Tribal Languages Of Orissa


I am not a linguist but a student of anthropology, which is one of the new social sciences concerned chiefly with culture and social structure with a bias towards the study of tribal communities. Anthropologists, like other social scientists, seek to build up systematic knowledge of social processes, which include communication through language. While the linguist deals with grammar, phonemes, morphemes, semantics, Etymology, etc., the social scientist deals with language as part of the totality of the people’s culture. Language, in fact, is man’s oldest culture, coeval with his humanity. Apart from the function of communication, transmission and conservation of culture, language has other functions such as setting the limits to intimate group creation. Linguistic differences constitute effective barriers to social contact among people geographically near as well as remote from each other. If, within a small area, as in Assam or Chotnagpur, we find a large number of languages, the obvious inference is that for centuries the groups speaking these different languages had only minimal contacts and were isolated one from the other.

Language, particularly semantics, analysed from the cultural points of view, gives us insights into the guiding frames of reference within which a people did their thinking. If we do not know much of the history is to examine their language. In the case of pre-literate communities, all that can be known of there past is confined to their oral folk literature. For example, the Juangs, one of the most primitive tribes of Orissa has no word for ‘village’, for the reason that in the past, they did not settle sufficiently long in any of place. The Juangs ‘drink’ rice, not ‘eat’ rice, for, in the past they were accustomed to liquid preparation of cereals.

Tribal languages also contain all the unwished for potentialities for linguistics troubles with which we are now familiar. These are the concern of the politicians, so I shall refer only to the background of the language situation as it concerns the tribal people.

In the past we used to talk of primitive tribes, but now-a-days no anthropologist would talk of tribal culture as primitive or low, as there are no value-free scales for ranking cultures. In a similar manner, and much more justifiable, there can be no talk of any language as primitive. One may argue as to whether a particular tribe engages itself in activities that are worthy of the name of religion or art, but we know of no people who are not possessed of fully developed language. The lowliest South African Bushmen speak in the forms of a rich symbolic system that is in essence perfectly comparable to the speech of the cultivated Frenchmen. The language of the Juang or the Ho is as complex in grammar, syntax, etc., as any other language in the world. The only difference lies in the size of the vocabulary. In unwritten languages, as those of the tribal groups there is no point in loading the language with words for which their can be no possible use.

The tribal languages of Orissa are spoken languages with no script of their own. They fall into two board divisions, Mundari and Dravidian. The Mundari group has a northern branch, which Grierson called Kherwari after the traditional homeland of the Santals, Mundas, Birhors, Ho’s and other tribes. The southern Mundari branch includes Saora, Gadaba (Gutob), Remo, Pareng, Juang, etc. the chief Dravidian tribal languages are Kui, Kuvi, Gondi, Ollari, Kisan and Oraon. On account of the presence of some Mundari-like words in vocabularies of Khmer tribes of South-East Asia, Pater Schmidit, a Viennese scholar tried to trace Mundari origins to South-East Asia but modern linguists are inclined to the view that these languages have little to connect them with South-East Asia. Extra-Indian affiliations of Dravidian are also discounted by modern linguists. As regards the question whether Mundari or Dravidian was the first to appear on the scene of Orissa, opinion seems to be somewhat divided. Grierson thought that Dravidian pushed into the north from the south displacing Mundari. But taking all the evidence, racial and cultural and historical, into consideration, one would be inclined to the opposite view that the Dravidian speakers were the earlier pre-Aryan, pre-Mundari ethnic stock. The Gadabas found in the Koraput district and in the contiguous tracts of Andhra are the most southerly speaker of Mundari tongue. The Gadabas who call themselves Gutob are themselves split into two sections, one speaking the Mundari Gutob tongue and the other speaking Ollari, a Dravidian language closely allied to Parji, Koya, Kolami and Naiki, all the four together forming an important but little-known branch of the Dravidian language family with its 18 languages including Brahui spoken in Baluchistan.

Of all the Mundari languages, Santali has the largest population speaking that tongue. In the year 1932, Rev. P. Bodding, the missionary lexicographer of Santali estimated that about three million people spoke that language. That number has probably gone up now. The name Santali is the Hindi version of the name Saotar given to the people by the Bengalies. The people themselves call their language Hor Ror that means the ‘speech of men’. Bodding himself has listed for his great Santali Dictionary more than 25,00 words. The Santals have been inveterate borrowers from other neighboring languages and as a mobile people, have a sharp sense of fine shades of meaning. Thanks partly to the efforts of Christian missionaries and partly to the new linguistic ethnocentrism, Santali is now one of the most cultivated tribal languages. The missionaries have adopted the Roman script for Santali. As the Santals are distributed in three linguistic areas, a script, which will unify the tribes, is exercising the minds of the tribal leadership. As a language, Santali seems to have a future.

The growth of bilingualism, and in some cases trilingual seems to be one of the most interesting developments in the tribal linguistic situation. The Juangs, for example, inhabiting the remote areas of Juangpirh in Keonjhar district are bilingual. I am informed by one of my former students working among the Juangs that Juang children become bilingual by the age of five. This is an indication of the heavy influx of Oriya into Juang. Even to ask such a simple question, "What is your name?" they say, "Ama namo biri" introducing the Oriya word for name. The Kisan of Sundargarh are trilingual, speaking among themselves their Dravidian mother tongue Kisan, speaking Oriya to the local neighbors and Munda to the Mundari-speaking neighbors. They seem to have the gift of tongues. In Phulbani, a predominantly Kond area, most of the Konds are bilingual.

In contrast to the viability of Santali, thousands of speakers of Saora and Kui and Gondi have completely given up their native tongues and adopted Oriya, which is matched on the social side by disclaiming relationship with their brethren still clinging to the original tribal language. In the Garjhat areas less than 20 per cent of the tribal groups speak any of the tribal languages. The slow attrition of the tribal tongues by disuse is a pointer to the fate that awaits these languages. But to understand the developmental history of Oriya itself, if not for purely linguistic research, all that scholars can preserve of these vanishing languages should be granted before they are irretrievably lost. For the linguists, as for the anthropologists, tribal languages offer a rich field for research. Here in Orissa we may perhaps be able to reconstruct proto-Dravidian and Proto-Mundari.

Photograph Source :

References :
Adibasi (Journal of the Tribal Research Bureau, Bhubaneswar), January 1964, 3: 5-6.
"Tribal Culture and Tribal Welfare",selected papers by Dr. A. Alyappan & Edited by Dr. U. C. Mohanty.(Courtesy – All India Radio, Cuttack.}