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UNT Insider | August 2008 Issue | Shobhana Chelliah

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UNT linguist documenting language spoken by minority population in India

From a UNT News Service press release


Shobhana Chelliah

Shobhana Chelliah

Many of the more than 1 billion people residing in India define themselves by the language they speak, with speakers of the more dominant of the nation's 600 languages unflatteringly calling speakers of other languages "tribes," says UNT linguist Shobhana Chelliah.


"The idea is that these speakers and languages are insignificant, and have previously been ignored in the national scene," says Chelliah, a native of India. "But documenting each language and realizing that each language has something to contribute to the nation's culture is very important for the general population."


Chelliah, an associate professor of linguistics and technical communication, has received a National Science Foundation grant of $89,803 to create a searchable computer archive of texts in the endangered language of Lamkang. The language is spoken primarily in one region of Manipur, a state in northeastern India that borders the country of Myanmar, also known as Burma. It also is spoken in Bangladesh.


An estimated 10,000 people worldwide are native speakers of Lamkang. In Manipur, it is the language of an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people far fewer than the nearly 1.5 million people who speak Manipur's major language, Manipuri, also known as Meithei, Chelliah says.


Chelliah notes that Lamkang is not disappearing in the same manner as endangered Native American languages, which traditionally have not been taught to younger generations of Native Americans.


Lamkang still has its native speakers, but "the problem is that it's increasingly being mixed with Manipuri," Chelliah says.


"In the past, native Lamkang speakers lived in an isolated, agricultural environment and rarely mixed with outsiders. Now, a lot of young people leave for jobs in cities in Manipur, and the language spoken in the schools is Manipuri. This has caused younger people to substitute a word in Manipuri for the same word in Lamkang."


She compares the Lamkang language of today to Spanglish, a mix of Spanish and English spoken primarily by the Hispanic and Anglo population of the U.S. living near the Mexican border, as well as the population of Mexico living near the U.S. border.


Chelliah decided to study Lamkang after first researching Manipuri. In 2005, she published a study of Manipuri naming practices in "Anthropological Linguistics." She also is the author of A Grammar of Meithei and editor of Meithei Texts.


A linguist with the Language Cell of the Manipur government's Directorate of Education, Harimohon Thaunaojam, was her main contact in India for research on Manipuri and also had written a thesis on Lamkang. Chelliah received a grant from UNT's Charn Uswachoke International Development Fund to bring Thaunaojam and a faculty member at Manipuri University to campus last year to work with her graduate linguistic field methods class. The development fund, named for a Thailand native who earned a graduate degree from UNT, supports faculty and staff projects that focus on the world and contribute to international exchanges, curriculum innovations and other activities that enhance UNT's international endeavors.


Chelliah decided to work with Thaunaojam on her Lamkang research. The archive will include 25 hours of written and audio files of monologues, folktales, conversations and other naturally-occurring speech patterns that represent a wide variety of interactions between native speakers of Lamkang.


"It is in these natural interactions that the true structure of the language is revealed," Chelliah says.


Texts in the database, she says, will be presented with interlinear translation, with sentences broken into phrases and phrases into words.


Chelliah notes that although Lamkang is being mixed with Manipuri, texts of the language still exist, including a version of the New Testament and local laws.


"The purpose of creating a database of the language is to provide a tool for anthropologists and linguists studying Manipur, as well as native speakers. Lamkang schools could also take the folktales from the database and use them in textbooks," she says.


She also will create a Lamkang language web site as part of the project. Visitors to the site will click on Lamkang utterances to hear the speech and the corresponding transcription and translation. The web site will make project materials available to native speakers and linguists around the world.

Chelliah says she hopes her research on the language will contribute to efforts to preserve Manipur's other minority languages. The region may have as many 30 languages, many of which are spoken by only a few thousand people.


"The Lamkang speakers I worked with are grateful that someone has taken an interest in preserving their language," Chelliah says. "Indian scholars are also realizing that to really get a picture of the history of the region, they need to understand all the languages of the region, big and small."


UNT News Service Press Release
Nancy Kolsti can be reached at nkolsti@unt.edu.

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August 2008

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