The Tai and Their Languages

THE TAI AND THEIR LANGUAGES
G.A.GRIERSON: Linguistic Survey of India,
Vol. I, 1927, Part I, p. 50


The Siamese-Chinese sub-family consists of two groups – the Sinitic and the Tai. The former includes Chinese, and, as explained above, perhaps Karen, neither of which is dealt with in the Survey. Chinese is nowhere a vernacular of British India, although natives of the Flowery Land are found in nearly every large city as merchants, leather-workers, carpenters, cane workers and the like. In Rangoon and Upper Burma there are considerable communities, but all are temporary immigrants, who are either merchants that have come by sea, or else people from Yun-nan.
The Tai race, in its different branches, is beyond all question the most widely spread of any in the Indo-Chinese Peninsula, and it is certainly the most numerous. Its member are to be found from Assam to far into the Chinese Province of Kwang-si, and from Bangkok to the interior of Yun-nan. The history of its migration from Yun-nan into southern Indo-China has been already briefly described. It remains to consider the various forms of speech used by the nations of which it is composed.
Seven languages of the Tai group were recorded in the Census-Siamese, Lao, Lu, Khun, Daye, Shan and Khamti. Of these, only Khamti and a stray dialect of Shan are found in the area subjected to operations of this survey. So far as the census figures enumerate them, the others (except Ahom, which is a dead language) where all found in British Burma. Excluding Khamti, these six languages have no less than seven different written characters and there are numerous dialects. The Siames character, which was invented in the year 1125, is altogether different from the others. The language, so far as British India is concerned, is spoken principally in the Amherst and Mergui Disticts of Burma. Lao, a dialect of Siamese, is widely spoken in Siam, and in Burma is found in the Amherst District, bordering on that country. It has an alphabet of its own, borrowed from that of Mon. Lu and Khun have alphabets closely related to that of Lao. They are spoken in the Kengtung Shan State, just north of the Siamese frontier. They are forms of speech intermediate between Siamese  and Shan. Daye is spoken by a few people in the Southern Shan States. I know nothing about it.
Shan proper is spoken all over the Shan States, both British and Chinese, as far north as Mogaung, and also in the country to their north-west. It has a northern, a southern, and a Chinese dialect, the last having a slightly different written character, which like all the other Shan alphabets is borrowed from Burmese. The word “Shan”, or as sounded, “Shan”, is the Burmese pronunciation of “Sham”, which is the correct form, and which reappears in the final syllable of “Assam”. As this Survey did not cover the Shan States, the only example of the language across which it comes. Was the Aiton dialect spoken by some 200 immigrants to Assam. These will be mentioned again lower down.
In the year 1228 A.D., just about the time when Kublai Khan was establishing himself China, a Shan tribe, the Ahoms, entered the country now called Assam, where they settled and to which they ultimately gave their name, ‘Ahom’ being but a variant pronunciation of ‘Asam’. They gradually established their power, which reached its culminating point in their victory over the Kacharis of Dimapur in 1540. This made them masters of the whole of Assam Valley, and they continued to rule their territories with vigour and success up to the end of the seventeenth century, when they become infected with Hinduism. They lost their pride of race, their habits changed and ‘instead of being like barbarians, but mighty Kshatriyas, they become, like Brahmans, powerful in talk alone.’ They gradually declined in strength, and Assam, after being first conquered by the Burmese, was finally annexed by the British in 1824. So completely Hinduized did they become before their final fall, that their languages has been dead for centuries and is now known only by a few priests who have remained faithful to their old traditions. Ahom is an old form of the language which ultimately became Shan, and it is a great importance for the study of the mutual relationship of the various Tai Languages.

It is curious that, in spite of their long determination, the Ahom have left so few traces of their influence on the languages of the Assam Valley. They appear to have been throughout few in number, and, as their rule extended over various tribes speaking different forms of speech, the necessity of a lingua franca soon became apparent. This could only have been either Ahom or Assamese. The latter, being an Aryan language, possessed the greater vitality, and its use was no doubt encouraged by the Hindu priests who acquired influence over the ruling race. That influence alone would not have been sufficient for we shall see how in Manipur, where Hindusim was enthusiastically accepted, the people have still retained their language, although the Brahmans have had to invent a written character in which to record it. Although the Ahoms have left so few traces on the language of Assam, they have nevertheless laid their mark upon its literature. One of the few Ahom words used at the present day is ‘buranji’, ‘the store of instruction for the ignorant’, as they called history, and it is to them that Assam owes the historical sense which created the series of chronicles, still call by their old foreign name, that are the pride of its literature.
When Mogaung was conquered by Alomphra, a number of Shan migrated north, and settled here and there in the country round the upper courses of Chindwin and Irrawaddy. Their principal settlement was high up on the latter river in the country known as Kham-ti Long or “Great Khamti-land”. Thence some of them were invited by their kinsmen, the Ahoms, and settled in Eastern Assam, where they ultimately ousted their former hosts. They have developed a slightly varying dialect of Shan, and have an alphabet of their own. Since then small numbers of other Shan tribes have migrated into Assam, who are known as Phakials, Tai-rongs (locally called Turungs), Noras and Aitons. The last-named still speak Burmese Shan, and use that alphabet. Two hundred of them were counted in the operations of this survey. The Tai-rongs were enslaved by the Kachins en route, and all, or nearly all, now speak Singpho, the languages of their masters. A few of them, together with the Phakials and the Noras, speak a Shan dialect, differing little, if at all, from Khamti.