LINGUISTIC RESOURCES FOR NORTHEAST INDIA

 

Northeast India remains the least well-known part of India, linguistically and anthropologically. At a time of great social change and also increasing interest in the region, new research is constantly being produced. However, there are many older sources which are not easy to access, either because they are out of print or because they are only available from limited outlets. These pages aim to help those interested in the region to find these sources and download them where possible. I have particularly focused on linguistic material; anthropological, cultural, historical and political studies are numerous and not all of any great value. Some indeed seem to be actually untrustworthy, forwarding ethnic agendas rather than any objective description.

 

The page begins with a table which allows you to access resources on individual families and continues with a general description of the linguistic makeup of the region. The languages of Northeast India can be divided according to their linguistic affiliation; the four main Northeast Indian language phyla represented are Sino-Tibetan, Austroasiatic, Indo-European and Tai-Kadai, plus probable isolates.  These in turn are divided into several branches;

 

Language families of Northeast India

Phylum

Branches/Categories

Tibeto-Burman

Tani, Naga, Bodish, Bodo-Garo, Kuki-Chin, Lolo-Burmese, isolate branches

Austroasiatic

Munda, Khasian, ? Palaungic

Indo-European

Indo-Aryan

Tai-Kadai

Tai

Isolates

Kamengic, Siangic, Puroik, Miji, Mishmic, Hruso

 

Title

Date

Author(s)

Ethnolinguistic map

n/k

Bishop’s House, Guwahati

(De)classifying Arunachal (unpublished paper)

2012

Roger Blench & Mark Post

Languages of Arunachal Pradesh: more Amazonia than the British Isles? Powerpoint presentation at the Berner Linguistische Zirkel, 13th April, 2011

2011

Roger Blench

 

Linguistic background to Northeast India

Arunachal Pradesh in particular is inhabited by populations whose languages are hard to classify. Most have been treated as Tibeto-Burman although without any good evidence. Many languages are known only by name; no material has ever been published on them, and their actual affiliation remains unproven.

 

Archaeology and prehistory remains poorly developed in Northeast India, possibly with the exception of some late Hindu temples and the megaliths of Meghalaya. But dates for the Neolithic and other key cultural stages, such as the introduction of metals, remain doubtful. Linguistics can provide a ‘window’ into the peopling of the region, albeit somewhat imprecise.

 

In the earliest period, from the Palaeolithic onwards, the region must have been inhabited by highly diverse hunter-gatherers. These would undoubtedly have spoken a variety of languages, which have largely diapppeared today, although evidence for them may survive as substrates in existing languages. Only in Arunachal Pradesh, where we find languages that are difficult to classify, such as Puroik, Mey, Bugun, Koro, Hruso and Miji, are there probable survivals from this period. Elsewhere, such as in the Khasi Hills and the Assam plains, the subsequent expansion of incoming populations has eliminated all traces of these peoples. In addition, in Arunachal Pradesh we find evidence that even populations who farm today, such as the Puroik and Milang, were dependent on semi-wild plants, such as the sago-palm and the tree-fern, until recent times. Undoubtedly, the isolation and difficult communications in Arunachal Pradesh have contributed to their persistence in remote areas.

 

The first clear evidence for the expansion in the region of an outside population is the spread of Austroasiatic. Only one Austroasiatic language, Khasi, is spoken in Northeast India today, but distributional evidence makes it clear such languages must once have been common. The Munda languages are spoken in Orissa and other parts of subcontinental India, and these represent the westward limits of Austroasiatic. Thus, a chain of languages must have spread through this region which connected Khasi to important Munda languages such as Sora and Santal. These languages were presumably overwritten by the later expansions of other language phyla, particularly Sino-Tibetan.

 

Following this era, which may have been around 3500 years ago, there was an expansion of Sino-Tibetan languages. The exact homeland of Sino-Tibetan and the period at which it began to expand is much disputed. However, some of the incursions into NE India are relatively late. All along the northern edges of Arunachal Pradesh there are Bodic languages, notably the Monpa/Memba cluster, which are part of the same grouping as Tibetan. These seem to have expanded into the northern mountains and heavily influenced resident populations such as the Mey and the Nah, who are linguistically unrelated.

 

Scattered across the region are various languages which constitute individual branches of Sino-Tibetan, including the Meithei and the Karbi [Mikir]. Two very widespread branches of Sino-Tibetan represented in Northeast India are the Tani and Garo-Bodo peoples. The Tani peoples are a complex of languages and ethnic groups spreading from the Tibetan Plateau down to the valley of the Brahmaputra. The Adi and the Galo are probably their most well-known representatives, but there are many others. The Tani languages are all closely related and therefore they must have expanded relatively recently, perhaps around 1500 years ago, for reasons now unknown. Much the same is true of the Garo-Bodo peoples, who occupy the Garo Hills in Meghalaya and adjacent areas. This group of languages is similarly coherent, although what caused their expansion is unknown. Other local expansions of Sino-Tibetan are the movement of the Jingpho into this region. One language, Turung [Singpho] is spoken in the north of Arunachal Pradesh. Similar, in the south of Mizoram, the Mog people represent the northern expansion of Arakanese, which is itself a dialect of Burmese.

 

Around the tenth century, perhaps earlier, came the expansion of Indo-Aryan. This is represented principally by the eastward extension of Bengali into the flood plains of the Brahmaputra valley, and the evolution of Assamese. These populations may have introduced wetfield rice cultivation, a technique previously unknown. Whatever peoples lived there then must either have been displaced or absorbed.

 

The last major expansion was the Tai-Ahom. Representing the westernmost branch of the Tai languages, these peoples entered the region in the early Middle Ages, probably originally as a military expansion. Indeed, some of their forts can still be seen in the region of Itanagar. After their kingdoms broke up, they dispersed and became small village-oriented populations, which persist as the Khamti and others. Unlike many of the peoples in this region, the Tai had their own writing system, so there is a certain amount of information concerning their history.

 

The British colonial era also had an important impact on language and ethnic distribution. Tibetan military expansion was under way in the late nineteenth century and British opposition effectively froze this process. At the same time, the cessation of chronic warfare among the hill peoples allowed some of them to move south into the plains without fear of attack. The southern distribution of the Tani-speaking Mishing is a likely reflection of this process.

 

Bibliography

 

Aisher, Alexander. 2006. Through spirits: tribal cosmology and landscape ecology in Arunachal Pradesh, northeast India. PhD dissertation, University of London.

Aisher, Alexander. 2007. Voices of uncertainty: spirits, humans and forests in upland Arunachal Pradesh, India. South Asia 30 (3): 479–98.

Blackburn, Stuart. 2003/2004. Memories of migration: notes on migration legends and material culture in Arunachal Pradesh. European Bulletin of Himalayan Research, 25/26: 15–60.

Blackburn, Stuart. 2005. Die reise der Seele: bestattungsritualen und oralen texten in Arunachal Pradesh, Indien [The journey of the soul: funeral rituals and oral texts in Arunachal Pradesh India] In Jan Assmann, Franz Maciejewski and Axel Michaels (eds.), Der Abschied von den Toten. Trauerrituale im Kulturvergleich. 82–109. Göttingen: Wallstein.

Blackburn, Stuart. 2007. Oral stories and culture areas: from northeast India to southwest China. South Asia 30 (3): 419–37.

Hamilton, Angus. 1912. In Abor Jungles: Being an Account of the Abor Expedition, the Mishmi Expedition and the Miri Mission. London: Eveleigh Nash.

MacKenzie, Alexander. 1989 [1884]. History of the Relations of the Government with the Hill Tribes of the North-East Frontier of Bengal. Calcutta: Home Dept. Press.

Pandey, B. B. 1981. Festivals of Subansiri. Shillong: Government of Arunachal Pradesh.

Tarr, Michael Aram and Stuart Blackburn. 2008. Through the Eye of Time: Photographs of Arunachal Pradesh, 1859–2006. Leiden: Brill.