Northeast India has always been regarded as a treasure hold for researchers from different fields due to its linguistic and cultural diversity. It is home to more than 70% of the total languages of India and we find four language families in this area, namely, Indo-Aryan, Austro-Asiatic, Tai-Kadai and Tibeto-Burman. In this article, the authors identify three factors that contribute to the endangerment of the numerous dialects and varieties of Ao and Khasi, respectively spoken in the states of Nagaland and Meghalaya in India. The beginnings for all these factors may be traced back to colonial India.

Language situation

Nagaland was the first state to be created on non-linguistic lines. Approximately, 50% of the population speak Chungli, 40% speak Mongsen and the remaining 10 % speak Changki. Since Chungli-Ao is the standard, speakers of Mongsen and Changki are required to learn the standard. However, even within these dialects, variations can be found both across and within villages. Meghalaya is home to two main tribes: The Khasi-Jaintias and the Garos. With respect to Khasi, various scholars have tried to identify the number of dialects and varieties. Scholars have also shown that Khasi and Pnar, spoken by the Jaintias, may be distinct languages.

In both these regions, the language situation is very diverse and complex. In both the states, English is used in all official domains, including education. It is the medium of instruction and is also taught as a subject in schools and colleges. This has led to English being the language of social prestige and economic gain; a common phenomenon observed in many regions and which needs no elaboration. This has had a devastating effect on Ao and Khasi, with the younger generation often preferring the use of English. The domain of these languages is also limited to homes, especially in urban areas.

Standardization of languages

A standard language may be defined as the variety that is used by a speech community “that serves the multiple and complex communicative needs of a speech community”. standardization of a language involves four stages: selection, acceptance, codification and elaboration. It can be assumed that native speakers had probably not much say in the selection and acceptance of a variety as the standard in the case of the Khasis and the Aos, because the place of settlement of the missionaries decided on the standard.

Standardization of Khasi

There were many attempts to put Khasi into writing, with a number of failures. The first attempt could be traced back to 1824 when Alexander Burgh Lish translated the Bible called Khasee New Testament in Shella dialect. This attempt proved to be a failure since not all Khasi speakers understood this variety. Another unsuccessful attempt was when William Carey, the then British missionary sent Alexander Burgh Lish to to translate the New Testament into Khasi in Bengali script.

Thomas Jones and his wife arrived at Sohra (Cherrapunjee) in 1841 and immediately started the linguistic field work and contributed to the development of the Khasi writing system by translating scriptures and religious literature books into Khasi. This is how Khasi language adopted its standardized form.

Standardization of Chungli-Ao

The Christian Missionaries, when they came to Naga Hills, decided on the use of the roman script to translate the bible and hymns into Ao. As a result of the Clarks settling in Molung, the language spoken in this village became the language of the translations. The standard form of Chungli-Ao which is spoken and used today has moved away from the Molung variety, developing its own characteristics and can no longer be identified with one single variety. The standard is called Aoo, literally meaning, the language of the Aos. As Ben Wati (2011: 6) writes, “But the language we speak and write in this age is neither pure Chungli, Mongsen but Assamese, Hindi and English, all mixed together, forming Aoo.”

Endangered Languages

Today, a large number of languages are at various levels of endangerment; and a number of projects have been initiated to document and revitalize these languages. UNESCO uses nine factors to measure the levels of endangerment which will now be used to asses standard Ao and its dialects as well as standard Khasi and its dialects.

Status of Chungli-Ao

In Nagaland, Ao is one of the 16 recognized tribes and hence the language, Chungli, is recognized to be taught in schools. Based on UNESCO’s document on language vitality and endangerment, we assess standard Chungli and its dialects against the nine factors (shown in tables 1, 2 and 3 shown below). Based on the factor of Intergenerational language transmission, standard Chungli and its dialects may be considered to be safe yet threatened (score of 5-) because most Aos speak the standard and within the village, the dialect is used in most domains.

Considering the proportion of speakers within the total population, standard Chungli may be graded 4 as a majority of Aos speak the language. However, the dialects are graded 2 (severely endangered) or 1 (critically endangered) since very few speak the dialects. For the fourth factor, Shifts in domains of language use, standard Chungli may be considered to be of universal use as it is the language that is used in most domains while the dialects have multilingual parity.

For factors 5 to 7, standard Chungli is graded 5 each since this is widely used in different domains and there is an established orthography with developing literature. Chungli is also the officially recognized language of the Aos by the state government and is offered in schools and colleges as a subject. However, the dialects score 0 for factors 5 and 6 as it is not used in new domains nor is there an orthography to develop literature. For factor 7, we grade the dialects with 1 as there is no official recognition or protection. For the last factor, dealing with the type and quality of documentation, standard Ao may be graded 5 ‘superlative’ as there has been a constant flow of language materials. However, no materials exist for the dialects.

Based on the above factors, it is clear that while standard Chungli-Ao is in a much better position in terms of language endangerment (declared vulnerable by UNESCO), its dialects are not. The dialects are critically endangered and this is further compounded by English.

Status of Khasi

In 2012, UNESCO listed Khasi as an endangered language, and subsequently declared that Khasi language is no longer in danger and is considered as safe. However, A look at tables 1, 2 and 3 will show that the situation of Khasi and its dialects/varieties is not very different from that of Ao. With respect to intergenerational transmission, Khasi and its dialects are considered as stable yet threatened with a score of ‘5-’.

Factors 2 and 3 are complicated given the language situation in this area. While it would be safe to assume from the total number of Khasi speakers that they are able to use standard Khasi and hence is considered safe, the number of speakers of dialects and varieties varies. For factor 3, standard Khasi is graded 3 but the dialects are graded 1 or 2 as the proportion of speakers to the total is a minority.

For factor 4, standard Khasi may be considered to be of universal use as it is the language that is used in most domains while the dialects have multilingual parity. For factors 5 to 7, standard Khasi is graded 5 each since this is widely used in many old as well as new domains and there is an established orthography with developing literature. The dialects score 0 to 2 for factors 5 and 6 as some dialects are in the process of establishing orthography while some dialects do not. For factor 7, we grade the dialects with 1 as there is no official recognition or protection. With regard to attitudes, the situation is slightly different from Ao, with many members supporting language maintenance, whether it is the standard or a dialect. For factor 9, standard Khasi is graded 5 while the dialects are graded 0 or 1 since some dialect have grammatical sketches.

While the situation of Khasi and its dialects is slightly better than that of Ao, many Khasi dialects and varieties are in danger as it is the standard which has official recognition and hence, development is centred on the standard.

FactorsIntergenerational Language TransmissionAbsolute number of speakersProportion of speakers within the total population
Ao5- : stable yet threatened200,0004: nearly all speak the language
Dialects /varieties5- : stable yet threatened200 to 10,0002: Severely endangered 1: Critically endangered  
Khasi5- : stable yet threatened1,128, 5753: A majority speak the language
Dialects/varieties5- : stable yet threatened6,000 – 243,0002: severely endangered 1: critically endangered
Table 1: Comparison of Ao, Khasi, its dialects and varieties for factors 1, 2 and 3.

FactorsShifts in domains of language useResponse to New Domains and MediaAvailability of Materials for Language Education and Literacy
Ao5: universal use5: Dynamic5: There is an established orthography and a literacy tradition.
dialects /varieties4: Multilingual parity0: inactive0: No orthography is available to the community.
Khasi5: universal use5: Dynamic5: There is an established orthography and a literacy tradition
Dialects/varieties4: Multilingual parity2: Coping 1: Minimal 0: Inactive2: Written materials exist, but they may only be useful for some members of the community; 1: Some material being written; 0: No orthography is available to the community.
Table 2: Comparison of Ao, Khasi, its dialects and varieties for factors 4, 5 and 6

FactorsGovernmental and Institutional Language Attitudes and Policies, Including Official Status and UseCommunity Members’ Attitudes towards Their Own LanguageType and Quality of Documentation
Ao5: equal support3: Many members support language maintenance.5: superlative
Dialects /varieties1: Forced assimilation1: Only a few members support language maintenance0: no material exists
Khasi5: equal support3: Many members support language maintenance5: Superlative
Dialects/varieties1: Forced assimilation3: Many members support language maintenance1: There are only a few grammatical sketches, short word-lists and fragmentary texts. 0: no material exists
Table 3: Comparison of Ao, Khasi, its dialects and varieties for factors 7, 8 and 9.

Effects of the Colonial Past

The rise of English can be traced to the British policy of having English as an official language in the colonial period, and the states implementing it in their government policies. While this was perhaps due to a lack of other options for the states, it has had a lasting effect on the local languages.

After the British annexation of the Khasi-Jaintia hills (1834, 1835) and the Ao region (1889), these areas became a part of the Assam province, where Bengali and later Assamese (1873) was the official language along with English. Hence, English and Assamese were predominantly used in the Khasi and Naga hills.

Even in the post-colonial era, English was given quite the importance. While Constitution of India took a keen interest on other regional languages, the linguistic scenario of the North eastern states is complicated. Many of the minority languages of Northeast India are not listed in the list of languages of India. The promotion of English and Nagamese along with the standardized languages of Khasi and ChungliAo by the British during the colonial period and later by the state governments, have today resulted in the endangerment of the different dialects and varieties in this region.


There exists an explicit dialectal endangerment of Khasi and Ao as a result of the standard language. Such a situation is by no means an exception as it is attested in many regions, particularly in Northeast India. Sallabank (2010) lists four causes of language endangerment: natural catastrophes, war and genocide, overt repression and cultural/political/economic dominance. All of these are relevant factors leading to endangerment of its dialects/varieties that need to be addressed, if we want to protect these languages, dialects and varieties.

This article is authored by T. Temsunungsang, a linguist with special interest in the Tibeto-burman languages of Northeast India and Curiously Bareh who was an Assistant Professor at the Central University of Kerala.

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