Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Language, power and identity share an entangled relationship. (Michael Joiner, 360info)

Richest Languages Are Those Which Continually Enrich Their Vocabularies by Absorbing New Words

Manipur celebrated its language day to commemorate the inclusion of Manipuri in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution 31 years ago on August 20, 1992. In the wake of the day, there have been plenty of debates on whether the recognition has done any substantial good to the language or the Meiteis for whom this language is mother tongue. The paranoic sense that this too has been only a cosmetic concession, meant only as a strategy of appeasement and little else was also not difficult to detect in many of the debates, some to the point of ridiculous.

As any society suffering from a sense of siege, the tendency here too is often towards cultural and historical revivalism, an outlook which believes history’s progress not only can be straitjacketed into doctored streams, but also selectively restarted from any points in the past or revise them to suit present perceptions. To some extent this doctoring is probably possible, for indeed the every idea of education itself is in many ways about engineering social behaviours and thinking processes, to steer them towards a desired outcome which has the aggregate of the interests of all in the community. But even this cannot be to all extent. Just as in the case of life, so also languages and cultures, cannot be contained in water tight boxes forever. They will ultimately find ways to express themselves and grow outside any artificially imposed barriers.

That languages have always grown and are still growing, is now a truism. They can grow bigger and richer, but by the same logic, also grow smaller and even die. This knowledge has been useful tool in anthropological researches into the origin of societies and their ancient migration roots. Jared Diamond gives a primer of this in his acclaimed book “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies”. One of the ways, other than genetic studies, of determining the migration routes of different societies from prehistoric times, is language. The contention is, any ancient group of humans before they dispersed into different directions, compelled by so many different factors, would have originally spoken one common language. After they have dispersed, depending on the new experiences each migrating branch encounters, as well as interactions with other groups of people, would have added new and different vocabularies to their spoken languages, thereby incrementally making each different from the other, although they share the same roots.

Hence, experiences that the original society had, when they were still together, would have vocabularies representing those experience and these vocabularies tend to linger and not be replaced. The Indo-European language group for instance have plenty of these. They are believed to share their common ancient origin as herders from the pastoral steppes, and just to take one example, they had a word for the modern domesticated animal “sheep” which they still share. In Lithuanian it is avis, in old Prussian: awins, in Old High German: awi, au, in Sanskrit: ávi. Likewise, in Old Polish: owien (“ram”), in Russian: ovcá, Serbo-Croatian: о́вца, óvca, Czech: ovce, Polish: owca, Low German: Öwwe.

Although in English there is now a new and phonetically different word “sheep” in Old Saxon it is ewi, ewwi, The English word ewe, coming from these, also persists.

Diamond has other interesting inferences. The groups that branch out and settled at different places, obviously also encountered different experiences. For instance, the experience or discovery of “gun” would have come to the different branches at different times and different circumstances. Hence all of these languages which share the root of the word “sheep” have very different words for “gun”. In this way, it is even possible to trace the age and routes of secondary, tertiary and even latter dispersal of the different branches themselves.

Diamond also points out cases of later migrants actually replacing older settlers incorporating few or no words from the languages of the displaced populations. This is where extermination of original populations by the newer settlers may likely have happened. These were probably cases where the settlers considered themselves far superior to the populations they displaced considering the latter as sub-humans fit for cultural and even physical genocide. European colonisation of the Americas, Australia and New Zealand are the most obvious examples, but also the Austronesian colonisation and displacement of original Negroid populations in Polynesia and much of South East Asia earlier could also be pointing towards similar predicaments, Diamond says.

These later cases are criminal and clearly violates the very notion of human rights, and therefore must be countered wherever there are such tendencies. Insidiously, these may still be happening. We know for certain how even in the Northeast dominant languages trying to exercise hegemony over others and to aggressively flatten them to ultimately absorb them in the name of promoting unity. In the push to promote Manipuri, there must not be any attempt, overt or otherwise, towards such an outcome. Diversity of culture and language is beautiful, and if the need for cross cultural communication requires a commonly understood language, let the principle of laissez-faire be allowed to prevail, so that needs will determine how a common lingua franca evolves without any political or hegemonic cultural pressures. Let a 100 flowers blossom, and all the languages in Manipur, small and big alike, flourish.

In other parts of the Northeast this friction is also prominent. In Assam’s recent history, we have seen how contesting linguistic nationalism between Assamese and Bengali speakers have shaped much of the state’s present politics, including the controversies over the National Register of Citizens, NRC, exercise, and the Citizenship Amendment Act, CAA, most profoundly. The friction between Brahmaputra Valley and Barak Valley in this regard is well known. Even the bifurcation of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh from Assam in 1972, as well as the trouble in Bodoland, have all to do in varying degrees with similar antagonistic linguistic policies. And now, there are several SOS messages from Assam, in particular Barak Valley, that the linguistic policy there is trying to marginalise Manipuri speakers in education, although it is an 8th Schedule language. The Government of Manipur must urgently take up this matter with its Assam counterpart to resolve the matter amicably at the soonest.

There were also other genuine concerns flagged during the current language debates. One of these is the government’s failure to commission transliteration projects to make literary works in Manipuri language available in other more universal language such as English, and for reverse translation of works in other languages to Manipuri script as well. This lacuna is unfortunate, for ever since the reintroduction of the Meitei Mayek script and the phasing out of the Bengali script in schools as the medium for Manipuri writing a decade ago, there is now an incremental demography of younger generation who learnt the written form of the language only in Meitei Mayek, and they are the ones left in a lurch for there is now a great paucity of reading material in the script for them. In this sense, it has virtually been like getting the younger generation to travel on a long-abandoned road, but leading them to a dead end with no effort to clear the road ahead of them any further.

Technological advancement in this area probably can help, and the government must not hesitate to explore these possibilities. Google translate does amazing translations from one language to another if these languages are listed in its inventory. Manipuri is, but there is still a lot to be improve. Our younger generation of IT experts must be facilitated to improve this situation with right inputs, or else encouraged to develop independent programmes dedicated to Manipuri language and script. Not only this, there are also now every efficient voice to script transcript softwares available, and these too must be explored. However, let the caution also not be forgotten that though all effort must be made to make Manipuri and all other languages in the state grow and prosper, each of them have limitations too. In the globalised world, knowing Manipuri alone and none else, may severely limit job prospects for the younger generation. Bengal learnt this the hard way in the 1990s and we must not hesitate to learn from the experience.

In any discussion on threatened language, it is difficult not to recall what literary critic and activist Ganesh Devy said in an interview to a national daily in a 2018. According to him, there are more than 600 endangered languages in India and that each dead language takes away a culture system. [i] We have to note that of these 600, a great number are in the Northeast. But this is not all. The 600 here are “endangered languages”, but UNESCO has other categories of languages which may not yet be classified as “endangered” but are certainly “threatened” or “vulnerable”.

A look at the latest UNESCO list of endangered languages published in 2010 will give a sense of the vulnerability of the Northeast from this vantage.[ii] All languages spoken in the region, except Bengali and Assamese, are classified “vulnerable”, and at least two dozen of these are “critically endangered”. In this classification, “vulnerable” languages are not only marked by the smallness of the number of speakers but when most children of the community speak the language in certain domains (such as ‘home’) only; in the “definitely endangered” category, children no longer learn the language as mother tongue; in “severely endangered”, the language is spoken by grandparents and older generations, while the parental generation may understand it but does not speak it with children or among themselves; in “critically endangered”, the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently. Extinct languages have no speakers left. [iii]

This is a grim picture, and those of us in the Northeast must do everything needed to not allow any of its many languages to die. A symbiotic assimilation must happen, but let it be at a pace which does not overturn smaller cultures and languages drastically. In Nari Rustomji’s words in his “Imperiled Frontiers”, these gradual assimilation are inevitable, but they must not be to the detriment of the inner organisms of the different cultures.



[i] See (last accessed, December 27, 2018)

[ii] See (last accessed December 27, 2018)

[iii] See (last accessed December 27, 2018)

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