“Each tribe or community has its own cultural identity, which is confirmed and expressed through their native tongue”, says Dokatchi Ch Marak, Assistant Professor of the Garo Department, NEHU (Tura). People experience and connect with the world through the language they speak. This makes language a marker for ethnic identity and its protection – an important matter.”

The state of Meghalaya is multi-cultured and many-coloured. Of the several indigenous communities, Garos form one of the major tribes. Ancient head-hunters and hill dwellers, they call themselves A.chik Mande and speak in a language descended from the Tibeto-Burman family of languages.

Garo language consists of 12 dialects which include A’we, Am’beng, Ruga, Chibok, Matchi Dual and Gara Ganching, among others. The dialects may differ in grammar, pronunciation, usage of words or accents. These differences emphasise the individuality of each one. “The language became standardised in the form of A’we dialect during the era of British missionaries,” says Marak. It has since been used in all institutions of the society such as religion, administration, and education. Because this one dialect is now most used in all aspects of our lives, the rest have almost been forgotten or lost. The best example of such a lost language would be Ruga. “We wouldn’t be wrong in saying Ruga has become extinct because even as early as 2010–2011, the number of people speaking this dialect was reduced to about two or three”, Marak informs.

Dialects or languages which are not used for speaking or writing are slowly disappearing. They might be spoken in some homes or villages, but the irrevocable truth is that the number is decreasing. It is definitely tragic to mourn a language whose existence some of us have never even known.

Certain initiatives are being taken by the Linguistics Department of NEHU (Tura) to preserve these languages through research, recordings and documentation. “Even though speakers of languages such as Ruga might be non-existent now, we are trying to document and record the existence and intricacies of such languages”. If viewed in terms of linguistics, there are various aspects of a language that need to be considered such as phonetics, word usage, meaning and grammar. According to her, there is an effort but they have not been completely successful as the scale of the task is humongous. “I feel our research has covered the Garo lexicon to some extent, although, admittedly, we have not conquered all of it”.

Other tribes, such as Khasis, the largest and most predominant community, have also been committed to conserving their own language. “However, just like us, they probably haven’t been able to cover all of it, as language is dynamic and ever-changing”. With the passage of time and generational differences, language inevitably evolves. It has no final form. So, the journey of exploring a language is ceaseless.

Marak feels there is a minimal effort towards the conservation of language and traditions in contemporary Garo Hills. However, there are ways of tackling the issue. “Cultivating a love for our language and its preservation has to start from home. Parents have a responsibility to teach their kids about the rich culture of Garos, our language, our folklore and folklife”, she said. Even though it is being taught in schools, it is being done limitedly, as most schools have adopted English as medium for teaching. “Even as early as nursery class, kids start learning in English while Garo gets sidelined”, says Marak. She feels if children can be taught the intricacies of our language at the school level, their understanding of our culture will be enhanced. She also names storytelling as an excellent way of guiding children. Garo tradition is rich in folklore and stories steeped in moral values. She voiced her opinion on the same saying, “Such education of kids on a primary level should be done not just in schools, but also at home. I believe this will teach them the importance of our culture and language”.

There is still a long way to go in terms of preserving our native tongue. Marak expresses concerns regarding misuse of the language which is evident through social media platforms. Facebook posts or WhatsApp messages feature major spelling errors, which may be intentional in many cases. There is no use for the letters F, Q, V, X, Y, and Z in the Garo lexicon, but recent trends on socials show more Garo youth evolving the use of their script: “For example, the word ong.aba (to be correct) becomes ong.ava”, Marak notes.

In the long run, such incorrect usage might lead to absence of variation in the language. “Unless precautions are taken, Garo language may be destined for a future with no distinguishable features”, she asserted. Another important distinctive characteristic is the glottal stop (raka tota), necessary to give distinct meaning to words. For instance, words such as chaa (to grow) and cha.a (to eat), rama (to dry) and ram.a (thin) have the same spellings. Words also have their own identity, and the raka emphasises shades of difference between each. If we can teach children how to correctly use the stop, this will prove to be another way to preserve the distinct variations of Garo.

The ancestors of our tribe used oral traditions as a way of preserving our language. Crystal Cornelius, Secretary of A.chik Literature Society and Assistant Professor, NEHU (Tura) feels that, since a tribe’s culture is passed down from generation to generation through language, it would be an immense loss and a shame if we were to forget our own language. He mentioned using native tongue in the everyday life, publishing more literature and technology as means of preservation.

“Using advanced technology available today, we can document the various works, festivals, customs, dances and other features of our tribe”.

Uplifting of language will inevitably lead to uplifting of the tribe itself. In order to educate people on the importance of the same, A.chik Literature Society has been working tirelessly. They work with writers, publish literature and hold various seminars and workshops.

Garo was only recently adopted as the state’s Associate Official Language under the Meghalaya State Language Act (2005).  The next big step would be inclusion of our native languages in the Eight Schedule of the Indian Constitution. The Meghalaya Legislative Assembly undertook a resolution for the same in 2018. Since then, the administration, Literature Society and various NGOs have been making endless efforts for the approval of the resolution by the Centre.

Cornelius urges all members of the community to cultivate love for Garo language. “We have to understand the importance of our culture and customs, traditional musical instruments, songs and dances. Only then can we achieve recognition and upliftment of the Garo culture”.

The twelve dialects of the Garo languages are only the twelve surviving branches of the mother language, and they encompass the past, present and future of the Garo clans. To lose any of these branches would be to lose a part of the Garo ethnic identity.

Imagine being the last Garo left behind as the world moves on; imagine being the person to utter the end of one’s own tongue.

How does one put down the burden of untold stories?