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Language and Cultural Preservation in Northeast India

Gwendolyn Lowes - That indigenous languages and cultures are disappearing at an alarming rate around the globe has been noted by many (e.g. Krauss 1992, Hinton et al. 2002). Perhaps nowhere else in the world is this loss more profound than in Northeast India. With five language families (Tai-Kadai, Tibeto-Burman, Indo-Aryan, Dravidan, Austroasiatic) represented in well over one hundred languages amongst its seven states, Northeast India could well be the most linguistically diverse region in the world. Many linguists today see it as their obligation to assist in preventing this great loss to mankind by documenting and describing languages and working with communities to preserve and/or revitalize their languages.

As a linguist, I first became interested in language preservation in Northeast India through my affiliation with the Aienla Project, a US-based 501c (3) non-profit dedicated to cultural preservation in Northeast India. The aim of the Aienla Project is to work with communities in Northeast India who fear the loss of their culture and language to assist in documenting and preserving them. At present, the Aienla Project is working on an online museum with photographs of numerous cultural artifacts from some of the villages in Northeast India. My professional research interests drew me to study the languages in the area and I have become especially interested in the Tibeto-Burman languages of Arunachal Pradesh.

I have had the opportunity to visit Guwahati on a few occasions and this past February I had the great pleasure of visiting western Arunachal Pradesh for the first time.  Arunachal Pradesh is home to numerous tribes who speak a wide variety of languages. In Itanagar and Seppa I met communities of Sulung speakers, who speak a Tibeto-Burman language of great interest to linguists because of its apparent divergence from related languages. In these areas and in villages in- between we met many Nishi speakers and learned about the Donyi-Polo religion, besides utilizing   the opportunity to visit a Donyi-Polo celebration. In East and West Kameng we also learned a little bit about the Hruso, Bugun and Sherdukpen languages. Arunachal Pradesh is also home to the Monpa tribe, who speak a number of disparate languages. For example, Tawang Monpa is spoken by Monpas in Tawang and surrounding areas and Dirang Monpa is a different language altogether, sometimes referred to as “Tshangla” by linguists (e.g. Andvik 1999, 2003). There are other “Monpa” languages which may be entirely different from these two as well, though otherwise they have a similar, shared culture.

My experience in Arunachal Pradesh and Northeast India in general has affirmed my perception of the pristine beauty in the region. Each place I have visited reflects a wild splendor and each community of people I came to know seem to be the kindest and most generous in this world. Indeed, it will be shame if these unique languages and cultures are lost. Along with the loss of language and culture mankind misses out on the unique essence of wisdom embodied within these languages and culture. Loss of language and culture is tantamount to loss of human knowledge, and perhaps nowhere else in the world the loss would be as profound as in Northeast India.
May 2007


Andvik, Erik. 2003. Tshangla. The Sino-Tibetan languages, ed. by Graham Thurgood and Randy LaPolla, 439-455. London/New York: Routledge 1999.
Tshangla grammar. Eugene, Oregon: University of Oregon PhD Dissertation.
Krauss, Michael. 1992. The world’s languages in crisis.  Hale et al.  Endangered Languages. Language. 68:1-42.
Hinton, Leanne, Matt Vera and Nancy Steele. 2002. How to Keep Your Language Alive. California: Heydey Books.

(Photo of Author)   Gwendolyn Lowes is a PhD student in Linguistics at the University of
Oregon, USA and a director of the Aienla Project. Her main interests
in linguistics stem from the field of Field Linguistics because she
strongly believes theories of language can only be as accurate as
the data from which they produced.