PRINCIPAL LANGUAGES OF ASSAM

 

 

The principal languages of Assam are ‘Assamese' and ‘Bodo'. In some places of the ‘Barak Valley', ‘Bengali' language is used as the official language. Although most of the people of Assam speak Assamese, it is also used in some parts of ‘Arunachal Pradesh' and ‘Nepal'. Assamese is an English word, same as ‘Japanese', ‘Taiwanese' etc. It is based on the English word ‘Assam', which geographically denotes the great Brahmaputra valley. Assamese is very little known in the other parts of the country, as it has always been dominated by its powerful neighbour Bengal.  There is a misconception among the people of Northern India that Assamese is an off-shoot or sub-dialect of Bengali. Assamese and Bengali have contrasting systems of accentuation. Assamese follows the pan-Indian system of penultimate stress and Bengali has an initial stress. In this respect Bengali also differs from the Kamrupi dialect which also has an initial stress. The plural suffixes are completely different from those of Bengali.

Ancient history refers that, the Kiratas and the Cinas who were generally referred to in the classical works had their own language, but there is no literary proof now. On the basis of the language now spoken by their descendants and the name of some places or rivers, it can be summarized that the earliest inhabitants of Assam were the speakers of Indo-Chinese language of the Khasi Mon-Khmer family which belonged to the ‘Austric family of languages'. A later wave of these elements was the speakers of the ‘Indo-Chinese' of the ‘Tibeto-Burman' family. The most prominent tribe belonging to this group is Bodos. Thus the earliest inhabitants of Assam were non-Aryan and their languages belonged to the extra-Aryan families of language.

In Kalika Purana it is mentioned that a prince came to Kamrupa from Videha and established his own kingdom. In that period, a process of Aryan colonization with many learned people started. This process of Aryan settlement probably started many centuries earlier than the beginning of the Christian era. This process transplanted to ancient Assam the Aryan culture including its language, namely Sanskrit. The kings used Sanskrit as their court language up to the beginning of the 13th century.  

The copper plates grants and rock inscriptions found in Assam were inscribed in Sanskrit. They were of the same literary standard as of the grammar of Panini and the high class literary works of Kalidasa, Bhatti and Banabhatta. The local Prakrit languages also flourished side by side.

The linguist ‘Suniti Kumar Chatterji' said that the origin of Assamese language is from the ‘Magadhi Prakrit' i.e. Magadhi was the principal dialect which corresponded to the old Eastern Prakrit.  On the basis of the evidences like the various inscriptions, it is claimed that the Assamese language was developed not from the Magadhi Prakrit but from another parallel variety of Prakrit called ‘Kamrupi Prakrit'. As evidence, we can consider the references of the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang's observation that the language of the people of Kamrupa ‘differed a little from that of Mid-India'. S.N. Sharma suggested that even if we don't recognize the Kamrupi Prakrit as a parallel variety of the Magadhi Prakrit, it can be considered as the eastern variety of Magadhi Prakrit.
 

There are three kinds of languages present in Assam, namely

    • Sanskrit as an official language and only few people knew it.
    • non-Aryan tribal languages of the Austrict and Indo-Burman families
    • A local variety of Prakrit, from where the Modern Assamese Language is developed. 
    • The inscriptions were professionally in the Sanskrit language.
The next development is the language of Caryas. Some mystic and spiritually didactic songs were composed by the Buddhists followers of the Varjrayana sect. which were written in Bengali, Assamese, Oriya and Maithili. These devotional songs formed the basis of the Carya language. The language of the Caryas had certain striking affinities with the Assamese language. Assamese language features have been discovered in the 9th century Caryapada, which are the Buddhist verses discovered in 1911 in Nepal, and which came from the end of the Apabhramsa period.  
Assamese language of the formative stage is also seen in epigraphs. Therefore the present inscriptions contain the specimen of the Assamese language prevalent in the middle of the thirteen century.

The ‘Umachal' Rock Inscription of C.470 A.D. is the earliest specimen of writing. The script is of Eastern variety of the Gupta Alphabet and an off-shoot of the ‘Brahmi' script. The term ‘kutila' is applied to the letters of Brahmi script is also present in ‘Nidhanpur' grant. P.D. Choudhury says that ‘the characters employed belonged to the East-Indian variety of the Kutila script of the ninth century, sometimes called Early Nagari or proto-Bengali. Some of the languages closely resemble their Bengali-Assamese forms. This is the beginning of Modern Assamese script.

The speakers of ancient Assam, ‘Mon-khmer' and the ‘Tibeto-Burma' did not have their own script. They exist in folk-tales and folk songs. Their period is also impossible to know because the tales and the songs keep on changing over period of time. There are a mass of unwritten ancient Assamese literature like Bihu songs, Balads (the story of Behula and Lakhindar), Oja-pali songs, boat songs, riddles, proverbs and mantras and treatment of diseases. H .C. Goswami has provided the illustration of ancient Assamese folk literature and has assigned them to a period between 10th and 12th centuries ‘Dakar-Vachan' is also belongs to this floating literature. The earliest Assamese writer is Hema Sarasvati, the author of a small poem, ‘Prahrada Carita'. He mentioned about the king Durlabhnarayan of Kamatapur of the 13th century. The poets HariharaVipra and Kavirata Sarasvati composed ‘Asvamedha Parva' and ‘Jayadratha Vadha' respectively during the period of the king Indranarayan (son of Durlabhanarayan).

The actual Assamese period of literature begins in the 14th century. The history of Assamese language can be classified in to three groups like,

  1. Early Assamese
  2. Middle Assamese  and
  3. Modern Assamese.

From 14th to 16th century the early period lasted. Again they split in to Pre-Vaishnavite and Vaishnavite sub periods.  Rudra Kandali translated ‘Drona Parva' during the period of Tramradhaja, the king of Rangpur in the Pre-Vaishnavite sub-period. The most considerable poet of this period is Madhava Kandali. Mahapurush Sankaradeva mentioned about him as an unrivalled predecessor. Assamese idioms are different from the other writings of that period. The great Vaishnavite reformer in Assam was born in1449 A.D. He composed innumerable books on religion and the compositions are completely different from the Pre-Vaishnavite style. Sankaradeva composed religious songs and dramas in ‘Braja-buli' idioms. In 1530, after Sankaradeva Bhatta Deva translated Bhagavat Gita and Bhagavata Purana in to Assamese prose. The literature composed at that period does not give any idea about the spoken language of the time. Till then literary activities carried on in western Assam under the patronage kings of Kamatapur or Koch-Bihar. But the consolidation of the Ahom power in eastern Assam and decline of Koch kingdom in western Assam, the center of literature shifted to east from west. 

In 17th century the Ahoms established their kingdom and the Ahom kings were very keen to preserve their history. They wrote ‘Buranji', where the history was preserved. They were written in their own language first, but after Assamese became the court language the historical chronicles were written in Assamese. Therefore it is seen that the Middle period of literature starts from the Ahom rule. The writing styles of the Buranjis (Ahom chronicles) were completely different from the religious compositions. The language is modern and with slight alterations in grammar and spellings the chronicles almost same as the present language. The pleonastic use of conjunction participle is well established. The transfer of plural suffixes from nouns to verbs if first noticed here.

The Modern period of Assamese language starts with the publication of Bible in Assamese prose by the British Missionaries. Sibsagar of Upper Assam became the center of literary activities. They used dialect of Sibsagar. In 1846 the first magazine ‘Arunodai' was published and the first Assamese Grammar was published in 1848. At that time a group of native writers grew up and many books on different topics published.  Thus the traditions of the Ahom court with the support of the missionaries established the language of Modern Assam.

Assamese may be divided dialectically in to Eastern Assamese and Western Assamese. The two western districts of Kamrup and Goalpara posses several local dialects. The spoken dialects of Goalpara district is similar to the ‘Rajsbansi' dialect which was evolved under the Koch kings. In between the dialect of Sibsagar in the east and the mixed dialects of Goalpara in the west stand the dialects of Kamrup district.
In Kamrup district there are different dialects in different localities. The differences between Eastern and Western Assamese are wide and range over the whole field of phonology, morphology and not infrequently vocabulary.

By origin an Indo-Aryan vernacular, Assamese is surrounded by non-Aryan speeches. It may even be said that Assamese is a small island in sea of diverse non-Aryan languages, and such Assamese may be regarded as being more open to non-Aryan influences than other N.I.A vernaculars. But the extent of non-Aryan influences do not appear to be great as it might have because Assam is situated on the high way for emigrants from all parts of India to the east, which kept Assam in constant contact with the Aryans in India and checked non-Aryan tendencies from making any radical changes in the structure of Assamese. When the Vaishnavite revolution started a very large number of songs, poems and dramas were composed which are even now popular among the Assamese. This rise of standard literature brought a stabilized influence upon the speech of non-Aryan idioms to a considerable extent. But in the body of the text, non-Aryan influences are large and varied. As for reference, they are summarized below.  

Phonological: 

Bodo influence in imparting alveolar sounds to O.I.A cerebrals and dental in Assamese has already been referred. The same influence has been postulated in fronting O.I.A palatals to alveolars in Assamese. A certain amount of non-Aryan influence is suspected in causing vowel-mutation and vowel-harmony. Non-Aryan influence has been postulated to explain the phenomenon of spontaneous nasalization by Sir G.A. Grierson.

Morphological:

Reduplication of a word to produce a jingle the whole root or its first elements can be doubled and in this way the meaning is intensified in many ways. Reduplication and repetition, regular and with vibrant, have been noted as frequent modes of word formation in the aboriginal Malayan dialects. This now pan-Indian phenomenon and its origin is extra-Aryan. The origin of enclitic numeratives is also extra-Aryan. They constitute a characteristic both of the Austric and Tibeto-Burman languages with some differences in use. In the Tibeto-Burman languages, generic prefixes are commonly used with numerals which follow the nouns. Extra-Aryan influence seems responsible for the use of personal affixes to nouns of relationship. Non-Aryan influence is noticed also in the use of different words to express distinct aspects of relationship according to the age of the person with whom relationship is conveyed. Non-Aryan origin is suspected of the plural suffixes –bilak, -gila, -ga, -na  etc. non-Aryan origin has been suspected of the derivatives in –sa, -ma and the past-participle in –iba. There may be convergence of Aryan and non-Aryan sounds in the establishment of some derivatives. Prefixing is the negative to the verb-root. Amongst the Eastern language, Assamese stands isolated in prefixing the negative as an integral part of the conjugated verb-root. But a negative conjugation is a characteristic feature of Assamese from the earliest times. Amongst the Tibeto-Burman languages in Assam, there are two-fold uses of the negative. In some, the negative follows the root of the word it qualifies, while in others it precedes the root. In Bodo which may be said to have influenced Assamese most, the negative follows the root of the verb, but imperative negative precedes the root. In vocabularies similarities between Assamese and non-Aryan words have been noted.           

Other than Assamese, Bodo is another language which is a very old language of the state and presently is spoken in the lower Assam areas mostly belongs to the Bodo Territorial Council. Bodo pronounced as ‘BO-RO' is a Tibeto-Burman language is one of the official languages of Assam, and is one of the 22 scheduled languages given a special constitutional status in India.  Bodo is spoken by the Bodo people of Nepal and Bangladesh also.
Bodo is known to be a branch of the Sino-Tibetan family of language, other than that there is no record indicating the origin of Bodo language.  It is closely related to the Dimasa language. It is also very closely related to Garo language Meghalaya, Kokborak language of Tripura.  Since 1913 a socio-political movement was launched by the local Bodo organization, and after a relentless effort this language was introduced as the medium of instruction in the primary schools in Bodo dominated areas in 1963. Currently this language is also the medium of instruction up to secondary level and an associate official language of Assam. In 1996 Guwahati University started Post-Graduate course in Bodo language and literature. The Bodo language has a large number of books of poetry, drama, short stories, novels, biography, travelogues and so on. No doubt the spoken language is influenced by the Bengali in and around the Kokrajar district, but it is in the pure forming the Udalguri district.
As for the writing style, the language is officially written in ‘Devnagari' script. It has also has a long history of using the ‘Roman' script as well. Many Bodo researchers even suggest that this language originally used the Deodhani script, which is now completely lost.

Referrences taken from:

 

 http://www.indianlanguages.com/assamese/index.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assamese_language

http://www.indianetzone.com/44/assamese_language.htm

http://www.culturopedia.com/Languages/language_intro.htm,

Assamese:Its Formation and Development By Dr Banikanta Kakati

Comprehensive history of Assam: Ancient Period, by H K Barthakur

A Phonology of Assamiya Dialects: Contemporary Standard and Mayong by Dipankar Moral