Notes on Assamese Language

Recently there have been some discussions on the relationships between Assamese and Bengali languages. Here are some notes on that topic.

1. Assamese was banished from schools and courts in Assam in 1836. It was reintroduced in 1882. (source: Assamese Literature by Birinchi Kumar Barua).

2. The American Missionaries along with many Assamese educated people convinced the British that Assamese is a sibling of Bengali. The Missionaries had published a lot of books starting from 1813 (the first Assamese printed book was a translation of the Bible done by Atmaram Sarma of Koliabor in 1813; published by the Serampore (Calcutta) English Missionary Press) onwards.

3. There is a footnote in "Assamese: Its Formation and Development" by Banikanta Kakati, Lawyer's Book Stall, 1972. The footnote was inserted by Golokchandra Goswami, D.Phil. (p 7). The footnote is reproduced below:

Most probably, Dr. Nathan Brown was the first grammarian to dismiss this idea that Assamese could be a dialect of Bengali. He wrote in the introduction to the "Grammatical Notes on the Assamese Language" published in 1846: "The Assamese is often regarded as merely a corrupt form of the Bengali, by persons who become acquainted with the language previous to their arrival in Assam. Finding so large a proportion of words common to Bengali and Assamese, and not considering that this similarity necessarily results from the derivation of these languages from Sanskrit, the common parent of both, it has been hastily concluded that the Assamese is an uncouth jargon, formed by incorporation of Bengali with various dialects of the country. The opinion that the present language of Bengali is the parent of Assamese is reconcocilable with facts...In fact the Assamese pronunciation of words derived from Sanskrit is such as to render the supposition of a Bengali origin entirely admissible. (pp ix-x)

4. Dr. Banikanta Kakati's "Assamese: Its Formation and Development" by Banikanta Kakati, Lawyer's Book Stall, 1972, (pp. 7-13) has a detailed discussion on the differences between Assamese and Bengali. He concluded based on these discussions that the two languages were derived in parallel from Sanskrit. I am including a summary below:

  1. Vocabulary: Many Assamese words derived from Sanskrit are completely different from the corresponding Sanskrit-derived words in Bengali. For example, the Assamese words for `fire' and `water' are `zui' and `paani', as opposed to the Bengali words, `aagun' and `jal'. Assamese `paani' is common to all the dialects of Bihari and Eastern Hindi, but `zui' for `fire' has parallels only in `joy' and `jwe' in Bhatri dialect of Oriya and Bhulia dialect of Eastern Hindi respectively, both south of the Vidhyas.
  2. Assamese and Bengali have contrasting systems of accentuation. Assamese follows the pan-Indian system of penultimate stress and Bengali has an initial stress. Even in that respect, Bengali differs from the Kamrupi dialect of Assamese which also has an initial stress. (Dr. Kakati gives examples to justify his claims.)
  3. Dr. Kakati gives examples of differences in grammatical affixes between the two languages. For example, he compares Assamese and Bengali regarding how genetive (possessive) case, locative case, past conditional forms of verbs (`heten'), infinitive forms of verbs, etc., and show that the two languages are so different that Assamese could not have been derived from Bengali.
  4. Assamese produces negations by putting a `na-' in front of the verb. Assamese verbs have complete sets of negative conjugations with the negative particle `na-'. Bengali doesn't have any negative conjugations.
    My note: How languages describe negatives is an important source of differences among languages.
  5. The plural suffixes are entirely different from those off Bengali. Some Assamese plural (xopaa, bilaak, etc.) suffixes have parallels in other western Indian languages, but not with Bengali.
  6. Assamese definitives (the Assamese for `the': tu, jan, jani, janaa, daal, khan, jopaa, etc.) have no parallels in Bengali.
    My note: The Assamese definitive system is extremly complex. It is difficult to explain when we use `khan' (e.g,, kitaapkhan, gaarikhan) , when do we use `jopaa' (e.g, gosjopaa, esaaridaal), etc., is difficult to determine. This system has no parallels in languages I know anything about.
  7. The type of vowel-harmony seen in Assamese is quite different from that in Bengali. Vowel-harmony means how pronuciation of a vowel in a word is modified by the presence of other vowel(s) in the word. Dr. Kakati gives examples, and then concludes that this is one of the reasons why Bengali speakers often find Assamese unintelligible.
  8. Assamese, from earliest times, have the letter `wa' which has no counterpart in Bengali.

5. Golok Goswami has added a footnote on page 8 of Banikanta Kakati's AFD (Assamese: Its Formation and Development). I am reproducing a summary of it below:

Dr. Kakati has not discussed all the points of difference, some of which are very important. These points may be discussed under four divisions as follows: a) phonological, b) morphological, c) glossarial and d) orthographical.
  1. Phonological:
    • Pronunciation: (*He lists lot of differences*: the case of the `dantya' and `murdhonya', the case of the `x's, the case of `j' and `z', etc.
    • Accentuation
    • Intonation patterns of the two languages.
  2. Morphological: It's about how words are formed from roots, affixes, and suffixes
  3. Glossarial: It's about the sources of vocabulary for the languages
  4. Orthographical: It's about the spelling of words in the language.

6. Some comments by Dr. Suniti Chatterjee, one of the foremost linguists of India of all times are relevant here. In his "Origin and Development of the Bengali Language", he writes

"The Bengali dialects cannot be referred to a single primitive Bengali speech, but they are derived from various local forms of lae Magadhan Apabhramsa, which developed some common characterstics that they may be called pan-Bengali." (p 139)

"Assamese under her independent kings and her social life entirely self-contained, became an independent speech, although her sister dialect, North Bengali, accepted the vasalage of the literary speech of Bengal." (p 148)
My note: The second quote above is quite well-known among linguists. Kamrupi dialect of Assamese and North Bengali are quite similar. In fact, the similarities between Assamese (standard as well as Kamrupi) and North Bengali are much more pronounced than the similarities between Standard Bengali and North Bengali. North Bengal was the seat of Assamese studies under the Koch kings. But, history has taken North Bengal away from Assamese culture altogether.

7. There are not many great linguistic works in Assamese. But, among modern Indian languages, some of the early scientific work on linguistics was on Assamese.

  1. The first important book in Indo-Aryan linguistics is a book called `La Formation de la Langue Marathe' by Dr. Jules Bloch, published in 1920.
  2. This was followed by the book `Origin and Development of the Bengali Language' by Dr. Suniti Chatterjee, published in 1926.
  3. The third (chronologically) most important publication was Dr. Banikanata Kakati's dissertation `Assamese, Its Formation and Development'. It was accepted by the University of Calcutta in 1935. Dr. Suniti Chatterjee was his advisor (or, guide).

by Jugal Kalita, kalita@pikespeak.uccs.edu