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Origin and Development of Lai Language


The following is a paper presented by Lai Scholar Mr. Ramdinglian Lahnim in a Symposium on Lai Literature organized by Sahitya Academy  and Mizo Academy of Letters at Tourist Lodge, Chaltlang, Aizawl on 3 March 2011.


- Salai Ramdinglian Lahnim

1. Introduction:

I shall discuss, in this paper, two aspects of the concept of Lai, shall investigate the origin of Lai language and shall also deal with the growth and development of Lai language to some extent.

2. Concept of Lai:

“Lai” (aka Pawi, Shendu, Buangshe) is a term referring to the language of the people of Lai in India, Burma and Bangladesh, and is at the same time, a referring term to the Lai people and Lai ethnicity. It is, especially, the language of the people who are living in Hakha and the neighboring areas, and of their descendents. In India, it is spoken by a score of villages within the administrative areas of Lai Autonomous District Council (LADC). It is also spoken in the neighboring areas of Bangladesh. Lai can, therefore, be defined as the language of majority population in the triangular terrain of Hakha, Lawngtlai and Cox’s Bazar and as an appellation for the people therein and their ethnicity. This is one aspect of the concept of Lai.

By itself, “Lai” means “centre, great, civilized, original, man, important”. Thus, the concept of Lai can be best understood in the light of the aforesaid denotative and connotative meanings of the word “Lai”. They are reflective of the centrality, greatness, civility, originality, importance and the humane qualities of Lai people, their language and ethnicity in comparison with the neighboring tribal communities in terms of the first aspect of the concept. This idea is true when linguistic and cultural readings are taken into consideration. Therefore, the paradigm of the concept of Lai cannot be narrow and is badly in need of reconstruction. This is the second aspect of the concept of Lai.

In accordance with the second aspect, all the seven principal tribes of the Chins, such as Asho, Chomi, Khumi, Laimi, Mizo, Zomi and Thado could be grouped under the generic name “Lai”. 60% of Chin vocabularies are basically identical. 80% of Lai and Mizo vocabularies are also similar (Lalthangliana 2004). The discriminating and peculiar gender suffixes-i and a of Mizo personal names are the “innovations” of “close contact” with the Indo-Aryans (Vanbik Jr 2004). Moreover, Lai is comparatively more complex and original than other Chin languages, which means Lai is the root and the stem of Mizo language. This idea is also confirmed by a close look at the cultures of the Chin people. This is the second aspect of the concept of Lai. For better understanding of the two aspects of the concept, ethnic diagram is provided at the end of this paper (see p. 8).

3. Origin of Lai:

“Lai” belongs to Tibeto-Burman branch of Sino-Tibetan language family. So, tracing the origin of Lai language is considerably difficult. If we are going to investigate the origin of Lai language, we must investigate the origin of Lai people as well. The people who are now living in the administrative areas of Lai Autonomous District Council migrated from the Chin Hills in Burma between AD 1800 and 1900. They are, especially, the descendents of the Hakhas and the neighboring areas. The current Lai language spoken within the areas of LADC is “Hakha Lai Lingua”. Thus, when our forefathers narrated the story of our origin, they said, “We are Lailun(g) origins”. However, it seems that our forefathers narrated the story of the nearest settlement in memories when they reached Chin Hills. “Lailun(g)” is a cave near a town called Falam, therefore there is no reason to originate in the cave. It would rather be the first settlement in their memories on their way to  Chin Hills, thereby naming it “Lailun(g)” after the name “Lai”, which means the “cave” of the Lais or the “hole” of the Lais.

It is evident that the present speakers of Lai language had lived on the bank of river Chindwin around AD 750 before they reached Chin Hills. Authorities like GH Luce and FK Lehman on Chin studies are circling around this figure as to the Chindwin settlement of the Chin peoples besides other material sources. Even the pagan inscriptions repeatedly referred to the settlement of the Chin peoples on the bank of the river Chindwin. Therefore, the Lais moved by degrees into the valley of Kale, there they  lived from about AD 1295 to 1395. The most acceptable cause of the evacuation of their settlement in the Kale valley seems to be the flood of Chindwin. In addition, the findings of linguistic studies and the oral literatures are in support of this idea; “Kale” is derived from the Lai root “khalei” which means “on the other bank/to the other side” of the river. Thus, the Shans, after the founding of the city of “Kale-myo”, pushed the Lais towards Chin Hills (Sakhong 2003: 8-17). This upward movement to Chin Hills can be dated about AD 1350 to the end of AD 1450. Therefore, living first in the cave of Lailun(g), they found small villages and they laid the foundation of the capital of the present-day Hakha in AD 1450 (Chawn Kio 1998: 39; Biak Nawl 2000: 51-55).

Therefore, Lai language had come into existence by the time they lived on the bank of river Chindwin by AD 750, so it was in use while they lived in the Kale valley. Moreover, the signs of the origin of different Lai dialects could be well identified by AD 750. Accordingly, the casting shadow for the birth of Lai language could be seen by the end of 200 BC, if we take the basic four theories of the origin of language, such as the bow-wow, the dingdong, the pooh-pooh and the gesture theories, into consideration. By the turn of AD 100 or 200, it can certainly be identified with distinct characteristics (Carey & Tuck 2008; Wood 1969; Aronoff & Rees-Miller 2003). This is the origin of Spoken Lai.

However, the origin of Written Lai can be traced out with certainty. The first book on Lai language was written by the British Political Officer, DJC Macnabb who was serving in Chin Hills. It was entitled The Handbook of The Haka or Baungshe Dialect of The Chin Language, referred to as The Handbook of The Haka herein after, and was published in the year 1891. And the second is a book entitled A Practical Handbook of The Lais as Spoken by The Hakas and Other Allied Tribes Commonly The Baungshe Dialect, herein after referred to as A Practical Handbook of The Lais, written by Surgeon Major AGE Newland and was published in the year 1897. Then, the American Baptist missionary couples, Arthur Carson and Laura Carson arrived Hakha on 15 March 1899. They modified and developed the previous literature and formed the Lai alphabet. As a result, we recovered back the long-lost letters of our forefathers (Ceu Mang 2002; Ni Kio 2007b: 101-113; Carson 1997). This is the origin of Written Lai.

4. Growth of Lai:

The growth and the development of Lai language can be studied from the following two angles of linguistics and literature:

a) Linguistics: “Lai”, as mentioned before, belongs to Tibeto-Burman branch of Sino-Tibetan linguistic family. It has distinctive characters in fortition of sibilants to stops and in syntactic patterns as it branched off from the rest of Tibeto-Burman languages (Vanbik Jr 2009: 92-99). It has also a strong sound system consisting of not less then 22 vowels and 32 consonants (Biak Cin 2002: 1-7). Thus, in order to write Lai, Roman scripts with diacritical marks were employed in the beginning as given below:

Keima’ k’ kal” lai (’&”). (Keimah ka kal lai: Modern Lai).

Taitw’en a k’lung lai (’). (Thaituan ah ka tlung lai: ML).

Ze kong: a da? (:). (Zei kong ah dah?:ML).

(Ceu Mang 2002: 88)

However, when Harry Tilbe arrived Hakha in 1902, the previous diacritical marks were disregarded and employed (^) and (~) instead. As such, teaching Laica was begun in 1905. Thus, in 1909 Mrs Carson published the first primer on Lai language entitled Lai Rel Nak Tsa Ok and in 1912 she published again Zhesu A Nun Chung Bia, and the text terein reads:

Keima ni ^uitso p’kat ka’ ng^e. (Keimah nih uico pakhat ka ngei: ML).

A tamp^i ahta^ ^uitso a’ hsi. (A tampi a tha uico a si: ML).

(Ceu Mang 2002: 89)

However, even (^) was disregarded and only (’), (~) and (-) remained. So, in 1918, Hla Sa Ok was published, that reads:

K’ lam Zhesu a’ k’, hmu sak, (’). (Ka lam Jesuh a ka hmuhsak: ML).

Ze-bia-da ka’ her ti hnga; (-). (Zei bia dah ka herh ti hnga: ML).

K’ lu nun lio a~ dawmtlaitu (~). (Ka lu nun lio a ka dawmtlaitu: ML).

(Ceu Mang: 2002: 90)

So, after a number of modifications and arrangements, the diacritical marks are ignored and finally evolve the following 26 fundamental significations as given:

aA          bB       cC       dD      eE       fF        gG      hH        iI       jJ         kK      lL         mM     nN        oO      pP       rR         sS    tT          tT   uU         vV      wW     xX       yY          zZ       (omit q from the English

alphabet and add t in Lai alphabet)

Thus, a good number of professional linguists are actively involved for the growth and development of Lai language. As a result, a good number of academic papers and theses in relation to Lai linguistics have come up, such as “Clitic Climbing in Lai” (1995), “Passives and Clefts in Lai” (1996), “Word Combination in Lai” (1999), “Agreement in Lai” (2001), “Imperative Clauses in Lai” (2009)  and Proto-Kuki-Chin are some of them.

b) Literature: The early, and even the development of Lai literature in general can be studied under the following three sub-headings of Laica of early period, Bible and hymnal and for the third, agencies involved in the promotion of Laica:

i) Laica Hun Hmasa: Ever since the publication of The Handbook of The Haka (1891) and A Practical Handbook of The Lais (1897) by Macnabb and Newland, Laica has begun to progress. In c1901, a song entitled “Zisuh Sinah Ra Tuah” was translated, and after, other songs were also translated. By the turn of 1908, there had been 34 songs. In 1909, Mrs Carson published the first primer on Lai language, entitled Lai Rel Nak Tsa Ok and Zhesu A Nun Chung Bia by the same author appeared in 1912. Meantime, Sunday School Lessons, The Catechism, Lai Grammar and Lai Dictionary were in the process of addition.

ii) Baibal le Hlabu: The translation work of Lai Baibal Thiang was first begun by the Carson, and in 1920 appeared The Gospels and The Acts by ABM press. The same press published the whole New Testament, translated by Chester Strait in 1939. Robert Johnson and David Vanbik begun their translation work in 1949, however they gave up in 1951 for some reasons. In 1968, they continued their work, so in 1978 appeared the whole Bible in Lai, entitled Lai Baibal Thiang, which was published by the Bible Society of India. It was revised between 1996 and 1998, and the revised version appeared in 1999. In addition, a hymnal entitled Hla Sa Ok was published in 1918 for the first time. It contains 126 hymns. In 1945, Khrihfa Hlabu which contains 315 songs appeared. So, under the guidance of Robert Johnson, a hymnal of 328 songs appeared in 1956, and in 1970 it was published again. By this time, it contains 469 hymns. By the turn of 1999, Khrihfa Hlabu of 510 hymns appeared under the supervision of Chin Association for Christian Communication (CACC 1999).

iii) Laica A Kiltu: The American Baptist Mission is largely responsible for the promotion and development of Lai language, especially through their missionaries and their churches which they planted in Chin Hills. After the return of the missionaries, Lai Baptist Churches are solely responsible for the developmental purposes in all aspects. In 1998, Chin Christian Literature Society (CCLS)  was established in Chin Hills for the promotion of Lai literature. After, it was renamed Chin Association for Christian Communication (CACC) in 1994, which is now the sole promoter of Lai literature (Ni Kio 2006: 453-54). In India, Lai Autonomous District Council (LADC) introduced Laica in primary school   and middle school in 1989 and 2007 respectively.

Thus, when we look back, our works during a hundred years (1899-1999) are very few, we have 550 volumes in all. However, we see a considerable development in the last decade, our works come up to 400 volumes in all. Thus,  there are 13 regular magazines, 9 journals and 13 newspaper at present (Ni Kio: 2007b: 160-72). And, according to Encarta World English Dictionary, the number of Lai speakers is 8,00,000 (Rooney !999: 333). So, there is no such significant development in Lai literature when we look at the past hundred of years in our literary history. Ka Zahpi Lo by Hrang Nawl, Thihnak Nih A Kan Then Hlan Tiangin by Hniar Kio and Lai Phung le Upadi by Chum Awi are the leading works in Lai literature.

4. Conclusion:

“Lai” can be viewed in two perspectives: first, it is the language of those people who are mainly living in the triangular terrain of Hakha, Lawngtlai and Cox’s Bazar; second it is inclusive of all the Chin languages, such as  Hmar, Mizo, Bawm, Mara and others. It originated around 200 BC and the explosion of Lai dialects took place around AD 750. It was first reduced into writing by Macnabb in 1891 and in 1899, Lai alphabet was formed by Arthur and Laura Carson. Its speakers now increase to more than 8,00,000 as to the first concept, within the second concept it reaches above 5 millions.


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