Assam’s lost and found languages

Linguistic survey helps some tribes rediscover their language; 55 languages spoken in the state

By Anupam Chakravartty
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Till recently, tea tribes in Assam did not know what grammar was. Most of them went to Assamese-medium schools, and were expected to forget their own mother tongue, till Peoples Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) linguist and researcher, Ambeshwar Gogoi, started visiting these tribes near Doom Dooma and other tea towns in Upper Assam in 2011. The linguistic survey was carried out across India and the survey report was released in Delhi last week in 50 volumes.

“It was fascinating to see some of the tea tribes ‘discovering' their own grammar and correcting an outsider, urging him to pronounce properly,” says Gogoi. The authors, Bibha Bharali and Banani Chakravarty, who released the PLSI's Assamese edition in New Delhi last week, are excited that culturally the north-eastern state looks even more pluralistic than earlier with 55 different languages being spoken in the state. But at the same time they rue the infiltration of Assamese words into languages spoken by some of the tribal minorities. “It is nevertheless very interesting,” says Bharali.

The researchers found that almost all the languages spoken in Nagaland were spoken in Assam. “It was not surprising for the residents of Jorhat or Sivasagar but when I found five Naga families staying in Sivasagar for generations speaking Konyak, I began to get even more curious,” says Gogoi. Assamese, which was recognised as a scheduled language after a long struggle in 1960s, has now subsumed many smaller languages in the state. “Sonowal, Mowron and Motok, all a part of Indo Burmese groups, have no speakers left. The newer generations, mostly belonging to sub-groups of larger Kachari group, cannot even utter a word of their mother tongue. Some speak Karbi, those in Upper Assam, speak Assamese,” says Gogoi.

Similarly, Apatani language spoken in Arunachal would be different from Apatani spoken in Assam and infusion of Assamese words into such small languages are happening really fast, says Gogoi, which is a worrisome trend. Chakravarty explains that even during the pre-independence days and later in the 1960s before Assamese was included in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution, the speakers of the language wanted more and more people so that official language for communication could be Assamese, which was preferred over any other Indo-Aryan language. “This led to the imposition of Assamese as a language over several linguistic minorities, who eventually lost their languages over the last few years,” says Gogoi.

It may appear strange, but the dominant Ahoms, believed to have migrated from parts of upper Cambodia in the medieval age to Assam, have had to give in to Assamese. “Most of the Ahoms now do not speak Tai except during their ceremonies such as wedding or funerals. The language has a ritualistic value now,” says Gogoi.

On the other hand, large scale infusion of Assamese words into smaller languages has been met with revival movements. Often clubbed together as “Koch-Rajbangshi”, PLSI has revealed an important aspect which could help the community in asserting their rights. “We found through the participation of the native speakers that Koch spoke Kochkar, which follows an entirely different linguistic structure. Rajbangshi, on the other hand, has a very different structure,” says Gogoi.

Bharali, who has worked with Koch community found that over the past few years, the community in its struggle to achieve a Scheduled Tribe status, has published several books on its language. “We could see that both the communities, owing to the pressure from the mainstream Assamese society, have revived their languages,” says Bharali.

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