Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bishnupriya (Manipuri) Speakers in Bangladesh: A Sociolinguistic Survey

This report presents the findings of a survey conducted in the Bishnupriya Manipuri community of Bangladesh. Data gathered through word lists, sociolinguistic questionnaires, and SRTs are presented and analyzed to determine the current sociolinguistic situation. In brief, it was concluded that the Bishnupriya are highly bilingual in Bangla, the national language, but also speak their mother tongue enough to keep its vitality high and have a positive attitude toward their mother tongue. Still, an increased use of mother tongue literacy would strengthen its usefulness and vitality even more. Amy Kim & Seung Kim prepared this report for SIL International.

1.1. Purposes and goals
The purpose of this sociolinguistic survey of Bishnupriya was to gather information that would be used to plan a language-development program for the Bishnupriya Manipuris living in Bangladesh. We wanted to know how linguistically uniform the Bishnupriya Manipuri language is throughout their community and, from a sociolinguistic point of view, whether or not Bishnupriya warranted literature production and literacy programs. Just as importantly, we wanted to know the community’s attitude toward such programs. To meet these purposes, the following goals were established:
1. To investigate possible dialectal differences among Bishnupriya speakers
2. To determine the Bishnupriya people’s attitudes towards their own language and towards
other language varieties
3. To assess the Bishnupriya community’s fluency in Bangla
4. To assess the long-term viability of the Bishnupriya language in Bangladesh

To accomplish these goals, this sociolinguistic survey of Bishnupriya was carried out in three interrelated parts: 1) a study of the dialects of the language, 2) a study of language use, attitudes, and vitality, and 3) a bilingualism study. Figure 1 gives a summary of the sociolinguistic methods used in this survey.

1.1.1. Study of the dialects of the language
A 307-item wordlist was taken at six Bishnupriya villages. These wordlists were then compared as a way of determining lexical similarity among Bishnupriya varieties in Bangladesh. See appendix B.1 for procedures for lexical similarity comparison.

1.1.2. Language use, attitudes, and vitality study
In order to assess the Bishnupriya people’s patterns of language use and their attitudes towards their own and other languages, a sociolinguistic questionnaire was used. Information from the questionnaire gives an indication as to whether the Bishnupriya would accept and use materials translated into their own languages or into another language which is highly intelligible with their own. The questionnaire is given in appendix C.1.

1.1.3. Bilingualism study
A Sentence Repetition Test (SRT) in Bangla was specifically developed to assess levels of bilingualism among minority language speakers in Bangladesh. Thus, it was the primary tool used in the survey of the Bishnupriya to study their bilingual ability in Bangla as well as patterns of bilingualism within the community. The Community Information Questionnaire (CIQ) and the sociolinguistic questionnaire were also used to gather information about the depth and breadth of bilingualism. See appendix E.1 for procedures for using the SRT; see appendix C.4 for the CIQ and appendix F for information gathered through the CIQ.

1.2. Geography
In Bangladesh, almost all of the Bishnupriya live in the flat farmlands of Sylhet division (see figure 2), mainly in Moulvibazar district. They also reside in a few villages in the other three districts of Sylhet division. (See figure 3 for approximate locations of the villages we visited during the research.) The vast majority of Bishnupriya villages are easily accessible by a combination of public buses and/or rickshaws, as they are quite close to main roads and towns. Living on flat farmland—and in Bangladesh one is never too far from a sizable river— Bishnupriya villages are prone to the yearly flooding that afflicts most of Bangladesh. In Kamalganj thana of Moulvibazar district—the population and cultural center of the Bangladesh Bishnupriya community—the Dhala river first snakes down along the Indian border and then travels up through the heart of the thana, often causing bank damage and floods.

1.4. People
One can see a bit of the Bishnupriya history in their faces, for they indeed look like they come from Aryan stock, but with a tinge of Mongoloid features. They are a hardworking, peaceful people who value hospitality highly: they were very understanding when we declined their offer of paan, but it was difficult to keep them from preparing tea and snacks. The Bishnupriya of Bangladesh are a predominantly agricultural people who rely on rice farming for much of their livelihood. There are only a few businessmen among them; as one Bishnupriya man put it, “We are not aggressive or cunning enough to compete in the world of businesses and markets.” However, there have been efforts to market their handwoven clothes and fabrics, and the Bishnupriya seem to recognize that to thrive in the modern world, it would be advantageous to expand beyond the rice paddy.

Almost all of the Bishnupriya live in predominantly Bishnupriya villages, where they live in peaceful coexistence with other Bengalis, both Muslim and Hindu. At first glance, their villages look no different from other villages, but on closer inspection, one notices certain differences: a wall-less temple area that is the heart of any village, as well as a loom on the front veranda of every house. The Bishnupriya are justifiably proud of their culture as expressed in their handwoven clothing. Even today, the Bishnupriya men and women wear their distinctly colored and patterned handmade clothing, though the men seem just as comfortable in modern western clothing, and the younger women often wear salwar kamize. Another source of pride for the Bishnupriya is their dance and music. They recognize their dance and music as an important heritage, as a cultural wealth. Thus, they are active in promoting and performing their dance and music not only in Bangladesh, but also abroad in England. Not only that, they see their dance and music as a means of connecting and communicating with the outside world. On many occasions, the Bishnupriya use them as a gesture of welcome and friendship towards us.

The factor that unites the Bishnupriya culture and people is their religion. One might say that the people, culture, and religion constitute a seamless whole. The Bishnupriya people’s religion can be called a sect of Hinduism, more specifically a cult of Vishnu. Though the name Bishnupriya comes from the god Vishnu, another principal deity is Krishna, for whom many of the songs and dances are performed (Singha, www.manipuri.freehomepage.com). The Bishnupriya do not have a caste system as in mainline Hinduism, but instead they follow a twotiered hierarchy consisting of the brahmin priests and all the others. Also, the Bishnupriya cannot marry outside their religion, even with mainline Hindus.

The Bishnupriya are generally better educated than the average Bangladeshi. Almost everyone we talked with said they recognized the importance of education, and their actions match their words. Today, nearly all children go to school, with a very high percentage taking the secondary school certificate (SSC) examination, and their level of literacy in Bangla—for everyone but the very oldest members of their community—is very high. (11)

In summary, it can be said that among the twenty thousand to forty thousand Bishnupriya living in Bangladesh, there is both a strong attachment to the traditions of the past and a deep desire to appropriate the trends of the present. As a minority community, the Bishnupriya seem to have an innate sense that both are vital for their standing in the world in the future.

1.5. Language
Bishnupriya can be categorized into the following language family and subclassifications: Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Indo-Aryan, Eastern zone, Bengali-Assamese (Grimes 2000:393).

Some scholars like Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee have claimed that Bishnupriya is a dialect of Bengali, while others like Dr. Maheswar Neog and Dr. Banikanta Kakti have said that it is a dialect of Assamese (Singha, www.languageinindia.com). The Bishnupriya would generally dispute these claims, and assert that Bishnupriya is a distinct, separate language. Their advocates site lexical and grammatical features unique to Bishnupriya as proof (Singha, www.languageinindia.com). Again, resolving this dispute was not our goal. A far more rigorous study of Bishnupriya, as well as of Bengali and Assamese, would be required, and that is simply outside the scope of our research. A summary of what we found regarding the lexical similarity between Bangla and Bishnupriya can be found in section 2.1., but even this data is not conclusive because it is difficult to know what percentage of Bishnupriya words have been more recently borrowed from Bangla, Sylhetti, or Assamese.

Currently, Bishnupriya is spoken in Manipur, Tripura, and Assam states in India, in some parts of Myanmar, and in Sylhet division in Bangladesh. There are only a small number of Bishnupriya remaining in Manipur state (in the Jiribam subdistrict) since most Bishnupriya fled Manipur to neighboring lands and countries in the eighteenth century. For those who remained, it was difficult to keep and promote their mother tongue due to the dominant influence of the Meitei people, culture, and language.

Bishnupriya has two main dialects: 1) Rajar Gang (or king’s-village speech), and 2) Madoi Gang (or queen’s-village speech). What is interesting is that, in present-day Bangladesh, the dialects are not divided by geography, but by clan. That is, two villages that lie side-by-side may have different dialects, and people from the king’s village would not be allowed to marry those from the queen’s village. Originally, geography may have played more of a role in the dialect difference: “The Madoi Gang dialect was spoken probably in the Khangabok- Heirok area and the Rajar Gang dialect, in the Bishnupur Ningthankhong area of Manipur. Morphological difference between the two dialects is negligible, but from the point of vocabulary, there are differences.” (Singha, manipuri.freeservers.com)

Bishnupriya is primarily used for oral communication, but there is also a small, committed group of people who want to promote Bishnupriya in written form. In Bangladesh, there are literary magazines and books that are being published in Bishnupriya and, in Assam state, Bishnupriya is being taught in government primary schools. Also, although Bishnupriya is now written exclusively using the Bangla script, this wasn’t always so. According to some, Bishnupriya was written using the Devanagri script prior to the takeover of Manipur by the Meiteis. (12)

W. Shaw and Raj Mohan Nath, two eminent scholars, are of the view that Bishnupriya with its Devanagri script had been the court language of Manipur and was replaced by king Khagenba [in A.D. 1627]. R.M. Nath says "so in Manipur in spite of Devanagri scripts which the kala-chaias might have been using, the Meitei when they came into power introduced the new scripts." (Singha, manipuri.org). In spite of all the controversy (or perhaps because of it), it becomes all the more clear that the Bishnupriya people in Bangladesh value their mother tongue and see it as an important part of their culture and heritage. They see it as a distinguishing hallmark for the Bishnupriya people and a factor that unites their community to give it strength and an identity.



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