Out of roughly 7,000 languages spoken across the world, over 80% of the languages are estimated to disappear within the next century. The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) atlas of the world’s languages in danger shows that 2,464 are endangered currently. All Naga languages are listed as “vulnerable” meaning that most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains. Of the 14 Naga languages listed, EastMojo looked at why preserving the Tenyidie language—a standard language with one of the largest groups of speakers—matters.

What is Tenyidie, and who uses the language?

According to Ura Academy (UA), a literary society established in 1971, there are 10 tribes—Angami, Chakhesang, Pochury, Zeliangrong, Rengma, Mao, Maram, Poumai, Thangal, and Impui, that form a community called the Tenyimia. Tenyimia is a group of Naga tribes that trace common ancestry and have the largest speakers of a standard language called the Tenyidie language.

The Academy, which works for the preservation and perpetuation of Tenyimia culture, in its book “Ura Academy Dze” (which roughly translates as the story of Ura Academy), said Christian missionary CD King and his wife, who established a mission school in Kohima in 1882, introduced Tenyidie as a subject in 1884.

Then, Rev SW Rivenburg and his wife Hattie, who came to Kohima in 1887, took up the incomplete literary works left by CD King and literalised the Angami dialect or the Tenyidie language. Rivenburg is credited to have translated three chapters of the Bible.

As per research by Riku Khutso, the standardisation of Tenyidie by the missionaries was a significant factor in taking the literary language to the different parts of Tenyimia-inhabited areas. With the rapid spread of Christianity, Tenyidie became the common medium of communication, as the Bible and hymnals were printed in Tenyidie.

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Degree of endangerment

The Angami vernacular, along with Kheza, Rengma, Chokri, Pochury, Sumi, Lotha, Yimchunger (now known as Yimkhiung), Khiamniungan, Ao, Sangtam, Phom, Konyak and Chang was listed by UNESCO as vulnerable among the endangered languages.

Despite Tenyidie being the mother language, most of the Tenyimia tribes have their own dialects— where speakers of different dialects within the same language have very similar, little or even no similarity to Tenyidie.

“If we look at the population growth, the number of Tenyidie speakers is increasing. But there is a threat geographically as the number of speakers may actually be decreasing,” Mhalezolie Kire, Editor and Publisher of Capi, a Tenyidie vernacular daily, tells EastMojo. Capi is the oldest existing vernacular daily in Nagaland, with a wide circulation of the newspaper in Kohima, Dimapur and Phek.

A woman reads a newsletter published in Tenyidie language

He cited how the older generation of the Pochury tribe living along the Myanmar border still speaks Tenyidie, but the Pochury dialect is spoken predominantly among the younger generation, especially among those living in the Meluri subdivision under Phek district. The same is visible among the other Tenyimia tribes in Kohima and Dimapur districts. 

Following the advent of Christianity and the introduction of modern education, English became an aspirational language. In the absence of a standard common language for the Nagas, the international language undoubtedly became the official language of the state and remains the main medium of education.

“We never consider a language to be superior to the other, irrespective of the number of speakers. Language is expansive,” says Professor D Kuolie, head of department (HoD) of Linguistics at Nagaland University.

According to him, all Naga languages are “safe” from endangerment. He believes the number of speakers, as identified by UNESCO, should not be the only factor for classifying the degree of endangerment. Naga languages are witnessing a growth in literature, which is helping save and secure the languages, he adds. 

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Of all Naga languages, Tenyidie is the only language taught academically at the PhD level. The Ao language is taught till the undergraduate level. The Lotha and Sumi languages are taught till the pre-university level. As for the rest of the languages, it is taught till class 8, he tells EastMojo

However, these languages are taught in some government and private schools across the state unlike English, which is compulsory.

Despite the Naga languages being “safe” for now, he said there is a need to develop the native languages for all-round development. He pointed how the lack of Naga language writings in humanities, philosophy, science and technology is endangering the languages. He said there is a need to develop native literature not confined to a particular field of study.

The present scenario of Tenyidie language

Capi editor and publisher Kire said in an attempt to preserve Tenyidie at present, there needs to be a balance of the languages. “Despite the standardisation of the Tenyidie language, we have to balance the language along with words used daily. For example, we use both the English and Tenyidie words on the daily newspaper prints to show the months of the year and days of the week, keeping in mind our young readers,” Kire said.

Professor Kuolie, who has authored 17 books in Tenyidie, said “Our Naga intellectuals or the educated class have become illiterate io their mother tongue. It is not their fault. It is the fault of the situation and the progress of the society.”  

As all Naga languages are non-scheduled languages, he said that the influence of Christianity and modern education has brought about a social change, directly affecting the native languages. The approach of the Christian-majority state in developing a secular language, according to him, is “totally nil” as there is no concrete and constructive approach to enrich the native literature.

With the advancement and competency of the English language, he said that the knowledge acquired through English can be taken as raw material to develop the respective languages and revive the indigenous languages.

Nagamese: A threat to Naga languages including Tenyidie

According to Professor Kuolie, Nagamese—the ‘language of the street’ is a natural threat to the Naga languages. Nagamese is said to be a combination of Assamese, Hindi and Bengali. “Although Nagamese is not of Naga origin, it has become the viable medium of communication and we cannot avoid it. It is a direct threat for the Naga languages and so the people must realise that their languages will be forgotten if the street language is often used,” he said.

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Saying that languages should never be legislated, Kuolie, who is also the General Secretary of Ura Academy, said that language must be used by speakers as a natural evolution. He said that as the UA is trying to save the Tenyidie language, it does not pay any attention to the development of Nagamese.

“Nagamese is killing our language,” Vizonyü Liezietsu, Rtd Agriculture joint director, told the Tenyidie Kephrünuoko Krotho (TKK), an organization comprising of college students majoring in Tenyidie subject, during a seminar held in Kohima recently. He said that the citizens of the state should rather learn Hindi instead of speaking Nagamese.

Why preserving Tenyidie matters

“The value of the many degrees one earns in life is diminished without knowledge of one’s language,” Liezietsu said. He urged the need to preserve the language as some words from the Tenyidie language are now disappearing. He said that if the traditional practices are no longer followed by people, it contributes to the loss of the languages.   

As for Kire, he is of the view that if the Tenyidie language is used, spoken and preserved by the present generation, there should be no worry of its extinction in the next few decades.

As a former leader of the Angami Students’ Union (ASU), he recounted how in 1995, the student body had made it mandatory for schools within its jurisdiction to introduce Tenyidie as a language study in the schools. “It was for the first time that such a decision was made, as we felt the need to preserve the language,” he said.

At present, there are only a few schools and colleges that offer Tenyidie as an optional subject. “Language cannot be imposed. So, now it has become really important for the younger generation to realise what is their first language and their second language,” he added.

It may be safe to note that the youth at present are multilingual as they are exposed to English through modern education, Nagamese—the default street language and the local dialect which is often spoken at home. Despite being multilingual, most people may be inclined towards the English language—the language which is taught at a very tender age.

Kire said that the younger generation should be encouraged to learn Tenyidie. 

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“The native speakers should accept and respect their language. They should try to speak and write it even if it may be up to the standard,” he expressed with concern.

However, it is also interesting to see how the present generation of people is connecting with the older generation over social networking sites to learn the language. An instance is the WhatsApp group called “Teach and learn Tenyidie”, comprising of native Tenyidie Speakers of all ages, who use the platform to communicate and learn about the language.

The group which was created in 2020 provides a platform for the members to share knowledge about the language where members can teach and also learn by exchanging text messages, graphics and even audio messages. Liezietsu is one active member of the group who shares his knowledge about the language through the mobile application.

Vilhoukhoü Solo, an elder from the Angami tribe, said that the present generation can be the bridge to connect the older generation and the future generation. “Preserving the language requires collective effort. To strengthen and pass on our language is our responsibility,” she said.  

Dr Khrüvolü Keyho, the first scholar to be conferred with a PhD in Tenyidie, said that at present, the Tenyidie language is popular among the Naga languages as there are a certain set of rules/standards that are used to maintain the language.

The lecturer said that despite the introduction of the Tenyidie language in schools, colleges and at the university level, the language is not given due respect even by those teaching the language. To preserve and protect the language, she urged the need to use and speak the language at common gatherings.     

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