THE TAI-KHAMTIS OF ASSAM: A SOCIOLINGUISTIC OVERVIEW


Trisha Borgohain
Research Scholar, Department of English and Foreign Languages
Tezpur University, Tezpur, Assam, India


Abstract
The Tai-Khamtis who migrated to Assam in the 18th century have settled down mostly in the Lakhimpur district of Assam. The present situation of the Khamtis as discussed in this paper is based on the Narayanpur region of Assam, a busy locality where the Deuris, the Assamese and the Khamtis reside together. Such a situation provides an interesting study of the linguistic scenario of the Khamti community of that region which has been discussed in the following parts of the article.

Keywords: Linguistic scenario, Standard dialect, Native language, Languages vitality

1. Introduction
Northeastern India is an abode of different ethnic tribes who make the culture of this region filled with diversity. It is this diversity that makes each tribe different from the other in spite of their peaceful coexistence. Existing among these tribes are the Tai-Khamtis whose lineage can be tracked back to their place of origin, viz., Southern China. These people share a strong affinity with the Tai-Ahoms of Assam. But unlike the Ahoms who had mingled completely with the Assamese society during their 600 years of rule in state, the Khamtis who came rather late in the 18th century have been able to maintain their linguistic identity. The present paper is an attempt to discuss the linguistic scenario of the Tai-Khamtis of Assam.

2. Objective
Through this paper an attempt is made to discuss the linguistic scenario of the Tai-Khamtis with special reference to Narayanpur region of Assam.

3. Methodology
This Paper has been prepared with the help of Primary and Secondary data. The primary data were collected from the Narayanpur region of Assam, a busy locality where the Deuris, the Assamese and the Khamtis reside together. Secondary data sources are books, journals, periodicals, research articles, websites. Analytical approach is used and the topic has also been discussed with the concerned resource persons. Personal observations and interpretation are also added here.

4. Results and Discussion

4.1 Linguistic Scenario of the Tai-Khamtis
The Tai-Khamtis who migrated to Assam in the 18th century have settled down mostly in the Lakhimpur district of Assam. The present situation of the Khamtis as discussed in this paper is based on the Narayanpur region of Assam, a busy locality where the Deuris, the Assamese and the Khamtis reside together. Such a situation provides an interesting study of the linguistic scenario of the Khamti community of that region which has been discussed in the following parts of the article.

4.1.1 Diglossic situation of the Khamtis of Narayanpur
In a diglossic situation there exist two varieties of a language. One is the H variety, the other is the L variety. The H or the High variety is the standard dialect (or variety) whereas the L or the Low variety is a dialectal variation. The situation of extended diglossia can be observed among the Khamti community. The concept of extended diglossia was introduced by Fishman in 1967. In extended diglossia the same situation is extended to languages which are not genetically related to each other or at least historically distant. The dominant language being Assamese in Assam, the speakers of the Khamti community are mostly surrounded by Assamese speakers. As a result the situation of extended diglossia prevails. In the Khamti community of Narayanpur the standard variety is the Assamese language. The speakers tend to use Assamese in the local markets and public gatherings, offices, etc. Hence, the Khamti language for those speakers becomes the L variety as they mostly use their native language only in their homes.

4.1.2 Code-mixing and Code-switching
Code-mixing refers to the phenomenon of using lexical terms of another language in the native language of the speakers and code-switching is the phenomenon of switching languages while speaking, e.g. when the speaker speaks one sentence in Assamese and another in Khamti in conversation. Code mixing and switching situation is very common situation in the Khamti community. As in the neighbouring areas Assamese is the dominant language, the speaker tends to use lexical items from Assamese in their conversation. For example in Khamti the word for book is ‘paplik’ but they mostly use the Assamese word ‘kitap’ when they have to refer to any book. Since the community is multi-lingual, code mixing and switching is a very common phenomenon there. They mostly use Assamese and Khamti language in Narayanpur whereas in Arunachal Pradesh the speakers use Hindi, Assamese and Khamti language.

4.1.3 Language maintenance and shift
Language maintenance refers to the continuing use of a language in the face of competition from a socially or regionally more powerful or numerically stronger language. Language shift on the other hand is the process when the speakers of a language start using another language in the domains which were dominated by the native language or L1 (mother tongue). Among the Khamti people language shift is eventually taking place. The speakers of this language have mostly shifted to Assamese language in Assam. However, in Arunachal Pradesh formal training on Khamti was introduced in schools in 1992[1]. This has helped to a great extent in language maintenance of the Khamti language in Arunachal Pradesh. In Assam however the scenario is different. Lack of awareness regarding language maintenance among the speakers of the community has almost endangered the language in Assam. In Assam no proper language policy has been adapted to preserve this language. The speakers of this language receive formal education either in Assamese or in English. And as their immediate neighbours are Assamese speaking people so in such a situation, language maintenance becomes naturally difficult to them.

4.1.4 Multilingualism and bilingualism
Multilingualism is a very common occurrence in India. In the Khamti community no speaker is monolingual. All the speakers are either bilingual or multilingual. As their contact language with the other speakers is Assamese in most cases, they are fluent speakers of the Assamese language also. Some of the elderly people are also dormant bilinguals of Hindi and English language. The younger generations are fluent speakers of Assamese, Hindi and English along with L1 (Mother Tongue i.e. Khamti language).

4.1.5 Language vitality
To measure vitality of languages UNESCO’s Altas of World’s Languages in Danger prepared five parameters in 2009. Those are:
i)    Unsafe languages: Those languages which were used by all children in some domains or by some children in all domains were considered unsafe languages.
ii)  Definitely Endangered languages: The languages which are used by the older generation more frequently rather than the new generation are considered definitely endangered languages.
iii) Severely Endangered languages: Those languages where the youngest speakers are the grand-parental generation are considered severely endangered languages.
iv) Critically endangered languages: When a language is used by very few speakers like the great-    grand parent generation, then the language is considered to be critically endangered.
v)  Extinct Languages: Those languages which have no speakers left are called extinct languages.

UNESCO also laid down nine factors of endangerment in 2003 to check Language Vitality and Endangerment. Those are:
i)    Inter-generational transmission of languages: When the intergenerational transmission is carried out smoothly the language is not endangered. However, when such a transmission stops then the language becomes endangered.
ii)  The absolute number of speakers is also another factor to check language vitality.
iii) The proportion of speakers within the total population is also important. Even if the population of the community is large but speakers are less then, the language is considered to be endangered. Also when the proportion of the total population in a country or nation is much more than the population of a speech community then, various challenges are faced by the minority communities towards maintaining their language.
iv) When the speakers start to shift to a different language in different domains which were formerly dominated by their L1 or Native language then that language becomes endangered.
v)  If a language is adapting well with the new technologies then it will not be endangered in near future. But its lack of adaptability in new technological domains threatens its vitality.
vi) Proper literary materials are also necessary for a language to maintain its status. Unavailability of these basic necessities causes language endangerment.
vii)     Government’s attitude towards development of a language also plays a major role. In the absence of proper language policies, languages are bound to be endangered at some point of time.
viii)   Negative attitude towards one’s own language is a major factor of language endangerment. When the speakers begin to feel inferior by using their language and shift to other dominant languages then the language is bound to be endangered.
ix)       If a language does not have proper documentation of grammar and dictionaries then it becomes a factor of endangerment.

On the basis of the above mentioned parameters and factors, it can be stated that Khamti language is a definitely endangered language in Assam. Since the speakers of the new generation mostly speak Assamese language, hence the older generation speakers are those who constitute the total speaking population of Khamti. Thus, there is lack of intergenerational transmission. The proportion of total Khamti speakers is 500-1000 in Assam which is very less. Besides, as institutional education is carried out in Assamese and English so the new generation have shifted to Assamese language in Assam.

4.1.6  Status of the language according to Ethnologue sources
According to information collected from Ethnologue the language is given the status of a developing language because the language is seen to be in vigorous use, with their literature being used in a standardized form (though not in a very widespread and sustainable manner). Ethnologue uses the scale called EGIDS (Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale) to measure the vitality and endangerment of a language. However, the language situation of Khamti in Assam presents a different scenario. Although in Myanmar, the language is still a developing language, in Assam this is an endangered language. The reason being the fact that there are no standardized forms of literature available in Assam for Khamti and the intergenerational transmission has also ceased to a considerable extent.

Status of Khamti in the Language Cloud provided by Ethnologue:

Figure 1: Language Cloud of Khamti
             (Source: www.ethonologue.com)

EGIDS level[2]: Ethnologue reports the two major dimensions of language use (users and functions). The factors like: the speaker population, the number of those who connect their ethnic identity with the language (whether or not they speak the language), the stability of and trends in that population, language attitudes within the community, means of transmission (whether children are learning the language at home or being taught the language in schools), official uses in different domains, non-linguistic factors such as economic opportunity, etc are studied by Ethnologue to assess the endangerment of the language.

Such factors interact within a society in dynamic ways. However, the key factor in assessing the relative safety of an endangered language is the degree to which intergenerational transmission of the language remains intact.

Because of the complexity of the interrelated factors, various schemas have been proposed, each with a particular focus to categorize the vitality of a language. However, none of these were proved adequate for a comprehensive global assessment of the state of the world's languages.

Reporting of vitality of the languages of the world by using the Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale or EGIDS (Lewis and Simons 2010), an adaptation and expansion of Fishman’s (1991) Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS) assessing the language vitality and endangerment has increased to a great extent. With EGIDS the Ethnologue reports in each language entry (under the label "Status") a vitality estimate for every identified language in each country where that language is spoken. This is done by reporting the estimated EGIDS level.

This graph shows the place of Khamti within the cloud of all living languages. Each language in the world is represented by a small dot that is placed on the grid in relation to its population (in the vertical axis) and its level of development or endangerment (in the horizontal axis), with the largest and strongest languages in the upper left and the smallest and weakest languages (down to extinction) in the lower right. The population value is the estimated number of first language (L1) speakers; it is plotted on a logarithmic scale (where 100 = 1; 102 = 100; 104 = 10,000; 106 = 1,000,000; 108 = 100,000,000). The value for the development versus endangerment dimension is the estimated level on the EGIDS scale. EGIDS assess the language vitality and endangerment on the basis of the following levels:

Level 0-4: Institutional i.e. the language has developed to an extent where it is sustained by institutions beyond home and community.
Level 5: Developing i.e. the language is in vigorous use with standardized literature used by some though its use is not yet widespread or sustainable.
Level 6(a): The language is under-standardized but is in vigorous use among all generations.
Level 6(b)-7: The intergenerational transmission is broken but the child-bearing bearing still use the language. So revitalization is possible if taken proper measures.
 Level 8(a)-9: Only the older generation use the language, i.e. it is the generation which is older than the child-bearing generation. Hence, the intergenerational transmission can no longer take place through home. So, a mechanism outside the home is necessary to revitalise the language.
Level 10: The language has completely fallen out of use and no one retains a sense of ethnic identity associated with the language.

On the basis of the above mentioned levels proposed by Ethnologue, Khamti marked as Level 5 and is represented by a large blue dot in the language cloud graph. The EGIDS level5 for Khamti represents the language as ‘developing’ language in its primary country (i.e. Myanmar). However, it predicts that the language use may not be sustainable and widespread in future.

On the basis of the above mentioned levels, if Khamti spoken in Assam has to be measured in EGIDS then, it will be represented in between Level 6(a)-7.

5. Policy Implication
Language awareness among the different speech communities has become an important issue in recent times. The Khamti community in Arunachal Pradesh already has adopted various measures to maintain the language vitality.
The language has already been taught at primary school level in different schools in Namsai region where this speech community is centered. However, as the language has already been categorized as an endangered language so the following measures are necessary to maintain the vitality of the language:

i)Use of the language in domestic fronts: the language if used in daily speech to converse with each other in the community, then the language has greater chance of survival.
ii)Spreading news about the preservation of the language for the preservation of identity: language is related to identity. Hence, the proper information should be spread to protect the identity of the community to preserve the language.
iii)The older generations should take effective measures to let the younger generations learn the language better.

6. Conclusion
The present paper is an attempt to study the present socio-linguistic scenario of the Khamtis of Assam. Assam is an abode to many linguistic communities, all of whom have made tremendous impact on what the Assamese community is at present times. The influence of one language on another is always a two-way process. Although one language may come out strong and will be called a dominant language, yet language studies prove that lexical borrowing is very commonplace in such situations. Both the languages in such situations tend to borrow words from each other as well as from different cultural traditions.

However, all languages have their unique use of language to understand the world around them, which makes each one of them equally important. Hence, the loss of one language is a great loss not only to the community but to all. So, proper measures are a necessity in such times to help the language regain its vitality.
                                               
References
  • B.J. Terweil. The Tai of Assam and the Ancient Tai Ritual, Vol.1. Gaya: Centre for South East Asian Studies, 1980.
  • J. Errol Gray. Diary of a Jorney to Bor-Khamti Country. G.C. Press, 1893.
  •  P. Gogoi. The Tai and Tai Kingdoms. Gauhati: Gauhati University publication, 1968.
  • P. Gogoi. The Tai-Assamese-English Dictionary. Namsai, Arunachal Pradesh: Nang Sati Mein, 2007, p.21
  • Rev. J.N. Cushing. Elementary Handbook of the Shan Language. Rangoon: American Baptist Missionary Press, 1888.
  • Ronald Wardhaugh. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. 5th ed. USA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
  • Sir George Campbell 1874. Specimens of the languages of India, including those of the Aboriginal Tribes of Bengal, the Central Provinces and the Eastern Frontier. Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Press.
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  • URL: http//www.en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noun
  • (The information on Ethnologue and EGIDS scale have been taken from the source Ethnologue, edited by Lewis,M Paul, Gray F. Simons and Charles D. Fennig (2013). Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com)
 

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