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How the Khasi language came to be written in the Roman script?

Growing up in Shillong, it was only too easy for me to take for granted the diverse multitude of languages and dialects spoken in my state. It is only when I saw our culture through the eyes of visitors to Meghalaya that I truly began to realise just exactly how amazing the state’s languages are. Take the Khasi language, for example. A curious fact about it is that our language is written in the Roman script. As the stories tell it, this is so because we Khasis once did not have a written script at all—and so, we were given one by outside parties. There’s even an interesting Khasi folktale that tells the story of how it came to be that we did not have a written script of our own.

The folktale says that there was once a time when God summoned the representatives of the various groups of the people of earth to Him, and He gave them each their own written script. When the representatives were making their various ways home, two of them who were heading home the same way—one from the Plainsmen and another from the Khasis—came across a river that had become dangerously flooded because of heavy rain. Fearing that the gifts would be lost in the attempt to cross the treacherous waters, they had to think of ways to protect them from getting washed away. The plainsman chose to keep his gift in a knot he made of his hair on his head (or in a headband, depending on which version of the folktale is told). The Khasi representative, however, thought that it would be best to keep it in his mouth.

The two of them then made their ways across the roaring river. The plainsman managed to make his way across safely with the gift of the written script intact. The Khasi representative did not have the same luck. In his struggle to swim across the river, he had trouble breathing—and he accidentally swallowed it in an attempt to breathe as he swam. And so, the folktale ends, the Khasi people did not have a written script of their own.

There is no clear history about the origin of the Khasi language. It is generally believed that some symbols were once used as a script by the Khasi peoples, but there is no concrete evidence of a properly written script having existed. What we do know, however, is that the language is part of the Mon-Khmer language family; a group that also contains languages spoken in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma—which perhaps points to the origin of the Khasi people themselves. It is widely believed that we are a people that migrated to our current location from elsewhere.

History shows that because the Khasis did not have a written script of their own, we had to adopt the written scripts of our neighbouring communities, such as the Bengali and Assamese, with the Bengali written script being made use of more heavily. This became necessary because written communication was needed in order to communicate with other kingdoms of the time and also in order to maintain land records and to facilitate trade.

The transition from the use of the Bengali written script to the Roman script the language is written in today came with the arrival of Christian missionaries in Meghalaya, back in the early 1800s. It is believed that a proper written form of the Khasi language was put together by the Serampore missionaries, though this form was still in the Bengali script, using a Khasi dialect from the Shella district in Meghalaya. Efforts in this direction saw results, with a translation of the New Testament into a publication called the Khashee New Testament in 1831.

The year 1841 saw the arrival of the Welsh Presbyterian Mission, with the man who would come to be known as the ‘Father of the Khasi Alphabet’ as the Missions in-charge, Thomas Jones I. Jones believed that it would be more convenient for the Khasi language to be written in the Roman script. This new script was based on the Sohra dialect of the Khasi language. As the Mission set up schools in the region, more and more emphasis was made on using the Roman version of the Khasi written script.

In the beginning, Jones faced a lot of opposition to his efforts from the British administration. They believed that it was far easier to administer the region and carry out education programmes using the Bengali written script of the Khasi language, as that was already widely in use. However, Jones persevered with his efforts. His success is clear to see today, with some believing that his work is what helped preserve a vital aspect of the Khasi culture. Without his new script, the Khasi language might have been assimilated into other languages, and with the loss of its integrity, the Khasi people themselves might have lost their distinct identity.

While nineteenth-century literature in the region was dominated by Christian texts, as more and more Khasi people became members of the Church and were educated in the Roman version of the Khasi script, some people from the region began to write books of their own. This offered a clearer picture of the thoughts of the Khasi people themselves. They wrote books on traditional Khasi folktales, poems and songs, and in the process, sought to lay down solid roots of the Khasi culture, which before then had been almost completely reliant on the oral tradition. That is not to say, however, that the oral tradition will ever be replaced. As a people, the Khasis are very proud of their oral traditions. For instance, the Divine Decree—which, the Khasi people believe was given directly to them by God—is a prime example of how much emphasis is placed on the power of words in the Khasi culture.

The Divine Decree has three statements which are meant to act as guidelines as to how the Khasis should go about living their lives: ‘tip briew tip Blei’ which means that one should know man and know God; ‘kamai ia ka hok’ which means to work in righteousness; and, ‘tip kur tip kha’ which means to know one’s maternal and paternal relations. The last one is especially of significance to the Khasi people, who trace lineage through the mother.

It is this complicated interweaving of history and cultural ideology that has made the Khasi culture so very interesting. In a world where minority languages and cultures are facing extinction every day, I hope that the fire that existed in our people in earlier times to preserve our culture continues to burn bright for ages into the future.

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