses, more taxis, and connections through four different airports.

The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages has a special relationship with the Koro Aka. I was happy to be asked to write a guest blog post for Living Tongues, and was given the opportunity to speak with some of the participants from the Koro Aka tribe. I interviewed Khandu Degio, a basket weaver and spirit house maker, and later spoke with Sorsomi Degio, a weaver, with the translation help of Bhokta Newar, a member of the nearby Nishi ethnic group who traveled with the Koro Aka delegation to assist them throughout the festival.  (You can tell from my audio tracks that the festival was a bustling, busy event!)


Allison Taylor-Adams interviewing Sorsomi Degio and Bhokta Newar.

Photo by Aaron Adams.

The Koro Aka live among a group of people called the Hruso Aka, or Aka. According to Khandu, the Koro and the Hruso share many similarities – “the way we dress, the way we celebrate our festivals, the way we cultivate our farms…[in many things] we may be very similar – except in our language.” While the Hruso Aka are a fairly large tribe, made up of over 30 different clans or “family names”, the Koro Aka are much smaller, with only 4 family names.

Until just a few years ago, Koro Aka could be described as a “hidden” language.  Khandu explained:  “many researchers, many scientists, many authors came [to our villages] – the only saw Aka…They had never gotten to know about Koro.  They researched only ‘Aka.’  So any time any kind of researchers came there, they recorded only ‘Aka’ and they took their information from the Hruso Aka, the Koros were never known to them. But [in 2008] David Harrison and Greg Anderson*, both of them came there and they went to a small village there, where there were many Hruso speakers…but ultimately they came to know that there was another kind of person, called Koro.”

I asked him if the Koro and the Hruso Aka always knew they were speaking two different languages, and he replied, “Yes, of course! They are totally different!”  He gave the example of a greeting in Koro:

And the same greeting in Hruso Aka:

“Totally different,” Khandu reiterated. He explained that his father is Koro Aka, and his mother is Hruso Aka. Khandu said, “I was so lucky that in my home there were both Koro and Hruso speakers.”


Khandu Degio performing a Koro dance, with Ramda Degio in foreground.

Photo by Aaron Adams.

As is the case with many communities in the world, the Koro Aka are remarkably multilingual. Khandu speaks Koro and Hruso as well as Hindi and English; Sorsomi speaks Koro, Hindi, Miji (the language of a neighboring tribe), and some English. Both Khandu and Sorsomi said that the younger generation of Koro is growing up speaking both Hindi and English, the two official languages of India. I asked Khandu about the state of the Koro Aka language. He said that it is an endangered language, and pointed out that the biggest problem is that Koro Aka does not have a writing system (he also noted that Hruso Aka suffers the same problem).  “There is not any written record. That’s why anything, any story, any traditional beliefs somebody has… we speak it verbally, we’ve inherited it from our ancestors, from our fathers, from our parents, only by listening and by hearing and by memorizing, because we do not have a script of our own. That’s why I think it is an endangered language.”

Sorsomi Degio is employed by the Indian government to teach school to the youngest children in the community. She says she teaches in Koro Aka and Hindi, but all of the texts for school are only available in Hindi and English. When I asked her and Bhokta if they wanted Koro Aka to have a writing system, they both said “yes!” simultaneously. Sorsomi said that illiteracy is a problem in the Koro Aka community, and Bhokta said that roughly 70% of Koro Aka are illiterate, but added that “nowadays people are giving much more emphasis on education.”  Sorsomi said if she would love to be able to use written Koro Aka in her lessons.

This echoes Khandu’s feelings. He said that he hopes that many students will be able to study in the Koro Aka language, and hopes that the coming generation will have texts in Koro Aka.

When I asked Sorsomi what her favorite part of the Koro Aka language was, she smiled and said, “the songs.”  Bhokta asked me if I’d like to hear a Koro Aka song, and Sorsomi cleared her throat and started to sing:


Sorsomi Degio singing at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Photo by Aaron Adams.

Bhokta explained: “The meaning of this song is, wherever there is a party, let’s go! We can meet each other from different part of the people. Let’s go together and enjoy.  Let’s go!


Koro Aka Spirit House Celebration at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Photo by Aaron Adams.


About the Author. Allison Taylor-Adams has bachelor’s degrees in Religious Studies and Russian Language and Literature from the University of Oklahoma, and has just received her master’s degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of Massachusetts-Boston.  She blogs about languages, language learning, and linguistic diversity at Polyglossic.  She also loves lace knitting and hiking in the woods, both of which are activities that can conveniently be accomplished while also talking and thinking about languages.


*Living Tongues Editor’s Note:

Thanks to Ms. Taylor-Adams for her wonderful guest blog post, and to Aaron Adams for the the photos!

The Koro Aka language has been a priority for linguists Dr. K. David Harrison and Dr. Gregory D. S. Anderson in part because, prior to their research, it was not acknowledged or listed in the scientific record as a distinct language, nor were any recordings available. Koro Aka remains a mystery in terms of its position within the Tibeto-Burman language family. Harrison and Anderson’s comparative work will help scientists understand where it fits and how it has evolved within the Eastern India Language Hotspot. Click here to learn more about the Koro Aka.


2 thoughts on “Song from the Mountains: Voices of the Koro Aka at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

  1. Pingback: The Many Voices of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival | polyglossic

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