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Sun, 19 Jan 2020

Northeast Today

Northeast India: The Goldmine of Languages

Northeast India: The Goldmine of Languages
May 07
14:31 2019

It is often said that “A different language is a different vision of life.” With approximately 220 languages spoken in Northeast India, the region is a bonafide melting point of tremendous socio-cultural interaction. Kaushik Deori presents an explainer.


First Words

The diversity of Northeast India is clearly evident owing to the fact that the region covers a meagre 7.9 percent of the country’s total geographical area, but is home to various languages belonging to five language families, viz. Indo-Aryan, Tibeto-Burman, Tai-Kadai, Austro-Asiatic and Dravidian (small population of Tamil speakers in Moreh District of Manipur). The region has a high concentration of indigenous population. The states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland are largely inhabited by a number of native tribes. Each tribe has its own distinct tradition of art, culture, dance, music, lifestyle and language.


Beauty of language

Language in a way is an unsung hero. It is the medium through which one share feelings and thoughts. If languages didn’t exist, interpersonal communication would have been that much more difficult. The science behind making vocal sounds which are tied together to form meaningful words and then clubbing a set of coherent sounds to form a sentence is in itself a fascinating study. It is through language that we think and describe our understandings of reality. The passing of information from one generation to another is done using language. To say that it is the catalyst which is moving human race forward, won’t be an exaggeration. Even more fascinating is how words are formed into making poetries and songs which penetrates the glands of our limbic system.


The Endangered Languages

With about 43% of the languages in the world identified either as vulnerable or endangered according to UNESCO report, a number of languages in NE are also gradually entering the state of moribund. A good chunk of languages in the region are spoken by a population of below 10,000, which makes them very vulnerable to becoming extinct in the next few years. Most of the indigenous languages are undocumented, which implies that once the speakers quit speaking the language, it will effectively cease to exist. Languages like Bugun and Sherdukpen of Arunachal Pradesh are spoken by a population of less than 3000 people, which invariably suggests that the current set of speakers, are the last generation of speakers.

Why languages Die?

There is no one monolithic answer to why a language dies. Often times it is due to the assimilation of smaller languages with the majority language of the region. It is a case of “big fish eating the small fish”. Due to vigorous contact of a minority language with the majority language, speakers tend to shift to speaking the language which is spoken as the Lingua Franca. The minorities consume and interact in the majority language which is used in domains such as education, official work, movies, newspaper, pop-culture et al. The government and the stakeholders’ have meted a step-motherly treatment towards the cause. Precious little has been done to safeguard these rich and exotic languages. Sheetal Verma, a Research scholar who is currently working on documentation of various Tibetoburman languages quoted, “What I have understood is negligence and failing to understand why they need to be preserved in the first place is the main cause. What people don’t know is that it’s not just a language that dies, with it dies the endless knowledge it could hold. If Egyptologists didn’t decipher the hieroglyphics we wouldn’t know anything about the ancient Egypt. So I’d urge people not to think of language loss as language loss but loss of knowledge and knowledge is worth saving.”


2019: International Year of Indigenous Language

Realizing the urgency of the situation, United Nations has declared 2019 as the “International Year of Indigenous Languages”, zeroing in on the following founding principles:

  1.  Increasing understanding, reconciliation and international cooperation.
  2. Creation of favorable conditions for knowledge-sharing and dissemination of good practices with regards to indigenous languages.
  3. Integration of indigenous languages into standard setting.
  4. Empowerment through capacity building.
  5. Growth and development through elaboration of new knowledge.



One cannot but stress enough that when a language dies; along die the stories, traditions, food habits, medicines, and knowledge that the community holds. The world loses a way of life. The onus lies on each one of us to be an ambassador for spreading awareness and working single-mindedly to revitalize the indigenous languages of Northeast India.




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