Adding the Indigenous languages of Northeast India to Unicode

La Trobe linguist Dr Stephen Morey is assisting locals recording and scripting the numerous language varieties in Northeast India, writes Rebecca Connell.

The communities residing in the isolated hills on the Indo-Myanmarese border use significantly diverse language varieties.

One such variety is called Tangsa, a word coined by the Indian government in the fifties to give an all-encompassing name to this extensive range of language varieties. Some varieties are very similar to each other, others unintelligible. With around eighty tribes or “sub-tribes” there are also many names for these linguistic varieties.

These varieties lacked a traditional form of writing. However, as Christian denominations have grown in the area, social media became popular, and a desire to preserve traditional knowledge has grown, many communities now share a common desire to develop scripts for their language(s).

“The development of writing systems would help preserve traditional stories, translate Christian texts and other information - such as information about COVID-19 - into local language varieties, and bring communities closer together through social media,” says Dr Stephen Morey, an Associate Professor in Linguistics at La Trobe University. “People are developing different ways to write. One way to do that is to adopt Roman Orthography.”

Tangshang Naga Unified Orthography (TNUO), preferred by those on the Myanmar side of the border, is an example of one such orthography. This Roman based writing system is being used to produce literacy materials for these communities.

In addition to TNUO, one unique script was developed in 1990 by the late linguist, Lakhum Mossang, initially for Muishaung (or Mossang), the Tangsa variety that he spoke. Dr Morey has been preparing an application for Lakhum Mossang’s Tangsa script to Unicode Technical Committee.

By including these scripts in Unicode, communities can come closer together through the use of social media.

According to Unicode, Mossang’s proposal is still in the initial and exploratory phase. Unicode requires evidence that scripts are being used by the community. In order to provide such evidence, the members of the Tangsa Script Development Committee are producing teaching materials, and Dr Morey and his colleagues are creating instructional videos.

In over 25 years of research, Dr Morey has recorded, transcribed and translated various traditional stories and songs in many language varieties. As well as analysing and archiving these recordings in specialist archives, Dr Morey is working to return the materials to the community either online or in person during his visits to Assam and Arunachal Pradesh States.

“The world’s language diversity is under threat and they are worth preserving,” says Dr Morey. “All this language diversity, which has evolved over thousands of years, can tell us so much about human history. So preserving it matters."

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