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Bhasha focus: When Indo-European met Tibeto-Burman

Born of the interaction between Ahoms and Nagas, Nagamese remains a makeshift tongue

A man in traditional Naga dress. Nagamese is a hybrid of Naga languages and Assamese. Photo: Alamy
A man in traditional Naga dress. Nagamese is a hybrid of Naga languages and Assamese. Photo: Alamy

Alanguage hybrid may be created for a variety of reasons. In the case of Manipravalam, a medieval blend of Malayalam and Sanskrit, it was forged as a literary tongue to address notions of what constituted “high" culture. But the roughly two-century-old recorded history of Nagamese brings into view another way in which a language hybrid comes into being, establishes itself, and is perceived by its users. It also brings into play the role of the colonizer, the newly-independent postcolonial state, and the various historical forces that shape both the language and its perception.

For close to a century and a half, Nagamese has been the lingua franca of the people of Nagaland and parts of Assam. A hybrid of Naga languages, all of which belong to the Tibeto-Burman family, and Assamese, an Indo-European language, Nagamese occupies a distinct space in the region and plays a unique role serving as a connector between the various Naga tribes. It also facilitates communication between the Nagas and the Assamese. To understand the origins of Nagamese, it is essential to briefly dip into the history of the Nagas as a people, and their contact with the Assamese.

The origin story

The precise origin and prehistory of the Naga people is something most historians and anthropologists have grappled with and have found no precise answers to. Vedic references to the Kiratas and their sub-tribe, the Nagas, have been understood to refer to the progenitors of modern-day Nagas. The Kiratas referred to the hill people from east India. The story of Uloopi, the Naga princess who married Arjun on his sojourn to eastern India, is another tale that is often cited as possible evidence of the links between the Nagas and the denizens of Aryavarta. Ptolemy in his Geographia, written around 150 AD, refers to the “Nagalogae" of India, but says little beyond that. Then, for several centuries, the Nagas largely disappear from available historical records. There is no mention of the Nagas in the records of the kingdom of Kamarupa, which flourished between the fourth and 12th centuries in present-day Assam.

In 1228, the Ahoms under Sukaphaa entered the Brahmaputra Valley through Arunachal Pradesh and founded a kingdom. The Ahoms, originally from Yunnan in China, were Tai people, a linguistic community spread across South-East Asia, China and the North-East. Over the next few centuries, they adopted Hindu religious practices and began to use Assamese. Since Assamese is an Indo-Aryan language, it is connected to Sanskrit, but, more specifically, it is descended from the Magadhi Prakrit of eastern India and had been in use for at least 500 years before the arrival of the Ahoms.

Ahom buranjis (chronicles) record a number of interactions that the Ahoms had with the Nagas. In the centuries that followed, until the collapse of the Ahom kingdom in 1826 and its incorporation into British India, the Ahoms and Nagas clashed, but were also, for long stretches of time, able to maintain a tentative peace.

British rule in Assam and Nagaland post-1826 altered equations between the Ahoms and Nagas as well as among the Nagas themselves. Centuries of contact between the Nagas and Assamese had ensured that a few Nagas from the many tribes had a degree of knowledge of Assamese. Owing to the limited contact that the Nagas and Ahoms had, this had long proved sufficient. But the growth of tea plantations in Assam, the establishment of a military garrison at Kohima, the inroads made by missionaries into Nagaland post-1872, all created circumstances for the various Naga tribes to interact with each other and the Assamese far more than in the past. It was in such a situation that a new language, now called Nagamese, began to be used widely, though the tongue seemed to have already emerged in pre-British times.

The growth of Nagamese

In his 1841 Tour Diary, Lt Bigge, then Principal Assistant to the Commissioner of Nowgong (Nagaon) in Assam, provides details of the first British expedition to Nagaland, which took place in 1839. Bigge mentions the existence of a language that is clearly Nagamese. It is likely that the British observed that a tongue that sounded something like the Assamese they had been exposed to was already in use in the Naga areas. British inroads into Naga areas only furthered the use of the language and gave it wider currency.

In his monumental Linguistic Survey Of India (published between 1903-28; the section on Naga languages was published in 1904), George Abraham Grierson talks of Assamese or Naga pidgin being spoken in parts of Assam (Nagaland was then part of undivided Assam). The research for the section dealing with Naga languages seems to have been done in the last decade of the 19th century, and it is therefore evident that Nagamese was already in wide use by then. But, clearly, Grierson considered the language as less than important. He did not record it, as he did the many other languages of the subcontinent.

The anthropologists who flocked to Nagaland in British times also mention the presence among the Nagas of a language clearly identifiable as Nagamese. J.H. Hutton’s work on the Angami Nagas, published in 1921, talks of “broken Assamese" being spoken in the Naga Hills. Christoph von Fürer Haimendorf, in his work on the Nagas published in 1939, again mentions that many people, including children, spoke fluent Nagamese, which he terms “the lingua franca of (the) entire Naga Hills". Clearly, by then Nagamese had been given a name, had stabilized as a tongue, and was being widely used.

The heavy influence of Assamese on the language is evident in these observations. Besides Assamese, however, Nagamese has also borrowed words from Hindi and English and a few from Bengali.

The post-independence trajectory of Naga politics has had its bearing on the perception and place of Nagamese in Naga life. In August 1960, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru stated his government’s intent to create a new state (the 16th in the Indian union) known as Nagaland. The state was formally created on 1 December 1963. The Assamese that was taught extensively in schools in Nagaland was replaced by English, which was proclaimed the official language of the new state. But, surprisingly, the position of Nagamese underwent a peculiar change in these circumstances. The language actually grew in stature, and became something of a uniting factor in the new state. Among other things, it began to be used on the floor of the legislative assembly, since it was the only language that was spoken and understood by all. Nagamese also began to be used in radio broadcasts and for church services. Inter-tribe marriages also resulted in further use of Nagamese. In 2013, a Nagamese newspaper (in the Roman script), Nagamese Khobor, was launched and continues to run. Still, its wide use has not given the language a respectable status in the eyes of the Nagas.

In 2015, the Central government announced its intention of including Nagamese in the Eighth Schedule and giving it official recognition (this has not yet been done). Among the voices that opposed this move was that of the Naga Students Federation, which termed Nagamese a “market language" and a language with “no origin". Others derided this move as one that would act against Naga “intellectual interests" and stated their wish to continue with English till the Nagas were able to resolve the issue among themselves.

What works against Nagamese is that, except for inter-tribe families, it is not a mother tongue for most Nagas. In 1989, only about 30,000 people were estimated to consider Nagamese as their mother tongue, a small number given that the population of Nagaland is about two million. More recent estimates are unavailable.

Interestingly, the only community that uses it as a mother tongue is the Kacharis of Dimapur, a non-Naga people (also found in Assam), who seem to have abandoned their own tongue for Assamese initially, and then, with the advent of Naga statehood, began to use Nagamese.

The future of Nagamese is wide open. Its extensive use in the region and its role as a lingua franca negates the possibility of it falling into disuse. But its perception as something of a makeshift tongue is unlikely to change anytime soon.

This is the second in a series on hybrid languages. Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm based in Bengaluru

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