By: Dr. Irengbam Mohendra Singh
Who’s this Dr Grierson?
George Abraham Grierson, an Irish linguist from Dublin, was an official of the Indian Civil Service. He conducted between 1894 and 1928 for the British Raj, “The Linguistic Survey of India” (LSI). He described 364 languages and dialects. He included the “Meitheis” (ignorantly using the name of the people instead of the language), now “Meitei” as a Tibeto-Burman language.
In 1898 he was appointed Superintendent of the newly formed ‘Linguistic Survey of India’ and moved to England “for convenience of consulting libraries and scholars”. Before that he was an Opium Agent for Bihar. He wrote ‘Seven grammars of the dialects and sub-dialects of the Bihari language (1883-87), and Bihari Peasant Life (1885). He was not very popular there.
He did a remarkable job with the linguistic survey, considering what he did. Sitting in an office in Calcutta, between drinking pink gin at the Calcutta Club in Chowringhee at lunch time, and Jamieson Irish whisky before dinner, he used untrained field workers to collect information.
Grierson never came to Manipur or near abouts during those years. He collected information from Wahengbam Yumjao (no disrespect to him), an amateur archaeologist and member of the Manipur State Durbar, who advised Christopher Gimson about the Meitei script as well as many other aspects of Meitei lon for the Linguistic Survey of India.
Quoting Hodson (The Meiteis p12) – In discussing the origin of the Loi communities, he could not add very much to Dr Grierson’s remarks on the paucity of linguistic evidence: “None of these dialects has been returned for the survey, and they have probably all disappeared.”
Having discovered that Grierson’s LSI is untrustworthy, an India Government census in 1991
found 1,576 “mother tongues” with separate grammatical structure, and 1,796 languages classified as “other mother tongues”. It was realised that south India such as Madras, Hyderabad and Mysore as well as many princely states were neglected and thus under represented.
Grierson’s survey is now only useful as an aid-memoir. It is practically unreliable and conceptually clouded as data gathering was hampered by untrained field workers.
I had a gut-feeling that Meitei lon is not a Tibeto-Burman language as I had been sceptical that the Meitei migrated from China. I did my own research.
My critical intent is to counterpoise the over-determined received “academic” notion that the 2,000-year old Meitei lon is a Tibeto-Burman language and that the Meitei migrated to Manipur from somewhere in Southeast Asia, by presenting balanced multiple points of view, and by opposing obscurely described claims against modern established views.
The inclusion of Meitei lon in the Tibeto-Burman family, which incorporates a world view of population dispersal and language diffusion without any historical facts, based on the central theory of human migration/invasion models, kept alive erroneously by Dr Grierson and Dr Konov is dangerously undermining the real identity of Meitei lon.
This brings me to my hypothetical condition for the purpose of discussion that the Meitei language was a self-generated and self–organised in the long Meitei evolutionary process, once a communication was intended among the many clans who spoke different dialects. Eventually it evolved into a rule-governed system. The understanding is based on the ‘overview of the approach’ by Briscoe (2002) and Herford (1999). There is parallelism between the development of species and language (Sir C. Lyell, 1863).
During the late Last Ice Age about 25,000-20,000 years ago, a group separated from the main body of early humans in India, expanding to the east through the northeast corridor and settled in Manipur, as the Austroasiatic speaking Khasis did in Meghalaya. This was the time when the anatomical changes from the original dark African ancestors to the Mongolic phenotype occurred because of ‘drift’ or by Natural Selection, as adaptation to cold.
These Meitei ancestors were a small population and thus quite favourable to the force of drift. Manipur in the Pleistocene Age (extreme fluctuation of temperature) was a distant cold country and within the range of “Last Glaciations”.
According to Richard Dawkins, language seems to ‘evolve’ at a much faster rate than genetic evolution, and seem to evolve by non-genetic means.
This might have happened to Meitei lon that developed as a regional language under pressure for communication and it evolved much faster than the Tibeto-Burman language. Impetus for better communication led to the development of its own archaic indigenous alphabet – Meitei mayek, while the Tibetans borrowed Devnagri script and the Burmese acquired the Tamil alphabet. The Chinese used pictograms and they still use them.
Current research in genetics, archaeology and anthropology all over the world, has shown no invasion or migration of people from Southeast Asia to Manipur. There are no facts of invariable connection between Meitei lon and the Tibeto-Burman language family. There is no proto-Tibeto-Burman speaking homeland anywhere in Southeast and East Asia.
The old Meitei language of the Poireiton group such as Andro, Sekmai, and Chairel etc is a tonal language like the languages of the northeast India, but it has some similarities only with the Kachin language spoken in the Kachin state of Myanmar, and Bodo in Assam.
In Meitei lon, tone is phonemic with three tones. That is the meaning of the word changes in accordance with the tone viz., rising, falling and level. For example, masi yamna phate (this is very bad); masi yaaamna phate (this is awfully bad); and masi aduk yamna phataba nateda (this is not that bad).
Typologically, Meitei lon is an agglutinating language and there are some similarities in vocabulary at the morphological level with the Tibeto-Burman language. Languages do assimilate one from the other.
Meitei lon is not related to either in he roots of verbs or in the form of grammar to any Tibeto-Burman language. It has only language affinity ie similar in structure which may suggest a common origin. There are however various “doubtful cognates” ie possible chance similarities. There are also “False friends” (or faux amis). These are pairs of words in two languages or dialects (or letters in two alphabets) that look similar but differ in meaning.
There are vast theories of the myths of languages. The Tibeto-Burman origin of Meite lon is a myth. The Meitei language is unique, as are the Meitei people and Meitei alphabet.
Traditional techniques can be used to construct evolutionary trees of languages by comparing their vocabularies. The trouble is the speed at which word-use changes means that this approach is not much good at looking further back than 10,000 years. The etymology of the Meitei ancestors is 20,000 years old.
Still, ancient European anthropologists interpreted Meithei (Meitei lon) as a Tibeto-Burman language simply because the Meitei look Mongoloid.
There are now many studies that point out the derogatory nature of grouping all Mongoloid people of northeast India as Tibeto-Burman speakers as mere European ethnocentrism and supermacism.
Even now, many Indian researchers and the government of India recognise castes and tribals and usually state that “Most people from northeast India are classified as tribals and speak one of the Tibeto-Burman languages”. Quite a few research projects have been undertaken in India eg by Analabha Basu et al, among the tribals of northeast India, but the Meitei were never included, having been presumed to be just another similar tribe.
In modernity, the existence of an Indo-Aryan language is questionable as there is no archaeological evidence of a people known as Aryans invading India. Even the long-accepted genetic relationship of the hypothetical Sino-Tibetan family remains disputed but accepted without question by non-specialists, as in the case of Meitei lon.
Really, Meitei lon is an Indian language in Southeast Asia, surviving with a number of Tibeto-Burman languages like Naga languages in the northern region, Myanmarese in the east and Mizo in the southeastern region.
Without fluffing my lines because of lack of space I will let three super-specialists play their part.
Three of the world’s leading authorities on Tibeto-Burman language – James A Matisoff, Professor Emeritus, University of California (2003), George Van Driem, a Dutch linguist at Leiden University (2001) and David Bradley, Prof. at La Trobe University, Australia (1997) have independently re-classified Tibeto-Burman languages in which Meithei, now Meitei, is not included anymore. They have left Meitei lon as unclassified.
But as will been seen in Matisoff’s classification below, Kuki-Chin-Naga only are in the Tibeto-Burman family instead of Grierson’s ‘Northeast India’ that includes Meitei (Manipuri) and Austroasiatic speaking Khasis whose language later dispersed to Southeast Asia.
Matissof makes no claim that the families in the Kamarupan or Himalayish branches have a special relationship to one another than a geographical area, pending more detailed comparative work.
The individuality of Manipuri (Meitei lon) is now indisputable. It awaits classification in the modern language tree. The classification of languages is a matter of considerable disagreement, because the languages change so fast and are mutable. Many linguists are sceptical of attempts to find ancient relationship between living languages.
James Matisoff’s widely accepted classification is as follows:
~ Maha-Kiranti (includes Nepal Bhasa, Magar, Rai)
~ Kachinic (jingpho)
OLD GRIERSON’S CLASSIFICATION
Photo: Map of population dispersion & archaic European
Meiteilon is no more a skeleton in the cupboard.
The writer is based in the UK
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