South of the Brahmaputra river flowing in upper Assam, you’ll find groups of people speaking in monosyllabic words with each other. If you think they’re speaking in an Assamese dialect, think again – because this cluster of villages is the only one keeping the language of Tai Aiton alive.
With 780 recognized languages and thousands of dialects, India has the second highest number of languages in the world. Certain families of languages have ownership of these tongues – for instance, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati belong to the Indo Aryan Family of languages. Languages spoken in south India like Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada are a part of the Dravidan Family of languages. A similar family called Tai-Kadai family lays claim a handful of Assamese dialects as well as a few in Arunachal Pradesh. Tai Aiton is one such language.
Spoken only in around 250 households, Tai Aiton is officially a threatened language. Its relatives from the Tai family include the languages Thai and Laos, two very popular languages of Southeast Asia. Consequently, the language is quite similar to Thai and its dialects. The script of this language, though, is Burmese. This fact can be attributed to the history of the Tai Aiton people. The earliest Tai Aiton residents of India were migrants from Myanmar, who crossed the Patkai hills in the 16th and 17th century to settle in Assam. Presently, the Tai Aiton people live in pockets of upper Assam along with the Turung and Khamyang people. With a gradual decline in the population this tribe, its native language is also suffering.
The Tai languages posses a unique attribute: they are spoke solely in monosyllabic words. So, each symbol of the Tai Aiton language has a tone, and there is a total of only three tones. The language also allows only 9 possible sequences of vowels from the total seven vowels that it possesses. The Tai Aiton language is unique in its manner of voicing these vowels as well. Unfortunately, with no more than 2000 people speaking the language, it is dying out.
According to Britannica, the most common reason behind native languages becoming extinct is new generations of a culture learning a different language – perhaps a more commonly spoken or socially acceptable language – which results in the future generations of the culture never learning the native language. Perhaps this is the fate of Tai Aiton, a language that carries years of Burmese-Assamese history on its back. However, it is not alone. In India, about 191 languages are currently endangered, carrying labels such as “vulnerable”, and “definitely endangered” depending on the number of people speaking the language. Tai Aiton falls under languages that are “severely endangered.” A mark of the Northeast India’s historical ties to the Thai and Burmese culture, come next century, the Tai Aiton language may exist no more.
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