Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Linguistic Mosaic

Indigenous languages are disappearing at an alarming rate around the world has been noted by many noted linguists and social workers. Language carries vocal literature like folklore and folk music. Many such other cultures that uses language as a medium of expression. Imagine 'Bihu' song and dance without Assamese language --- something unimaginable. If Assamese language disappears, so will Bihu and associated cultures.

Around the world as languages disappear so thus many interesting cultures native to the place and people. Perhaps nowhere else in the world is this loss more profound than in Northeast India. With five language families (Tai-Kadai, Tibeto-Burman, Indo-Aryan, Austroasiatic and Dravidan) represented in well over two hundred languages amongst its eight states (Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim), Northeast India could well be the most linguistically diverse region in the world. Many linguists today see it as their obligation to assist in preventing this great loss to mankind by documenting and describing languages and working with communities to preserve and/or revitalize their languages.

The largest of the language families represented in India, in terms of speakers, is the Indo-Aryan language family, a branch of the Indo-Iranian family, itself the easternmost, extant subfamily of the Indo-European language family. This language family predominates, accounting for some 700 million speakers, or 69% of the population. The most widely spoken languages of this group are Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Urdu, Gujarati, Punjabi, and Odia. Aside from the Indo-Aryan languages, other Indo-European languages are also spoken in India, the most prominent of which is English, as a lingua franca, the rest being minority languages such as Persian, Portuguese and French.

In the North-East, the Indo-Aryan represented mainly by Assamese, Bengali (or Bangla) and Hindi.

Assamese, spoken mostly in the Brahmaputra Valley, developed as a lingua franca for many speech communities. Assamese-based pidgin/creoles have developed in Nagaland (Nagamese) and Arunachal (Nefamese), though their use has been on a decline in recent times. 

Among other Indo-Aryan languages, Sylheti is spoken in South Assam in the Barak Valley. Besides the Sino-Tibetan Tripuri language, Bengali is a majority language in Tripura.  Bengali was the official language of Colonial Assam for about forty years from the 1830s. Bengali or Sylheti speaking people can be found in many pockets of the North-East. It is worth mentioning here that the Bengali dialect spoken in the North-East differs significantly in vocabulary from the one spoken in West Bengal.  

Nepali is a dominant language in Sikkim. In the north bank of River Brahmaputra, especially along the Bhutan border and Lakhimpur district of Assam, a sizable Nepali population inhabited.

Hindi has become the new lingua franca of the region, gradually replacing Assamese (or its variants) that historically played the role. Originally spoken by the migrant laborers and merchants from Bihar, UP and Rajastan, it has been popularized recently by numerous Hindi language TV channels, Bollywood movies and songs and the central board schools. It is also fueled by the fact that learning the language opens avenue in other parts of the country. Even though, not accepted or welcome whole heatedly in many parts of North-East India, Hindi has been a de facto and major mode of communication among various linguistic groups.

The Tibeto-Burman languages, a subfamily of Sino-Tibetan language family, comprising those languages of that language family not related to Chinese, are well represented in India. However, their inter-relationships are not discernible, and the family has been described as "a patch of leaves on the forest floor" rather than with the conventional metaphor of a "family tree".

Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken across the Himalayas in the regions of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh, and also in the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura and Mizoram. Tibeto-Burman languages spoken in India include Karbi, Meitei, Lepcha, as well as many varieties of several related Tibetic, West Himalayish, Tani, Brahmaputran, Angami–Pochuri, Tangkhul, Zeme, Kukish language groups, amongst many others.

Sino-Tibetan is represented by a number of languages that differ significantly from each other, some of which are: Bodo, Rabha, Karbi, Mising, Tiwa, Deuri etc. (Assam); Garo, (Meghalaya) Ao, Tangkhul, Angami, Sema, Lotha, Konyak etc.(Nagaland); Mizo, Hmar,Chakma (Mizoram); Hrusso, Tanee, Nisi, Adi, Abor, Nocte, Apatani, Misimi etc. (Arunachal). Manipuri is the official language in Manipur, the dominant language of the Imphal Valley; while Naga languages such as Mao, Maram and Tangkul, and Kuki languages such as Hmar and Paite predominate in individual hill areas of the state.

    The tribals of Manipur are divided into 29 groups recognised as scheduled tribes and have their own distinct dialects and culture. The recognised tribes are- Aimol, Anal, Angami, Chiru, Chothe, Gangte, Hmar, Kabui, Kacha Naga, Vaiphei, Koirao, Koireng, Kom, Lamkang, Mao, Maram, Maring, Mizo (Lushai), Monsang, Moyon, Suhte, Tangkhul and Thadou. Inter-action within and between the different groups has been limited. There has never been any scope for the development of a common language. This is exemplified by the fact that even among the various Naga groups from different hill villages, there are considerable differences in dialects.

Another smaller subfamily of Sino-Tibetan language family. It comprises Thai languages like Ahom, Tai Phake, Khamyang, Khamti, Aiton, Phakyal and Turung. It is worthwhile to mention here that Ahom a language belonging to this Thai group, has over the years merged with Assamese.

The Austroasiatic language family (austro meaning South) is the autochthonous language in South Asia and Southeast Asia, other language families having arrived by migration. Austroasiatic languages of are the KhasiJaintia and War languages of Meghalaya. Munda language group, including Santhali spoken by the Tea Tribes. 

Telegu or its variants are found to be spoken by some Tea Tribes. Among the few missionaries and nurses migrating from South India, speakers of Kanada, Telegu and Malayalam can be found.

     Language is not only a tool of communication but it also has ethnic, socio-cultural and political implications. Due to its remarkable linguistic diversity, bilingualism and sometimes trilingualism is common in both rural and urban areas even among the unlettered of the region. This is because when a family, a kin group or a community moves from one region to another, its members acquire the language of their new place of domicile without giving up their native language. Settlement of outsiders has also helped in spreading bilingualism or trilingualism in the region.

    The Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India recognised 18 Indian languages. There is no provision to protect the minor languages, especially the tribal languages of the North-East. Such minor languages could lose their identity vis-a-vis the dominant language. Any language signifies a vocal system by which members of a social group interact with one another. It has immense social and political implications. Coercion by the dominant community to impose its language could invite political turmoil. Indeed, language assimilation at various interaction levels has been a characteristic feature of a multi-ethnic region that the North-East is. But the advocacy of a single language for homogeneity or cohesiveness classification has been challenged.

The geographical distribution of the major languages in India neatly fits into a scheme of linguistic regions. Hence, the linguistic re-organisation of States that took place in 1956. But for the North-East, State re-organisation is based neither on linguistic nor on ethnic factors. It is based on administrative convenience. This is why the contiguous Naga habitations fall into four States - Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

    The North-East presents striking socio-cultural features in terms of ethnicity, linguistic and socio-cultural practices. The hill ranges of the region like the Naga Hills, Patkai Hills, Lushai Hills and Shillong Plateau are inhabited by numerous indigenous tribal communities. Each ethnic group has its own distinctive socio-cultural identity. According to Indian language classification, the region has people of Mongoloid stock, speaking Sino-Tibetan and Austric languages or dialects. The linguistic matrix of the North-East is made up of a number of polyglots. It is not only different languages of a single family but also languages of different families which are spoken in different States of this region as each state in the region is multilingual complex rather than a linguistically homogenous unit.

    There has been ethnic assertion in every group of its socio-cultural and political aspirations. In the process a language becomes a vital tool to subjugate a buffer minor ethnic group by larger and stronger dominant groups. This is apparently observed in the non-tribal dominant States like Assam, Tripura and Manipur. In these States the tribal languages have little scope for growth. The dominant languages of the geographical areas are compulsory like Assamese in Assam, Bengali in Tripura and Meiteilon or Manipuri in Manipur. The Assam tribals like Bodos, Karbis, Kacharis, invariably study Assamese in schools and colleges. The Tripura tribals such as Tripuris and Reang study Bengali; the Manipur tribals such as the Nagas and Kuki-Chin (Zomi) have to study Meiteilon.

Bengali, Assamese, Manipuri and many other languages of the region use the same script with some slight modifications. There is a heated on-going debate about the name of the script adopted by Govt. of India and The Unicode Consortium.
      More or less, the same situation exists in other States of this region. The North-East often witnesses a tug-of-war among the multiple tribal languages and the dominant one. Recently, the UPSC tried to introduce the Manipuri language as a compulsory subject in civil service (mains) examination for the candidates from Manipur . But the Guwahati High Court in its interim order exempted the tribals from appearing in Manipuri language. The irony is that while Manipuri is not taught in the schools, it is a compulsory subject at higher levels, especially in competitive examinations.

    The linguistic diversity in the North-East creates or worsens ethnic tensions in the region. Under the prevailing situation the tribal communities are encouraged to speak the dominant language with the result that fewer people are using their tribal languages or dialects.


1. http://www.iitg.ernet.in/rcilts
2. http://pib.nic.in/feature/feyr2001/fmay2001/f030520011.html
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_India
4. http://www.indigenousherald.com/index.php/opinion/63-language-and-cultural-preservation-in-northeast-india
5. http://www.muturzikin.com/en.html

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