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Inarch Center Publication

History of Languages in India II

InArchCenter ID: - IACBN0036

*This is an continuation of the previous blog*


Tibeto-Burman is a large language family, comprising between 250 to 300 languages, which extends over a vast geographical area of Asia and exhibits a remarkable typological diversity. The existence of the TB family was posited as early as the 1850's, when it was noticed that many words in "Written Tibetan" (WT), attested since the 7th CE, appeared cognate to forms in "Written Burmese" (WB), attested since the early 12th Century. British scholars and colonial administrators in India and Burma began to study some of the dozens of little-known "tribal" languages of the region that seemed to be genetically related to the two great literary languages, Tibetan and Burmese. This early work was collected in the monumental Linguistic Survey of India [Grierson and Konow 1903-28], three volumes of which (Vol. III, Parts 1,2,3) are devoted to wordlists and brief texts from TB languages.

Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken in Tibet, western China (provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, and western Hunan), in the north and east of South Asia, and in Southeast Asia. In the Indian subcontinent they are found in Baltistan (an area of North Pakistan colonized by the Tibetans in the 7th century), Ladakh (a region of northwest India akin culturally to Tibet), Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and in the northeastern states of India (Sikkim, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh). In Southeast Asia they predominate in Myanmar and are also spoken in pockets in Thailand, Laos, and northwestern Vietnam.

Some of the major TB languages spoken in India are Bodo, Dimasa, Kokborok, Garo, Meithei, Mizo, Thadou, Mara and Hmar.


Austroasiatic languages are indigenous to Southeast Asia constituting a large and heterogeneous family. It is stock of some 150 languages spoken by more than 65 million people scattered throughout Southeast Asia and eastern India. Most of these languages have numerous dialects. In prehistoric times some Austroasiatic groups migrated into South Asia producing a major division between the Munda languages of India and the Mon-Khmer languages which remained in their homeland. Most Austroasiatic languages are spoken by small communities scattered in remote mountainous regions and have no written traditions, but Mon, Khmer and Vietnamese have a long recorded history and are culturally the most important. Austroasiatic languages are found in mainland Southeast Asia and in northeastern and central India.

Munda languages, are spoken by about 9,000,000 people (the Munda) in northern and central India. Some scholars divide the languages into two subfamilies: the North Munda (spoken in the Chota Nāgpur Plateau of Bihār, Bengal, and Orissa) including Korkū, Santhālī, Muṇḍārī, Bhumij, and Ho; and the South Munda (spoken in central Orissa and along the border between Andhra Pradesh and Orissa). Mon-Khmer languages constitute the indigenous language family of mainland Southeast Asia. They range north to southern China, south to Malaysia, west to Assam state in India, and east to Vietnam. The most important Mon-Khmer languages, having populations greater than 100,000, are Vietnamese, Khmer, Muong, Mon, Khāsi, Khmu, and Wa. Khāsi, the only Mon-Khmer language spoken in India, is spoken by some 900,000 people living in the region surrounding the Khāsi Hills and Jaintiahills of Meghālaya state, India. Khāsi contains a number of words borrowed from Indo-Aryan languages, especially from Bengali and Hindi. Nicobarese was also thought to form a separate family in the Austroasiatic stock, but recent data from this poorly known branch confirm its inclusion in Mon-Khmer.


By the late 18th century, when the British first settled on the Andaman Islands, there were an estimated 5,000 Great Andamanese living on Great Andaman and surrounding islands, comprising 10 distinct tribes with distinct but closely related languages. From the 1860s onwards, the setting up of a permanent British penal colony and the subsequent arrival of immigrant settlers and indentured labourers, mainly from the Indian subcontinent greatly reduced their numbers, to a low of 19 individuals in 1961. Since then their numbers have rebounded somewhat, reaching 52 by 2010. However, by 1994 seven of the ten tribes were already extinct, and divisions among the surviving tribes (Jeru, Bo and Cari) had effectively ceased to exist due to intermarriage and resettlement to a much smaller territory on Strait Island. Some of them also intermarried with Karen (Burmese) and Indian settlers. Hindi increasingly serves as their primary language, and is the only language for around half of them. The last known speaker of the Bo language died in 2010 at age 85. About half of the population now speak what may be considered a new language (a kind of mixed or koine language) of the Great Andamanese family, based mainly on Aka-Jeru. This modified version has been called "Present Great Andamanese" by some scholars, but also may be referred to simply as "Jero" or "Great Andamanese".

The Ongan languages survive mainly because of the greater isolation of the peoples who speak them. This isolation has been reinforced by an outright hostility towards outsiders and extreme reluctance to engage in contact with them by South Andamanese tribes, particularly the Sentinelese and Jarawa. The Sentinelese have been so resistant that their language remains entirely unknown to outsiders.


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