We, a group of five relatives, were to make an informal call at the residence of Shri Lokam Tumung, the headman of Kharang Kong, a Tangsa village while we were on a visit to Margherita, Ledo and other places in Assam. Actually, our host was ready for us after he got our phone call that we were on our way. We also met two other chiefs there, namely, Shri Yanim Mochang and Shri Kamsat Loongvi. There was one more person who also looked like a chief with the usual headgear, a colorful lungi and other bits of tribal haute couture, although he looked a little different from the rest. His ruddy white complexion in a much younger body betrayed him. He was no other than the Australian linguist Dr Stephen Morey. Dr Morey completed his Ph.D. on the Tai language of Assam in 2002. Ever since he has been engaged in the study of the languages of the Northeast of India.
We exchanged gifts. The tea served to us all was delicious. While munching biscuits and other savories, we abandoned European civility and put personal questions to Stephen; he responded to without taking offence. Yes, he was married. He did not cook, as his host would not allow him to do so. He spoke Tangsa only with the inmates of the house as well as with other villagers. He hopped on a bicycle from one village to the other dressed like a local Tangsa man.
We asked him about his work. He gave us his card and a leaflet, which DOBES produced. DOBES stands for Dokumentation Bedrohter Sprachen; the acronym may not be precise, which means Documentation of Endangered Languages. Tangsa, Tai and Singpho are named in the leaflet among other extinct languages, in all about fifty.
I asked him questions, which were more in anthropology than in linguistics. Since these subjects correlate, Stephen was able to answer them precisely and with authority.
The word Tangsa is a derivative from the word Tong that means high land. ‘Cha’ or ‘Sa’ means sons of the high land. Like the Ahoms, they migrated from the South-West China province of Yunan through Burma and settled in the Dehing-Patkai region in the 13th century. While discussing about the Tangsa, Stephen casually mentioned the Tai-Ahom language and the research that is going on.
Later, after my return to UK, I checked and found that Dr. Stephen Moray is the Director of the Ahom Dictionary Resource Project. Bar Amar (1785) is the most important Ahom language reference source. There are several versions of this invaluable document and the version considered to be the most reliable is now preserved carefully at the Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies (DHAS) at Guwahati. The manuscript is being edited with up-to-date annotations by Yehom Buragohain who is in charge of the Ahom Section in DHAS.
A veteran Ahom scholar, Junaram Sangbun Phukan of Patsako, Sivasagar, Assam possesses a sasi bark manuscript that contains nearly 3,000 entries. This is considered to be more accessible to scholars and is being now photographed, transcribed and translated under the aegis of the CRCL (Centre for Research in Communication and Language), at the Stirling University. The Department of Linguistics of the Gauhati University is also associated with this project.
A more detailed account of the project can be found on this site:
sealang.net/archives/ahom that explains why research on the Ahom language is significant. Not long ago there was an outcry in the Assam press that hundreds of manuscripts in DHAS’s archives were decaying for lack of expert care. Another criticism was that the progress in linguistic research in the Northeast had been tardy. One can only hope that things are now getting better.
Bhuban Baruah, UK