The origin of the Meitei language

1876

By: Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh

The origin of languages is baffling for the biologists as spoken languages do not leave any fossil records. So is the origin of Meitei language (Meitei lon).

The scholarly interest in the origin of languages has only gradually been rekindled from the 1950s. The origin of Meitei language is also a topic that indulges my intense curiosity.

Darwin wrote: “Language is not a true instinct, for every language has to be learned. No child is born with predisposition to any language. But man has some few instincts in common such as self-preservation, sexual love and love of the mother. This might have led to the origin of language as an instinct for social communication.”

Such an instinct for social communication and self-preservation might have led to the evolution of the Meitei language, which has survived a few thousand years, balking the natural tendency of dominant languages such as Tibeto-Burman (TB) and Indo-European (IP) to make it extinct.

Many linguists predict that at least half of the world’s existing 6,000 or so languages will be dead or dying by the year 2050.

The Meitei language of Poireitons (the middle of the 7th century CE) developed much faster than Meitei evolution as languages do. It has well organised syntax, grammar, semantics and vocabulary.

Meitei lon evolved as a regional language under pressure for communication among the many groups of Meitei ancestors that migrated to Manipur in the Stone Age (2,000 BCE). Further, impetus for better communication led to the development of its own Meitei alphabet or Meitei mayek.

There are many speculative hypotheses surrounding the origin of languages. My hypothesis of the origin of Meitei lon, though not empirically supported, is based on the surmise that when our ancestors arrived in Manipur in the Stone Age, they began to use tools for hunting, cooking and making shelter.

Christopher Hinshelwood et al in 1993 recovered 28 specialised bone tools and related artefacts from the South African cave of Blombos, dating back 70,000 years, hinting at ‘symbolic thinking’ and use of vocal language rather than sign language as their hands were occupied.

As human brain developed incrementally and with the effort to communicate vocally, larynx and vocal cords began to develop. Researchers have now found that verbal language and sign language depend on similar neural structures in the cerebral hemispheres.
Meitei lon is a ‘language isolate’ ie a natural language with no proven relationship with any other living language (until proven otherwise). It has not descended (cognate) from Tibeto-Burman (TB) languages, but has ‘language affinities’ with some ie similar in some structure that may suggest a common origin.
There is no evidence that it has taken any leaf out of the books of neighbouring languages. It has no known common ancestry with any other language. Nor are there any available facts that it has been borrowed from any other language.

Commonly, most languages borrow words and other features from one another, from casual or chance contacts. There are also learned coinages of the kind that English systematically makes
from Latin, Greek and other languages.

Any two languages taken at random will show certain percentage of apparent similarities in basic vocabulary eg between Meitei lon and Hebrew or the Tibetan.

There are ‘universal features’ of human language. In most languages around the globe, the name of the bird cuckoo is just the same; Koyal in Hindi, kokil in Meitei lon. Because the name has been derived from the noise it makes.

Similarly, a vast number of languages in the world have “baby talk” words such as mama and papa (English); ma baba in Hindi; ima ipa (Meitei lon); mata pita (Sanskrit).

All languages change with time as in the Meitei lon, from a language spoken by Poireitons at least 1,000 years ago to the one which is now spoken.

The modern Meitei language is a mixture of languages and Manipur is the melting pot of several nations. A similar example is the English people and language.

The grouping of Meitei language with the TB group accrued because in the search for an original Meitei homeland in the first half of 20th century, missionary/colonial officials wrote our ethnography in which they included a section reporting the migratory origin of the Meitei tribe.

Such stories were habitually constructed, both as symbols of internal unity and as ways of distinguishing us from say, the Tangkhuls or Kukis, while grouping our languages as TB. The linguistic and the biological ancestors of modern TB language communities were not necessary the same people.

Such discussions sometimes neglect to engage various theoretical perspectives that have been developed to explain why people migrate in the first place.

In brutal honesty, can anybody frame an answer why people from China or hereabouts migrated to Manipur with barren hills and valley filled with water, unless they were drawn by an intense desire to eat our Pengba fish (Osteoma belangeri) – highly incongruous.

These 19th century Europeans were extreme racialists who are now called “white supremacists”. Their scholarly writings were to impress white supremacy. A famous American author wrote a book, The Aryan Race: Its Origin & Achievements (Morris 1888).

He wrote: “All the savage tribes of the earth belong to the Negro or Mongolian race. The Caucasian is pre-eminently the man of civilization” (p23-24) and that it were these Caucasians who had perfected the Aryan method of language.

The habitual putting of languages into categories made the ancient linguists and archaeologist
look scholastic though irrational and racist. Dr Grierson was knighted for his falsification of historical linguistics in India.

But as TC Hodson (The Meitheis, reprint 1975 p155) wrote: “The definite classification of the Meithei language as belonging to the TB group while occupying a distinct and separate group is a bald statement of the conclusions which are advanced in the Report of the Linguistic Survey of India.”

The first systemic study of the relationship between human languages began when Sir William Jones proposed to the Asiatic Society in Calcutta on February 2 1786. He proposed that Greek
and Latin, the classical languages of Europe, and Sanskrit, the classical language of India,
had all descended from a common source. This is disputed now.

In the study of the Meitei lon in its evolutionary maturity, this paper deals very briefly with three areas of research, based on current linguistic disciplines: (1) the mother-tongue theory; (2) the linguistic typology; and (3) the search for an original Meitei homeland.

The mother-tongue theory: it is an ideology. The advocates are in someway racist politicians of the 18th century. It is a theory of self-identification, and whatever passes as culture is wedded to language. There is no such thing as a mother-tongue.

The linguistic typology: the first 19th century proposals of linguistic typology was also an implicit ideological underpinning (Friedrich Schlegel, 172-1829). The scheme distinguished between the so-called ‘inflectional languages’ ie, the Indo-European languages, and those that have no inflection and therefore called ‘isolating’, as the Chinese has always been thought of.

The hypothesis was based on the notion that ‘inflectional’ languages were better developed and hence superior to others.

In general, the TB languages have a penchant for nominalising whole sentences, expressed syntactically rather than by inflection. The Meitei lon is an inflectional language with a number of sub groups (A Grammar of Meithei: Sobhana L Chelliah, Moulton Grammar Library, Berlin).

Over the centuries the comparative historical linguists had different ideas of their own. Friedrich Schlegel (1808) wrote: “it was clear that the original home of the Indo-Europeans must have been India. For Rask (1818) it was Asia Minor. Sir William Jones (1872), a staunch Christian adhered to the traditional Biblical story of The Tower of Babel.

By the 19th century the idea of Hebrew as the lingua Adamica (language of Adam) had been abandoned, and The Tower of Babel was no longer an explanation for the varieties of languages in the world.

The Tower of Babel: up until this point in the Bible, the whole world had one language when the people of the earth decided to build a city with a tower that would reach to heaven. God came to know and went to see the city and the tower.

God then realised that their intentions to build this ‘stairway to heaven’ would lead the people away from God Himself. As a result, God confused their language, causing them to speak different languages so that they would not understand each other. By doing this God thwarted their plans. He also scattered the people of the city all over the face of the earth.

If you believe this story in the Bible you will believe in anything. Speculations like these are not substitutes for hard facts.

The hard fact is the ‘Natural evolution theory’ ie Meitei lon evolved by means of natural selection, from gestural to spoken language for the survival of the individual and the community
of Meitei ancestors.

The writer is based in the UK
Email: [email protected]
Website: www.drimsing.co.uk

1 COMMENT

  1. You make some good points but I don’t think you really focus on the Meitei language’s origins, rather you seem to then talk about a history of white supremacism in early western science. Another thing that concerns me are your comments about Indo-European languages – how are the relations between Latin, Greek and Sanskrit disputed? If anything, the relations have never been clearer, and so readily accepted by linguists across the world, unless you are referring to Indo-Hittite, but even then the idea behind that is that Indo-European and Indo-Hittite would have originally been the same language (more or less) anyway. Just because you’re trying to prove what I assume to be your point that it’s wrong to simply lump Meitei into a language family without thinking, I don’t think that’s an excuse to criticise modern linguistic studies (for which you provide no evidence either!).

    I can’t think of why you’d want to challenge Indo-European linguistics on such a fundamental level anyway, are you offended by the fact that some languages are related, and that they seem to be the “successful” ones? Or do you have an affinity or passion for one of them, and hate the rest, so you wish to pretend they aren’t related? Unless you’re so hung up on the idea that there couldn’t be a language from long ago that split into others, in which case you’re then arguing against your own later conclusions about language evolution.

    Anyway, I find it strange that you’d try to argue that Greek, Latin and Sanskrit aren’t related, since the evidence that they *are* related is ridiculously strong – they have very similar grammar and vocabularies, more than can be coincidential.

    If I’ve misunderstood, my apologies. I just don’t get this one thing, and being a lover of languages and linguistics I don’t get what point there is, other than simple mistake, to make such comments that go contrary to reality, when you’re arguing that we should all look to reality for answers! If Meitei could evolve by itself, why couldn’t the Indo-European langauges evolve by theirselves from being one language to being Farsi, Polish, Hindi, Latin (and then Italian, French, Spanish, Romanian), Greek, English, and other closely related languages? 🙁

    I want to also thank you for writing this article, otherwise I wouldn’t have heard of the Meitei language before. It’s always fun to hear about new things after all!

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