We the linguists: A view from northeast India

We the linguists: A view from northeast India

By Yankee Modi

The northeast of India is not widely known. Think about India. You probably think about a triangle shape, starting with the Himalayas in the north and pushing into the Indian Ocean in the south. There is another part, a small pocket which shares international boundaries with Bhutan towards the west, Tibet/China towards the north, Bangladesh towards the south and Burma towards the east. Although northeast India is small in area and little-known, in terms of linguistic and cultural diversity it is one of the world’s most significant global “hotspots”. It is also one of the least well understood regions in all of Asia, if not the world.

I have been working in northeast India as a linguist for the last 14 years, and I have written a grammar of Milang, a Tibeto-Burman Language spoken by about 2500 people in the northeast Indian Himalaya. I am also a native member of the Milang tribe, and a native speaker of the related language Adi. There are hundreds of Indigenous groups like the Milang in northeast India, many with languages spoken by a few hundred to a few thousand people.

Today, several of the Indigenous languages of northeast India are considered endangered. Our Indigenous languages and cultures have been rapidly and deeply impacted by modernisation, national integration, Christianization, Sanskritization, etc. With the onset of globalization in our area, these trends are intensifying. Linguistic and cultural change is happening quickly throughout our region. There is therefore an urgent need for cultural and linguistic documentation, description, sustenance and maintenance work.

But this sort of work in our region is not easy. Many areas have been off-limits to researchers for decades. Our region also lacks in development, partly due to an ongoing “border dispute” with China that has the outcome of blocking much international investment and assistance. We haven’t had the opportunities to develop our infrastructure, capacities, and economic potential that most other Asian peoples have had.

Despite these challenges, I feel proud to recognize the fact that the Indigenous peoples of northeast India are not passively succumbing to these experiences. All communities that I have worked with have expressed deep concern and are quite aware of this alarming situation. At present, many communities have community-based organizations such as “Language Development Committees”, “Language and Culture Societies”, etc., which act to address these issues. An increasing number of northeast Indians are studying anthropology and linguistics, and a growing number of Indigenous community members have produced documentary and descriptive works of international significance. To me, however, and potentially more significant fact is the even larger number of community member researchers who carry out language and cultural documentation work on their own initiative, and usually without any significant resources or training.

Recognizing this opportunity, I founded Training and Resources for Indigenous Community Linguists (TRICL) in 2015 together with another veteran linguist working in the northeast of India, Mark W. Post (University of Sydney). Later, we were joined by the anthropologist Zilpha Modi (Rajiv Gandhi University) and the linguist Kellen Parker van Dam (University of Zürich). TRICL’s aim is to provide research training, resources and support to northeast Indian “Indigenous Community Linguists”. Since its inception, TRICL has been fortunate to be funded and supported by a USA based non-profit, the Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research, and by the Indigenous Napit Village Women’s Organization, the Modi Welfare Society, and members of the Galo community.

We recognized early on that in order to support our community linguists, we had to support them in our community – not in an elite institution. Our training workshops are therefore conducted in a village setting, with local accommodation and food, a familiar and welcoming atmosphere, and plenty of research opportunities! We believe that such a setting not only inspires our participants but also enhances the quality of the training.

TRICL also supports network linking and knowledge sharing on two levels: within our own Indigenous Community Linguist networks, and in collaborations with international researchers. We have found that one of the major difficulties experienced by many community member researchers is isolation from international scholarship and support. Our aim is to work with all interested researchers, whether they are members of a scholarly institution or not.

All our participants have achieved remarkable things in their communities. Some have produced community orthographies and textbooks, others have documented traditional folklore and songs, while others are partnering with linguists to produce descriptive grammars and dictionaries. And we are especially proud to mention two TRICL alumni whose lifelong work has been recognised through their being awarded the prestigious Excellence in Community Linguistics Award by the Linguistics Society of America! These amazing linguists are Mosyel Syelsaangthyel Khaling, from the Uipo tribe of Manipur, and Chikari Tisso, from the Karbi tribe in Assam.

If we look at our work as language and culture researchers, whether at the community, national or international institutional levels, we might accomplish a certain amount as individuals. But a field of disconnected individuals is not going to succeed at tackling the enormous amount of work that is before us. The only way we will make real progress in documenting and sustaining the northeast’s cultural and linguistic diversity is by coming together, and by building relationships between local, international and community member researchers. We need a diverse knowledge base and skill set to meet the challenges posed by our languages’ endangerment. This is what we are trying to build towards, and we’re always looking for people to join us!



Dr Yankee Modi is an Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney.
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.