Tribal Languages Bangladesh has over forty tribes most of whom live in Rajshahi, Chittagong, Chittagong Hill Tracts, greater Mymensingh, Sylhet, Patuakhali and Barguna. With some exceptions, 2-3 million tribal people speak their own languages. The well-known tribal languages are Chakma, Garo, Khasia, Magh, Manipuri, Munda, Oraon, and Santali. Other tribal languages are Kachhari, Kuki, Tipra, Malpahadi, Mikir, Shadri and Hajang.
Over 100,000 people in Rangpur and Sylhet speak Oraon. The highest number of Oraon speaking people live in Rangpur and the lowest number in Sylhet. The Khasias, who live in the hilly and forest areas of Sylhet division, speak Oyar. A small number of Sinteng and Lalang tribes also live in these areas and they speak their own languages.
The Garos, living in greater Mymensingh and in the hilly Garo region of Meghalaya in India, speak hilly Garo or Achik Kata. Some Garo-speaking people also live in Rangpur, Sunamganj and in Sripur of Dhaka district. Over 300,000 people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts speak Chakma. The Magh language, which originated in Arakan, is spoken by over 200,000 people in Bangladesh. The Manipuri language was first spoken in Srimangal about 250 years ago. At one time, it was also spoken at Tejgaon in Dhaka, Durgapur, and Kasba in Comilla. Currently, about 50,000 people in the districts of Habiganj, Maulvi Bazar, Sylhet and Sunamganj speak Manipuri.
About 15,000 to 20,000 people in Bangladesh speak Munda. The highest number of Santali speaking people live in the northern region. More than 50,000 people in north Mymensingh and Tangail speak Hajang and some Kachharis speak their own language. In Chittagong and the Hill Tracts the oldest tribes are those who speak Kuki, Tipra and Magh. In the Hill Tracts about 2,000 Murong and Riyang speak tribal Tipra. At one time a large number of Tipra-speaking people used to live in the Lalmai hills of Comilla. About 9,000 people in Bangladesh speak Malpahadi. Some people in Sylhet speak Mikir. Nearly 50,000 people of the tribes of Malo, Mahato, Ganju, Kolkamar and some oraon speak Sadri.
Despite the existence of these tribal languages, quite a few tribes have forgotten their own languages and now speak only Bangla. Many Tipras in the Hill Tracts and Chittagong speak Bangla. Some tribal people from other areas like Hadi, Pator, Koch, rajbangshi and bedey also speak Bangla. In all, more than 300,000 indigenous people speak Bangla fluently. Some tribal groups like bagdis and Bindis speak their own languages but these are very close to Bangla.
In terms of philology, prosody, folklore, idioms and phonology, the Chakma language is very close to Bangla. All the phonemes of Bangla are available in the Chakma language. This is also generally true of other tribal languages. But due to lack of written structure and dearth of students, no tribal language is part of the curriculum at schools. Educated tribal people use their own languages but write in the bangla script. It has not been possible to introduce Roman script in any tribal language. Except for Chakma and Magh, no other tribal language has a script.
Almost all tribal languages have rich folk literatures, consisting of poems and songs, fairy tales and legends of their past nomadic life. There are plenty of narrative plays, similar to maimansingha gitika, in the Magh, Chakma, Khasia and Garo languages. The folk tales of the tribal languages have similarities with those in Bangla. For instance, some Garo folk tales are almost identical to the tales in Maimansingha Gitika. The ballads in some of the languages of the Himalayan foothills are similar to those of Bangla folk literature. Their linguistic aspects are similar to those of early Bangla. The rhymes in Bangla and the tribal languages are similar in subject, rhythm and vocabulary. Puzzles in Oraon and Bangla are similar in character as well as in words and rhythms to Bangla ones. Lullabies in both languages are also very similar.
There are many tribes who are multilingual. Garos and Khasias are bilingual, that is to say, capable of speaking both in Bangla and in their own language. But santals and the Oraons cannot speak each other's languages. There are some other tribes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts similarly placed. In such cases they use Bangla as a lingua franca. Munda, Santali, Khasia, Garo, Oraon and Manipuri languages are very well organised and orderly, testifying to a developed past. Garo and Chakma languages have slight Chinese tone. There is a basic similarity between the Garo and Magh languages as both tribes have the same origins. Munda, Santali, Kol, Khasia, Garo and Kurukh are interrelated languages. Munda and Kurukh are regarded as the same language as the syntax and verbs of both are almost identical. Munda, Santali and Kol languages are even more ancient than the Aryan languages of India. Not all Bangla words have come from the Aryan languages. Most, in fact, have originated from Munda. Munda has also had considerable influence on Bangla's idioms, phonology, morphology, philology and syntax. The tribal languages belong to either Austro-Asian, Indo-Chinese, Chinese-Tibetan, Tibetan-Burman or Dravidian families. An admixture of these languages created a pidgin language in ancient Bango-Magadh which had Munda at its centre. This established the initial foundation of Bangla or the East-Indic family of languages. The tribal languages thus contributed immensely to the formation of Bangla. Some of the main tribal languages are described briefly in what follows:
Chakma language is more the most advanced of the tribal languages. Some old puthis are extant in this language. One of them, Chadigang Chara Pala was written on palm leaf. This puthi reveals that the Chakmas originated in Nepal and after roaming about in several Southeast Asian countries came to old Burma and Arakan before settling in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Their original name was 'Tsak', in the Arakani language they were called 'Chak', in the dialect of Chittagong 'Chamua', and in the Chakma language 'Chakma'.
The alphabets of the Chakma language are similar to the alphabets of Thailand's Ksmer, Annam Laos, Cambodia, Syam and South Burma. Tara, the scripture of the Chakmas, is written in the Burmese script. When spoken, the Chakma alphabet has a soft sound and is generally articulated from the bottom of the tongue. It is primarily based on sound and has a Chinese tone. In many respects (including philology, prosody, folklore, idioms and phonology) it is close to Bangla. All sounds of bangla language are also available in the Chakma language. Efforts are now being made to write the Chakma language in the Burmese or Myanmar script. A book of primary reading in Chakma has also been published from Rangamati. Its author is Nayanram Chakma.
There are many songs written in the Chakma language. These have been composed in colloquial Chakma. The language of the book Gojhen Lama written by the Chakma poet Shivcharan in 1777 is almost like Bangla. Its introductory song is similar to those in purbabanga-gitika. Radhaman Dhanapadi and Chadigang Chara Pala are two important lyrical poems. The metres used in Chakmas and Bangla verse are almost similar. The syntax of the two languages are also identical. The numbers in Chakma language are pronounced as in Bangla. The minus symbol in Chakma is called 'farak' and the sign of multiplication is called 'duna'. The other symbols are the same in both languages. In the Chakma language s (anusvar) is called 'ek fuda', t (bisarga) is called 'dvifuda' and u (chandrabindu) is called 'chanfuda'.
Chakma folk literature is quite rich. It has many folklores and fables. A traditional folk song of the Chakmas is 'ubhagit'. Proverbs and traditional sayings are a unique feature of the Chakma language. These sayings mainly centre on farming, animals and birds, nature, society, religion and the mystery of the human body. These sayings in the Chakma language are called 'dagwa kadha'. In conjugation and declension present day Chakma language is close to Bangla, Assamese, Rajbangshi, Garo, Sanghma and Chittagonian. This language has 6 regional forms. Within the Chakmas different clans have their distinct dialects.
Garo language the Garo language is, undoubtedly, an unwritten language, albeit an ancient Aryan language. This is a very rich language and full of proverbs, idioms, songs, rhymes, oral narratives, folk-tales, palagan, etc. This language bears most of the history of the Garo people and their religious and cultural codes. Its vocabulary contains words borrowed from many different languages. The syntax, semantics, positions of cases and inflections, verbs and transformations of words in this language are all very systematic and resemble those of other developed languages. It is likely that this language has a long history. Some believe that the Garo language is a mixed form of Bangla and Assamese as it resembles both languages. Actually, it is a primary language.
Different dialects are found in the Garo language since the Garos are scattered in different regions of different districts. The Christian missionaries introduced Roman letters into Garo language and attempted to invent a script similar to the Chinese pictograph and apply them but without any success. The Garo language can be written in Bangla script without any difficulty. Now the Garo language is the family language of the Garo, but Bangla is their official language.
Khasia language is part of the Austro-Asiatic group of languages. In this language the tendency is to pronounce s as h, something also noticeable in some Bangla dialects. It has no alphabets nor is it written. In this language a village is called puvji. The Khasia houses are clustered and that accounts for the name of punji. khasia has many dialects, although Linggam, Pnad and Wayar are the major ones. Pnad means hilly. Limgam is spoken in areas close to the Garo Hills and Pnad is spoken in a wide area on the east of the Khasia-Jaintia Hills. Limgam indicates Garo Hills and Wayar means valley.
At one time the Khasia language used to be written in the Bangla script. A part of the bible has been translated into Khasia and written in the Bangla script. Currently, the Khasia language of the Cherapunji region is being written in the Roman script at the initiative of the Christian missionaries of the Indian State of Meghalaya where it is the medium of instruction up to the high school level. This has however not been possible in Bangladesh as the Khasia population is small and live in scattered localities.
Magh langauge the language of the Magh people; a spoken form of Arakanese. It belongs to the Tibeto-Burman family, but also contains some elements of the Austro-Asian family. Chinese, old Burmese and Mizo languages are related to it, but its closset links are with Burmese.
Magh is a hybrid of Arakanese and Bangla. Once upon a time a repressive Burmese king forced about two-thirds of the Arakanese people to flee to the Chittagong region of Bangladesh. The intermixing of the two ethnic groups led to the development of the Magh language. The influence of Burmese is strong as Burmese was the lingua franca of the Arakan region. The Magh alphabet is known as jha. Each letter is named after a part of the human body. The letters resemble the pictorial Chinese alphabet.
A section of the Maghs in Arakan and Bangladesh speak Bangla. Baruas are basically Maghs but they speak Bangla. pali is the religious language of the Maghs. As a result, many Pali words have found their way into the Magh language, albeit, occasionally in distorted form: for instance, bhiksu, nibban, bihar, bhabna, dukkha, bassa (barsa). Some words in both languages are the same in pronunciation and meaning, for example, adya, madhya, upadhi and apatti etc. Some common words, however, differ in pronunciation and meaning. For instance, in the Magh language, grown-up children are called chogri, but in Bangla they are called chhokra and chhokri. Some Magh words relating to kinship are similar to Bangla words, though some other words differ somewhat in meaning. In the local dialect, for example, baba and baji are words for father. In Magh, however, baji means uncle. The Maghs call a little girl ma, but in Bangla ma means mother, though a daughter is often endearingly called ma.
The Magh language has a limited number of words to mean relations. As a result, the same words are applied with derivatives to denote different relations. Many words relating to society, organisation, agriculture and domestic matters are common not only to Magh, Bangla and other tribal languages but also to many Southeast Asian languages. For example, the Magh words pida, turung (trunk), labgi, dhuti and cheroot are pronounced in Bangla as pida / pidi, turang, langi / lungi, dhuti and churut. In the Burmese and Magh languages, the names of days, months and numbers are the same.
The Magh language does not have a creative literature but is rich in elements of folk literature such as tales, riddles, fables, ballads, ghost stories and stories of Buddhist kings and queens. The Maghs are very fond of listening to tales and songs, and, during the lean season, spend whole nights in story telling, singing, dancing and participating in paoye, plays acted in the style of Bangla jatra. Some stories have been written in the Burmese script.
Manipuri language is about 3,500 years old and belongs to the Kuki-Chin group of the Tibeto-Burmese stream of the Mongoloid family of languages. Up to the middle of the 19th century this language was known as Moitoi after the name of a tribe. In the original Moitoi there were 18 alphabets. Other alphabets were added later. Its alphabets, like the Burmese-Arakanese alphabets, are pronounced in accordance with the limbs of a human body. Its alphabets are similar to the Tibetan family. The Manipuri language began to be written in the Bangla script when vaisnavism assumed the form of the state religion during the days of Maharaja Garib Newaz in the 18th century. This trend continues still today. This was made possible because of the phonetic closeness of the two languages.
The first example of a lyrical composition in Manipuri language and literature was 'Ougri'. Prior to this a variety of love songs, proverbs and sayings, lyrical plays and ballads were current. The love songs are very poetic and are presented by youths in groups to the accompaniment of rhythmic songs and dances. Manipuri language has many martial songs and several plays, novels, short stories and poems have been written in it. Even epic poems have been composed in this language. Some well-known Bengali and western books as well as ramayana and mahabharata have been translated into Manipuri. In the Indian state of Manipur it is an official language and it is one of the national languages of India. George Gordon's A Dictionary of English, Bengali and Manipuri published towards the middle of the 19th century was the first printed book in Manipuri.
Manipuri is a hybrid language. It is spoken by about 2 to 2.5 million people in Bangladesh, Tripura, Assam and Myanmar. Nearly half a million Manipuri speaking people live in greater Sylhet. However, Manipuri is not taught in the schools of Bangladesh as the Manipuris are dispersed over a wide area.
Munda language It belongs to the Austro-Asian group of languages and is more ancient than the Aryan language. It was the basis of the Oriya, Assamese and Bangla languages. It has links with Khasia, Garo, Santal, Kol and other similar tribal languages. Innumerable Munda words are found in Bangla, especially in its regional dialects. The Munda language has had an influence on Bangla speech forms. Bangla words relating to agriculture housework, habitation, counting, family relationships, weights and measures, land, animals and birds and trees are derived from the Munda language.
Since the Munda language was spoken over a vast region of India, it has numerous regional forms. Nearly 10 million people in areas of South Bihar and Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal speak this language. About 15,000 to 20,000 Mundas live in Bangladesh. The Munda language evolved amongst the Mundas about 3 to 4 thousand years ago as a Pidgin language to facilitate communication and livelihood between them. Later, it spread to other Southeast Asian countries through agriculture and superior hunting practices. In due course it took the form of an established language and still later it became a written language for literature.
Bangla has many similarities with non-Aryan Munda language in respect of phonology, aesthetics and poetical arrangements. There is an abundance of diphthongs in the Munda language; pronunciation of its words can also be nasal. There is also an abundance of reduplication of words; gender is indicated by adding appropriate words. There is a tendency in it to duplicate words to indicate plural. This feature is also noticed in Bangla. The case and case ending in both Munda and Bangla languages are almost similar. The origins of numbers up to 10 are the same in both languages. 'Hali' (four) and 'kudi' (score) are units of counting in both languages. Pronouns have no gender distinctions in either language. Mundari-English Dictionary, published by Christian missionaries, allows a wider understanding of the Munda language.
Oraon language the language of the Oraon tribe, known as Kurukh. It is a spoken language and has no written form. Literate Oraons write their language in other Bangla or Roman script.
Kurukh has a rich oral literature, with innumerable fables, fairy tales, ballads, nursery rhymes, riddles and popular sayings. Some tales and riddles are remarkably similar in form in Bangla and Kurukh. Variants of some Oraon fables are found in other tribal languages as well as Chinese.
Kurukh resembles the contemporary Munda language in vocabulary and syntax. According to Dr muhammad shahidullah, Munda and Kurukh are really the same language. Some words in Kurukh and the local Bangla dialect relating to household articles are similar. Earthen pots are called taoya in Kurukh, as in the local dialect. Some names of ornaments are common to Kurukh and Bangla, such as tikli, bala, payra, bali and kanpasha. Many words relating to relationships are also common to both languages: for example, ma, baba, mama, bhagina. The names of some shrubs, animals and fruits come from the same roots, but sound slightly different owing to the accretion or omission of some syllables: for example, amba for am, katha - kanthal, sim - shimul, sak - shak, dali - dal. Some religious words are also similar: the Kurukh bhagoyan is bhagaban in Bangla, the Kurukh bhagati is bhakti in Bangla, the Kurukh word bhut is the same in Bangla.
Santali language is a member of the eastern group of the Austro-Asiatic languages. The Austro-Asians came to the South Asian subcontinent about 10,000 years ago from Australia by way of Indonesia, Myanmar and Assam. About 10 million Santali speaking people live in the Santal Pargana of Bihar. About 1,25,000 Santals live in the West Bengal districts bordering Bihar and in Bangladesh's north-western districts of Dinajpur, Rajshahi and Rangpur. They speak Bangla fluently and have adopted many Bangla words for their own language. The origin of both Santali and Munda languages is the same and both are interrelated. The Santali language has two dialects - Nahili and Korku. The Santali language has no script of its own. In India, Santali is now written in Devanagari script and has absorbed many elements from Hindi. During British rule Santali used to be written in the Roman script. No Santali books are available in Bangladesh. But some Christian missionaries have opened one or two schools to teach Santali in Roman script. Educated Santals write Santali in both Bangla and English scripts but prefer to write in Bangla because of phonetic similarities between it and Bangla.
All sounds of Santali are also found in Bangla. There are other grammatical similarities too. As in the Munda language, vowels in Santali can be nasal. Gender is conveyed by using other words. Gender is also conveyed in Santali by using feminine inflection but this is an Aryan trend. In original Santali there is no scope for adding inflection at the end of words. In Santali different pronouns are used for animate and inanimate objects. The Santali, Kol and Munda languages are older than the Aryan languages. Many non-Aryan words have entered the Aryan languages. In Bengali and many of its regional dialects, many Santali words are in use in one form or the other. The origin of the Santali, its vocabulary and grammar have been discussed in books by Christian missionaries such as An Introduction to the Santal Language (1852), A Grammar of the Santal Language (1873) and PO Boding's Materials of the Santal Grammar (two volumes). [Ali Nawaz]
Bibliography Ali Nawaz, 'The Garo Hill Tribes of Bangladesh', Bhupender Singh (ed), 'The Tribal World and its Transformation', New Delhi 1980; 'Tribal Cultures in Bangladesh', IBS, Rajshahi University, 1981; Yamada Ryuji, 'Cultural Formation of the Mundas', Takai University Press, 1970.