Friday, July 19, 2024
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Khasi Language: Challenges beyond the 8th Schedule

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By HH Mohrmen

There is so much talk about the Khasi language getting recognition under the 8th Schedule of the Constitution. Getting the necessary recognition is one thing, but is that all? Apart from not getting the necessary recognition, promoting this ancient language has other challenges. In fact, there are challenges in promoting the language even among its speakers.
Fined for Using English Terms While Speaking in Khasi
One of the music videos that went viral in the last few months is a humorous one titled “Shah Phañ San Tyngka,” which literally means “fined five rupees.” The aptly titled video was made by renowned musicians from the West Khasi Hills, including Jophas Thongni, Desmond R. Sunn, and Damian Jyrwa, and it is about a trip they took from Nongstoin to Shillong. The video is not about the trip per se but about what happened during the long journey.
The music video tells a story about the horrible journey the travelers took in the summer of 2008 when the road to Nongstoin was in terrible condition, and it took them an awfully long time to reach their destination. To while away the time, they decided to play a game challenging each other to speak Khasi correctly. The competition was to see if there was anyone among them who could speak Khasi without using English or Khasi-adapted English words (if there is such a thing). Can we really speak Khasi without using a single English word? That was the challenge. At the end of the journey, everybody was fined because each and every one of them used English or Khasi-adapted English words while conversing.
Borrowing Words
in the Past
Sure we must have lived on these hills for a long time at one point or another; we must have interacted with the plains people so it is no surprise that we borrowed words from the language of our neighbours. A few words that one can mention are terms like “Dorbar from Darbar,” “Rong” from “Rang,” and even “Raij” or “raid” is obviously borrowed. “Nurok ka ksew” from “Narak,” “kharai” from “Khadai,” “tala” for lock, “poisa” from “paisa,” and there are dozens of words we borrowed from the languages our neighbours in the plains, who in turn borrowed from Urdu. Hindi too is not a pure language.
At a later period of time, we interacted with the British and we started borrowing words from English, which we sometimes adapted to make them sound like Khasi words. A few examples of words in this category are “Ketli” from kettle, “stayring” from steering, “Kiar” from gear, “tiphin” from Tiffin, and “huk” from hook. The accepted term for election in Khasi is “ilekshon,” pronounced as we spell the term in Khasi. There are many more such examples of foreign words or terms borrowed from other cultures and used in Khasi.
The reason we borrow words from other cultures is that the items or ideas we encountered were foreign, hence new to our culture. Because the terms or ideas are alien to our culture, we have no words for them and thus have to borrow the words from the culture that the items or ideas came from. The problem is if we continuously borrow words or terms from other languages, there will come a time when the language will be flooded with foreign words or terms.
Writing the Khasi Dialects
To this day, there is apprehension in some sections of society against writing the different Khasi dialects. There is fear that if people start writing in their respective dialects, it will adversely impact the commonly accepted Sohra form of the Khasi language which is generally used for writing and speaking. There is a fear that if people start writing in their dialects, it will create fissures between people, which will ultimately lead to division within the tribe and may even lead to communal hatred.
The Khasi language is fortunate in that it has many dialects, which include War Jaintia/Amwi, Pnar, Bhoi, Maram, and War Khasi, which people who live in different regions of the state still speak. The dialects are still being spoken by their respective speakers, so what is the issue of putting it into writing?
In the past, when words and terms were borrowed from other languages, there was no effort to see if there was already an alternative in the different Khasi dialects. We replaced “hook” and “tala” by using the same terms from the borrowed language when we already have “ïujnang” in Pnar, which means hook and lock at the same time. This happens because we do not look for words or terms that are available in the dialect.
If we use words from other dialects, it will help enrich the spoken or written Khasi Sohra language. For example, for “ïtkhmih,” which means mirror, the same is called “ka Ab” in Pnar. The term for egg is very interesting; in Khasi, “ka Pylleng” is also known as “ka Lalun,” “ka Hunsyi,” and “ka Thmat” in the War Amwi dialect. So if we take all the dialects into consideration, we have four terms for egg. In Khasi, we do not have an equivalent word to translate boomerang, but in Pnar, it is known as “ka Lapakhot.” Similarly, for pan or betel leaf, we have “Tympew” in Khasi, “Pathi/Pathai” in Pnar and War, and “Lakor” in War Khasi. The War Khasi also provides us with an alternative for truth “Chynnam” “ka jingshisha” in Khasi and also for “Nongshohnoh,” and the word is “Sam-at.” I do not find a word for slow loris in Khasi Sohra, but in War Jaintia, it is known as “Khaprang.” Nepenthes Khasiana is known as “Tiew rakot” in Khasi, but in Pnar, it is known as “syntu tymmoh phare.” The point is, if we are open to using terms or words from other dialects, we have ample alternatives from our own language.
Writing the dialects will help enrich the spoken Khasi Sohra language and at the same time, it will strengthen and sustain the dialects spoken by the people in the different regions of the state. In the recently held meeting of the Khasi Authors’ Society, Dr. D.R. Nonglait, the president of the organization, was open to the idea of putting the different Khasi dialects into writing. However, writing the dialects also presents many challenges, and one very obvious challenge is the alphabets.
Challenge of Writing
Different Dialects
The first and immediate challenge of putting the dialects into writing is the fact that the present Khasi alphabet that we have are not enough because they do not represent some of the sounds spoken in some of the dialects. For example, to write Pnar, we have some sounds like ‘ae’ and ‘chi,’ which are not represented by any of the alphabets used in Khasi now. “Ae” is used in words like “alae,” which means come, and “chi” is used in “chiboon,” which means many. Perhaps to write “ae” in Pnar, we do not need to include another alphabet; just combining the two existing alphabets ‘a’ and ‘e’ will be sufficient. However, there is no representation of “chi” in the list of existing alphabets. We also need a representation of another sound if we are to write in War Jañtia, and that is the ‘gj’ sound, which is used in “gji” as in cooked rice or “ja” in Khasi and “gjiang,” which means uncle or Ma in Pnar.
I believe it is important to write the different dialects because they are like streams that can feed the river, which is the common Khasi language used by all. The common Sohra Khasi is like a bridge that connects all the people of the same ethnic identity.
Invasion of Western
Culture
The world is changing, and everything is changing at a very fast pace. People are bombarded with words, terms, and even ideas that are new and have no representation in our vocabulary. In other words, there is an invasion of terminologies and words from all directions that are alien to the culture. For example, we use chairs and tables and no longer use “lyngknot” or “mula.” The gas stove is replacing “dpei,” heater “chawla” and the mixer and grinder are replacing “maw jingshoh” or “thlong.” When traditional utensils or tools are no longer used, the terms also die with the changes. New tools that we are using also find no translation. For example, for mobile phones, we simply write “mobai,” or USB is USB, laptop is laptop, and it is only for computer that I was able to come up with “korputar.” The challenge is there are going to be many more new terms, even in English, like artificial intelligence, cloud computing, data science, and agroecology to name a few. The question is, how are we going to counter this invasion?
No readership for Khasi
The biggest challenge is the lack of interest among the people in reading Khasi books. Ask any author, and they will tell you that one writes out of love for the language only. That is the crux of the problem.

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