Language diversity in north-east India

Stephen Morey and Jurgen Schoepf have been researching language and communication of the Tangsa in India.

Talking Tangsa

The far eastern states are a remote region of India, close to southwest China and Myanmar and geographically isolated from the rest of India by neighbouring Bangladesh. Dr Stephen Morey, a linguist in La Trobe University’s Centre for Research on Linguistic Diversity, has been studying tribal languages in the area.

In 2007 he started work on the Tangsa languages, spoken by a diverse community of  “tribes” residing on both sides of the Indo-Myanmarese border.

“There is extensive language diversity amongst the Tangsa, with up to 75 varieties at the last count if we include the varieties in Myanmar, and it remains a huge task learning enough about each variety to really understand what’s going on,”says Dr Morey. “These remote areas of India are developing at an increasing pace and it puts a lot of pressure on the small autochthonous communities, their cultures and languages,”

In 2016 Dr Morey began a new project to document and analyse the Tangsa Wihu song-cycle, a ritual and poetic tradition performed over many hours and days. Working in collaboration with musicologist Dr Juergen Schoepf, the project will give insight into the Tangsa culture by focusing on the language, music and ritual of the Wihu song.

“The Wihu festival is known to a number of Tangsa tribes, but not to all,”says Dr Morey. “It is tied to the agricultural cycle and is celebrated in early January, before the agricultural activity resumes.”

The project is funded by a three year grant through the Australian Research Council Discovery Program, with additional funding from La Trobe University.

A New Note

Dr Juergen Schoepf has recently worked on the Wa kăpung dyo an instrument unique to the Tangsa region which operates through a method of thermoacoustics.

“A handful of bamboo shavings are packed into a completely hollow bamboo tube and are ignited, producing a loud, sinusoidal sound,” says Dr Schoepf. “It’s a method rarely used, the best-known example being a 19th century French instrument called a ‘pyrophone’.”

The Tangsa traditionally used the Wa kăpung dyo to signal danger, and warn their village if an enemy was approaching. They were a simple sound tool which could be made within a few minutes, and the long tube, yielding a low pitch, would allow the sound to carry over several kilometres.

“Instruments of this type are rare, but I believe there is sufficient distinction and evidence for them to be officially classified on their own in the Hornbostel-Sachs system,” says Dr Schoepf.