Dimasa: a little known language of India

Today, I am writing this post just to put on record for posterity the reference to my work on a little known language of India. I submitted my thesis entitled, ‘A Contrastive analysis of English and Dimasa Phonology in a Generative Framework’ to the University of Calcutta in 1983. Soon after the submission of the thesis, my guide, Dr. Suhas Chatterjee, the then Khaira Professor of Indian Linguistics of the University of Calcutta expired and I became an orphan and my thesis submitted to the Calcutta University for evaluation became nobody’s business. After running from pillar to post for the evaluation of my thesis and the viva, I got my Ph.D degree in 1991. Those eight years of my life was a nightmare, full of agony and despair, and the inordinate delay of the great Calcutta University changed the course of my life. When I got my Ph.D. it was too late, it had no value for me for my career advancement. I was doomed.
Looking back, I have no regret. I pity the University that ruined my life, but I feel pride in the fact that I did a pioneering work on a little known language of India. As the internet was not known in those days, google is not aware of my work. When I read a dissertation submitted to the University of Florida by a young Indian scholar who worked on the tonal features of this language but did not refer to my work lying in the cold storage of the library of Calcutta University, I felt amused.

The book, ‘Indian Doctoral Dissertations in English Studies’ by M S kushwaah and Kamal Nseem published by Atlantic Publishers, NewDelhi in 2000, however, mentions my work. But who cares?  As a note on this book admits, “Indian Research In English Studies Has A Long And Rich Tradition. But, Unfortunately, it Has Failed To Make Any Notable Impact On The Academic World. This Is Largely Due To The Fact That Most Of The Indian Doctoral Dissertations In English Studies Lie Buried In University Libraries.”

Well, no more of this personal narrative! Let’s have a look at this little known language which gave me sustenance during my youthful days. My thesis on Dimasa is a response to my love for this language and is a testimony of my admiration for a vibrant community whom I loved, respected and adored during the period 1975 to 1983. I worked on this language for eight years… a little known work on a little known language!

My work was not just a conrastive  analysis of the phonological patterns of two languages, the ultimate objective was English language pedagogy. How to teach English to the marginalized pupils of a tribal community whose  mother tongue  was in the spoken form till then. These pupils of  a community of one lakh members spoke a language which was not used even at the primary level. Teachers who  could not understand a single word of their language used to teach them English. The /p/ sound of their language, for example,  is an aspirated sound  word initially, just as it is the case with the English  /p/ sound. The English  teachers speaking Assamese or Bengali had no clue to the phonological patterns of the mother tongue of their pupils and taught them English as if their mother tongues were Assamese or Bengali. In these two languages, there is a phonemic distinction between /k/ and /kh/, but in English as well as in Dimasa, the distinction between /k/ and /kh/ is allophonic, not ‘phonemic.’ Teaching English to the ‘doubly disadvantaged’ tribal pupils at the cost of their own language!
Dimasa, a branch of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, is spoken by the Dimasa people of Dima Hasao (North Cachar Hills), Cachar, Karbi Anglong and Nagaon districts of Assam, India. This language is one of the oldest languages spoken in the north-eastern part of India. The word Dimasa etymologically means “Son of the big river” (Di- Water, ma- suffix for great, sa-sons). According to the 2001 Census of India report, there are 110000 native speakers of this little known Indian language.
According to the classification given in the Linguistic Survey of India, Dimasa belongs to the Boro sub-section of the Boro-Naga section under the Assam Burma group of the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan speech family. To quote from ‘The Linguistic Survey of India: “What is called the hill dialect of Kachari is spoken in the North Kachar Hills and in a small tract in the south of Nowgong. This is commonly said to be a dialect of Bara, or at least it is contended that two are common dialects of one language. No doubt, at one time these two speeches were identical, but in the course of centuries, they have developed on such different lines that I prefer to call Hill Kachari, or as its speakers call themselves, Dimasa, the language of the people of the great river, a separate language of the Bodo group.”
The Dimasa Speech Community is a section of the large tribal group which goes by the name of Bodo Kachari and whose members are found scattered all along the Brahmaputra valley of Assam, parts of Arunachal, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura and West Bengal in India. Some speakers of the Bodo group are also found in the north eastern region of Bangladesh. The major concentration of the Dimasas is in the autonomous district of  Dima Hasao (North Cachar Hills) of Assam where they constitute more than 40% of the total population of the district. Till 1961 the Dimasa was treated as a sub tribe of the Kachari Tribe. In 1961 Census they were grouped as a separate tribe. They are listed in a special schedule issued by the Govt. of India and thereby they are entitled to special Govt. protection and constitutional benefits.
It is estimated that Dimasa branched off from the ancestral common language about one thousand years back. In its present form it is completely different from Boro spoken in the districts of Goalpara, Darrang, Sonitpur, Kokrajhar and Kamrup districts of Assam. Endle (1911) says, “Inter-marriage between the two races (the Dimasas and the Boros) is apparently quite unknown, indeed, the barrier of language would of itself probably go far to prevent such inter-marriage for although the two languages (Dimasa and Boro) have much in common, yet in their modern form they differ from each other nearly as much as Italian does from Spanish and members of the two sections of the race meeting each other for the first time would almost certainly fail to understand each other’s speech.”
Dimasa has three dialects spoken in the entire Dimasa speaking region of Assam. They are as follows: the Hill dialect, the Burman dialect and the Hojai dialect. The Hill dialect is spoken in the districts of Dima Hasao (North Cachar Hills) and Karbi Anglong, the Burman dialect is spoken in the plains of Cachar and the Hojai dialect is spoken in the district of Nagaon.
There are sub-dialectal difference in the Hill dialect. Dimasa as spoken by the educated native speakers of the community at important places like Haflong, Maibang and Diphu has been taken as the standard form of this language. It may be pointed out that the Hill dialect and the Burman dialect are the two contenders for the position of the standard variety of this language. The process of standardization has been going on and Dimasa is likely to evolve an acceptable standard form eventually.
(a) Anybody interested in the grammar of this language, can read Dimasa Grammar by F. Jacquesson at http://brahmaputra.ceh.vjf.cnrs.fr/bdd/IMG/pdf/Dimasa_Grammar-2.pdf.
(c) The first book on Dimasa written by Mr. Dundus in 1885 is available in the National Library of Calcutta.
Hoping that someday someone may be interested in studying this language, I am citing  the following resources.
1. Burlings,Rrobins. 1959. “Proto-Bodo”, Language, Vol. XXXV, No. 3.
2. Bhattacharya, P.C. 1977. A Descriptive analysis of the Boro Language, Gauhati.
3. Endle, S. 1911. The Kacharis, London.
4. Grierson, G.A. (ed). 1903. The Linguistic Survey of India, Vol. III, part II, Calcutta.
5. Shafer, Robert, 1955. “Classification of the Sino-Tibetan Languages”, Word, Vol.II, No.1.