Karbis Of Assam

Ethnology on the Karbis also Known as Mikirs

A Brief History of Karbi Grammar

Posted by Administrator on July 5, 2009

BY :  Dharamsing Teron

Rev. Dr. Nathan Brown’s ‘Grammatical notes of the Assamese Language’ first published in 1848 originally was not intended to ‘be regarded as a Grammar of the Assamese Language’ but ‘they were commenced with the intention of printing only a few sheets, for private use of the most common grammatical forms’[1]. These ‘notes’ however did not remain ‘private’ and in fact provided the foundation of the grammar in Assamese that clinched two very crucial issues of the day—firstly, Assamese gained recognition as ‘much superior in beauty and softness’ and not ‘a merely corrupt form of Bengali,’ and secondly, the language emerged as a ‘system of imparting formal or institutional education’[2] in Assam. It was not to say that what Dr. Brown and the missionaries had devised more than a century ago was free from shortcomings. In his introductory remarks to Dr. Brown’s seminal work, Dr. Nagen Saikia during whose tenure as the General Secretary the third and the last edition was reprinted in 1982 by the ‘Assam Sahitya Sabha’, had these observation to make: the missionaries had ‘followed the model of the English grammar’ as they had ‘no other model before them’[3] and since Dr. Brown’s grammar was basically an effort to ‘make the learners acquaint themselves with the important characteristics’ of the language, he ‘very naturally left out sandhis and samasas, besides krit and taddhit suffixes from his discussion’. Dr. Brown also ‘did not discuss about syntax of the language.’[4] What the grammar achieved in its aim was to ‘teach the grammatical rules of Assamese as the target language’[5] and the emergence of Assamese linguistic nationalism in the later years.

Now, looking back a century and sixty year later since 1848, where does Karbi language stand vis-à-vis the Assamese language? In retrospection, one finds from historical data that Karbis were not very far off, they were in fact just behind their Assamese brothers. The missionaries had toiled not the less for the development of the Karbi language as well. Three decades after the publication of Dr. Brown’s grammar, another missionary, Rev. RE Neighbor compiled the ‘Vocabulary of English and Mikir, with illustrative sentences’, in 1878 that deserves to be called the ‘first’ karbi ‘dictionary’. As the title aptly describes, the book had nothing to do with the grammatical aspects of the language, what it did was putting down as many vocabularies as possible for the benefit of English readers. Another three decades later, Sardoka Perrin Kay’s ‘English-Mikir Dictionary’ came out in print in 1904. Four years later in 1908, Sir Charles Lyall and Edward Stack followed it up with ‘The Mikirs’, the first ethnographic details on the Karbis. This monograph also contained some important grammatical basics of the language based on Mr. Lyall’s ‘study…. in the linguistic materials collected’ by Mr. Neighbor’s vocabulary, Sardoka’s dictionary and phrase book, though Mr. Stack ‘himself had drawn no grammar’. Mr. Lyall ‘contributed’ the same material to the first ever ‘Linguistic Survey of India’ (1902) conducted by Sir George Abraham Greierson between 1898-1929. Mr. Lyall had acknowledged Sir Grieerson’s sketches of the Karbi grammar to be ‘the first published attempt to explain systematically the facts and mechanism of the language.’[6]

The efforts of the Baptist and Catholic Missionaries and the colonial officers on Karbi language, whether or not they were driven by ‘the interest of their own’[7], but what mattered most was that a very bold and positive beginning was made. That collectively the subsequent generations of Karbis failed to capitalize on the early foundation provided by them still remains a matter of a serious concern.  The missionaries ran a ‘newspaper’ in Karbi titled ‘Birta’ in 1903. They had a similar publication in Garo language by the name ‘Achikni Ripeng’ (Garos’ Friend) that started publication since 1881 and ‘served much the same purpose for the Garos that the Orunudoi had served for the Assamese’[8]. But sadly, ‘Birta’ failed to raise the same linguistic concern among the Karbis that ‘Orunudoi’ and ‘Achikni Ripeng’ did for the Assamese and Garo languages. However, another work of great importannce was brought out by GD Walker in the form of ‘A Dictionary of the Mikir language’ in 1925. This book also did not include any grammatical discussion as the author was ‘prompted………to expand the list of words…….gathered while trying to learn the language’ after going through the ‘remark’ in ‘The Mikirs’ that ‘a Mikir-English dictionary or vocabulary was still needed’. In Mr. Walker’s estimate the books by Neighbor and Kay were ‘not very full, and…..especially that by S.P Kay, full of misprints.’[9] But the 462 paged ‘dictionary’ in Part-I containing Mikir-English and Part-II English-Mikir is a great feat, particularly for a foreigner in spite of his modest admission that ‘errors in the rest of the dictionary will not be surprising, seeing that I had to do all my word-hunting through the Mikir language itself, or through Bengali or Assamese, in which neither my Mikir friends nor myself were very proficient.’[10] And W.J. Reid, the then acting Governor of Assam, in his foreword to the ‘Dictionary’ had fittingly commended the ‘unflagging zeal with which the author pursued his self-appointed task,’ The ‘small dialectal variation’ in pronunciation that Walker observed between Rongkhang or Eastern Karbis, Nowgaon on the one side and the Western or Amri Karbi on the other seems to have continued till the present time. Walker had show in his example that words like tenedet/ tengnedet (forgotten), ingnar (elephant) or hingno (bad) are pronounced in nasalized ‘tengngedet’, ingar and hingo. The nasalized pronunciation those days are rare but some remnants can still be seen as in the Chinthong areas, penanso (husband and wife) is still pronounced as ‘pengnganso’. Walker’s observation that the language ‘scattered over a wide area, from Golaghat to Kamrup and the Khasi Hills beyond Guwahati, and from the Cachar plains near Silchar to the forests north of Bishanath in Darrang….is practically one and the same throughout’[11] ascribed to the ‘unwarlike character of the Mikir people’[12] deserves a further investigation. By being ‘unwarlike’, the Karbis might have managed ‘linguistic uniformity’ over a wide area till now though this trait is increasingly considered as weakness in the present reality where assertion is invariably violent. ‘The more primitive the people, the less warlike it appears to be’[13] as observed by Wright in his ‘Study of War’ may provide some clues to the Karbis being ‘unwarlike’ and how primitive the tribe is. That the Karbis are indeed primitive is vouched by observations such as ‘the Mikir will be found by most readers the more interesting of the two, as the Mikirs are a more primitive and interesting race than the Meitheis’ in the reviews of ‘The Meitheis’ (TC Hodson) and ‘The Mikirs’ (Stack and Lyall) by M Langworth Dames way back in 1908.

But, a Karbi grammar appeared only in 1966, when Fr. John Marae, instrumental in founding the Diphu Don Bosco School, in collaboration with Fr. John Timung, Fr. Cyriac Thudathil, Mr. Paulus Rongphar and Mr. Sundersing Timung, published the ‘Karbi Self-taught’, a reprint (2007) of which is now available. The brief grammar in English that has adopted ‘Roman Scripts’ has made some crucial observations when the authors commented in the preface to the book’s second edition—‘There are authors who use all the English alphabets to write Karbi, there are writers who propagate the use of  “nerkepkep and sirkepkep” for the cardinal numerals 80 and 90 respectively instead of “throknerkep and throksirkep” as had always been used, and there are authors who use “lank” for  “lang” ( water).’ Further, the authors’ firm view for dispensing with the ‘use of any sign for stress and tones’ for writing Karbi ‘systematically, grammatically and simply’ is interesting, simply because the tonality of the language would have to be dispensed altogether! In any case, very few such important published works on Karbi language and grammar have rarely undergone reprints and ‘Karbi Self-taught’ has certainly achieved a landmark, in Karbi standard!

In 1966, Fr. Michael Balawan compiled ‘A Mikir-English Dictionary’ —‘for private circulation only’[14] which appeared in printed form under a new title ‘A Mikir-English Dictionary with some tits-bits of Mikir Grammar’, published from Shillong, Khasi Jaintia Presbyterian Press in 1978.[15] Fr. Balawan (1922-1989), tracked by the Nazis for not abiding by the compulsory labours,came to Indian shore from France as a Salesian brother and took up his assignment at Umswai Catholic Church and School, a nondescript Karbi-Tiwa populated village. This great humanitarian and an exceptional missionary produced great works in both Tiwa and Karbi. His ‘Tiwa Mat’ is the first Reader in the Tiwa language, which is still in circulation while ‘Baibele History’, is a ‘Brief Bible History in the Tiwa Language’ (1988) and both the books are published by the Don Bosco publications, Guwahati. But what must rank as the most outstanding for the Karbis is his ‘Mikir Grammar’ (1988, Don Bosco Press Shillong), which is currently out of print. This 86-paged grammar deals with phonetics, morphology and syntax in Roman script, which definitely is an excellent introduction to learners of Karbi language and could have easily been used as text in middle and high school level classes. The general apathy of the language speakers and the ignorance of people that matters can be gauged by the fact that only a 2 Km patch of unfinished village road leading to the Umswai Parish is named after this great man! Similar is the fate of Pangti Andreas Hanse Durong (1911-1993), whose immense love for his people and tireless efforts have virtually remained unknown! As many as 13 text books in the language that include ‘Mikir-English Reader’ (for classes A, B, I, II & III), ‘Mikir-English Translation’ (Part- I, II & III), ‘Mikir Geography’ ‘Arithmetic in Mikir’ (for Classes -B, I, A-B & I, II, III) produced by this rare genius of a Karbi are today nowhere, except of course, in the exclusive custody of the Umswai Catholic Mission. Both Fr. Balawan and Pangti Andreas Hanse Durong[16] are forgotten and ignored as neither their great works nor the men are considered worthy of Karbi gratitude!

About a decade later, Prof. Ronbong Terang’s ‘Karbi Lamtasam’[17] appeared in 1974. The Mikir-English-Assamese dictionary with a brief sketch of grammar is undoubtedly an important contribution towards the growth of the language. But unfortunately, the book is now out of print and it is hard to guess if the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council would be generous enough to fund the much-needed reprint as it did for the first publication. Prof. Terang has acknowledged Walker’s book as the guiding inspiration for his ‘Lamtasam’. But the highlight of the ‘dictionary’ is certainly the grammatical sketch that he had incorporated where he had attempted to offer the phonological patterns of the language. The tilt to the Assamese grammar in his grammatical sketch seems obvious for the author who had taught Assamese in the Diphu Govt. College for almost all his life. He had observed that there is no difference between the short and long phonemes in Karbi and that there are five tones corresponding to ‘high’, ‘mid high’, ‘high-lower-middle’ and ‘low’. According to Prof. Terang, ‘in Karbi seven separate vowel sounds are to be found’ while Mr. Stack had distinguished twelve vowel sounds adopting the Roman alphabets, ‘always employed to express the sounds of the language’.[18] Likewise, while Prod. Terang had put nineteen consonant sounds, Mr. Stack had put them at fifteen barring the aspirates.

During the same time, Dr. Karl-Heinz Grüssner of Tübingen University (Germany), in his hunt for ‘exotic languages’ chanced upon the Karbi tongue in one of his first Shillong visits and started the process of documenting it through 1970 to 1973 and published his materials in 1973 under the title, ‘Arleng Alam, die Sprache Der Mikir: Grammatik u. Texte’ in German language. Mr. Harrison Langne, Dr. Clement Singnar, both hailing from Deithor, who were then pursuing their studies in Shillong (1970-71), and Mr. Harbamon Ingti Kathar (then in AIR’s Karbi Section) and Langtuk Teron, both from Tika (1973), guided him to the interior of Hamren, Tika and Deithor areas. The book, which deals in great length on the language’s grammatical aspects, is widely quoted by foreign researchers, but as usual, precious little has been done by both the official or unofficial language administrators in Karbi Anglong to work on Karbi grammar.

Another ‘Karbi Grammar’ by V J Jayepaul of ‘The Central Institute of Indian Languages’ (CILL), published in 1987, too has remained largely ignored and unknown to laymen.

Two decades later, Longkam Teron came up with another ‘Karbi Lamtasam’ in 1998. This Karbi-Assamese ‘Lamtasam’, besides having the same name with that of Prof. Terang’s book, is not a dictionary, but a grammar. To avoid the confusion, the author himself had clarified that the term as approved by the apex Karbi literary organization, ‘Karbi Lammet Amei’, meant ‘grammar’ and not ‘dictionary’. The author, despite being a laymen not trained in linguistics or the art of grammar writing, has indeed contributed to the cause of the language immensely. In 2001, he edited  ‘A Modern Tri-Lingual Dictionary’, (Karbi-English-Assamese) published by the DPEP (District Primary Education Programme), Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council. This ‘dictionary’ contained 5303 words.

Khoyasing Hanse’s ‘Sankur Karbi Lamkuru lapen Lamseng’ came out in 1998 published by the ‘Karbi Cultural Society’ is a lengthy and voluminous grammar compared to its predecessors in the Karbi language. The author seems to have used all his teaching experiences to come up with the book but remains ignored as well.

There are other equally important contributions such as Biren Keleng’s ‘Bhoiyam Karbi Byakoron’, ‘Karbi Alam Charlinang’ (2nd Edition 2004), and Academy Award winner Bidorsing Kro’s dictionary ‘Akemi Karbi Lamthe Amarjong’ (2002). The latest addition to the steadily growing list of Karbi dictionaries is the ‘Karbi Lamarjong’ (2007), inaugurated at Guwahati Press Club on 25th August by ‘Asom Sahitya Sabha’ president Kanaksen Deka in presence of ‘Karbi Lammet Amei’ president Khorsing Teron and his colleagues. The book saw the light of day posthumously for Manik Teron whose efforts were continued to fruition by his associate Rajendra Timung (Tumung). And thanks to the laudatory works by various Karbi writers under the auspices of the ‘Karbi Lammet Amei’, the language can boast considerable growth of written materials representing the life and culture of the tribe. ‘Nepi Alam Ne Chinghon Chenam’ (ne/pi= my/mother, a-lam=language, chinghon=love/respect, chenam=ardenty/surely) — these words sum up the ideology of the ‘Karbi Lammet Amei’ (KLA) and one may hope that the organization takes up the process of digitally storing all the published materials at right earnest before usual unconcern devour them to total oblivion.

The Bible in Karbi, completed in 1954 under the active supervision of WR Hutton, probably remains till date one of the most voluminous works in the language, in terms of the number of words and pages used. Hutton, in his zeal, had not only translated great portion of the gospels himself, he even ensured that the Karbi Bibles reached every doors at affordable price. Thanks to the efforts of the likes of Hutton and his team of translators that had ensured that the Karbi Bible still survive as the ‘living words’ for many Karbi Christians in areas where the language is falling to disuse and death. The Karbi Bible of WR Hutton has already achieved a landmark by completing 50 years and yet, there is no effort to celebrate the occasion.

It is therefore evident that it is not the lack of a ‘grammar’ that has hindered the development of the language, but more of a lack of vision and direction on the part of the leading Karbi organizations and the successive leadership in the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC). Between 1908 (since the grammatical sketches of Lyall and Stack) till date, near about dozen Karbi grammars have come and gone, but we still rue the lack of one. A hard and realistic look must now be trained on the issue to make a departure from the past. Grammar writing is a professional and highly technical job and it cannot be left to trial and error methods. What is now required is to make use of the available materials and churn them with professional expertise for a detailed documentation of the language so that a ‘Karbi Grammar‘ can be obtained.

Of late, there has been a flurry of activities in newspaper publications from Diphu in Karbi language. The pioneer in the field is ‘The Arleng Daily’, which began publication since 9th June 2004, edited by TP Hanse. Within the next year, ‘Thekar’ started publication since 9th September 2005, edited by Longsing Teron. The two newspapers have helped emerge a new breed of Karbi language journalists in the making, and most importantly, an increasing readership across the hill districts. The Karbi newspapers have arrived and doing substantially well, capitalizing on the new found nationalistic fervor and in the process complimenting each other to some degree. But a word of caution though—the newspapers can either make or mar the language legacy if they are not extra careful in their attempt to dish out the ‘one-day best-sellers’. We must realize that —‘Language plays a great part in our life. Perhaps because of its familiarity, we rarely observe it, taking it rather for granted, as we do breathing or walking. The effects of language is remarkable, and include much of what distinguishes man from the animals, but language has no place in our education program or in the speculation of our philosophers.’[19]

Endnotes :

[1] Brown, Rev. Dev. Nathan-“Grammatical Notes on the Assamese Language”, first printed at Sibsagar Mission press in 1848,  revised by PH more in 1893,and reprinted in August 1982 by ‘Assam Sahitya Sabha ‘ with an Introduction by its General secretary, Dr. Nagen Saikia.


[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] ‘The Mikirs’ (1908), from the papers of the late Edward Stack, and edited, arranged and supplemented by Sir Charles Lyall, United Publishers, Panbazar, Gauhati. P-73.

[7] Ibid

[8] Downs, Dr. FS, ‘The Mighty Works of God’, published by the Christian Literature Centre, Panbazar, Gauhati-1, Printed at Lakshmi Printing Press, Panbazar, Gauhati-1, 1971.

[9] Walker, GD, ‘A Dictionary of the Mikir Language’, Printed at the Assam Government Press, Shillong, 1925.

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Wright, Q, ‘A Study of War’ (1965), Chicago University Press, as quoted by William Echardt in his  essay—‘Primitive Militarism’.

[14] From the library catalogue of Tübingen University, Germany, courtesy Dr. Karl-Heinz Grüßner.

[15] Ibid

[16] From the back inside cover information furnished in ‘Arelng Alam’, Hini Akitap, Klas B, Second Edition (Reprint), by P Andreas Hanse Durong, Marjong, 1973.

[17] Terang, Prof. Rongbong, ‘ Karbi Lamtasam’ [A Mikir-English-Assamese Dictionary], first published 1974, Printed by Debdas Nath, MA, LLB, at Sadhana Press Pvt. Ltd, Calcutta-12.

[18] The author is immensely grateful to Mr Owen Terang of Marme, Nongpoh, for providing information of P Andreas Hanse Durong. Special thanks also go to Sr. Lydia Pala, Head Mistress of the Umswai Don Bosco High School for the inputs on Fr. Balawan and the photographs taken from the Balawan Memorial Hall of the School, dated 1 Feb 2008.

[19] Bloomfield, Leonard, Professor of Germanic Philology in the University of Chicago, in ‘Language’, first published in Great Britain, 1935 and India Re-print in 1963 by Motilal Banarasidass.

7 Responses to “A Brief History of Karbi Grammar”

  1. Philippe Ramirez said

    Two small things have to be to corrected in this article: Fr Balawan could not have been a “WWI veteran”, as he was born in 1922. He was not exactly POW but was tracked by the nazis for not abiding to compulsory labour.

  2. I always search where can get my karbi language appropriate word and meaning, but till today could not found Karbi language applropriate written words. Recentlly I found a Karbi dictionary name : Akemi Karbi Lamthe Amjarjong (2002) written by the prominent karbi writter Mr. Bidorsig Kro but the book is not foud till now.
    Any body about this please inform to me.

    Sashi Ingti
    Tezpur University
    Napaam, Sonitpur, Assam
    Pin – 784028
    email : ingti@tezu.ernet.in
    Ph. No 236490 (R )
    (M) 9706159954

    • Philippe Ramirez said

      I have this dictionary with me. I’m not sure that it is still available in Diphu’s bookshops. You may try directly with Mr Kro. However, I have scanned another Dictionary, published by Longkam Teron and others. Please contact me and I will make it available to you.
      Philippe Ramirez

    • Dear Mr Ingti….I have written to you in your mail. I will be delighted to help you. There are many dictionaries (without the grammar part) now which can be found from Diphu market. There is at least one dictionary now in press which is expected to be out in short time. If you are really interested, please take the trouble of coming to Diphu. I’ll be happy to help.
      Best wishes…

  3. Prashant Hanse said

    I have a copy of the dictionary written by Mr.Walker.

  4. basavaraja kodagunti said

    i think, grammars and other works in and on karbi may be listed here, just and opinian ,,,, regards

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