Dr George A Grierson

Dr George A Grierson

Who is Dr Grierson by the way? George Abraham Grierson, an Irish linguist from Dublin, was an official of the Indian Civil Service. He conducted The Linguistic Survey of India (LSI) between 1894 and 1928 for the British Raj in which he described 364 languages and dialects, and ignorantly included the “Meitheis”, which is the name of the people – Meitheis [Meiteis] instead of the language Meiteilon, as a Tibeto-Burman language.

 In 1898 he was appointed Superintendent of this newly formed ‘Linguistic Survey of India’ and moved to England “for convenience of consulting libraries and scholars”. Prior to this time he was an Opium Agent for Bihar. He wrote ‘Seven grammars of the dialects and sub-dialects of the Bihari language’ (1883-87) and ‘Bihari Peasant Life’ (1885). He was infamous for his efforts.

He did a remarkable job with the Linguistic Survey, considering his lifestyle of sitting in an office in Calcutta, after an English breakfast until lunch with pink gin and again until dinner with Jamieson Irish whiskey at dinner at the Calcutta Club at Chowringhee. He used untrained field workers to collect information.

Grierson never came to Manipur or near about during those years. He collected information from Wahengbam Yumjao (no disrespect to him), an amateur archaeologist and member of the Manipur State Durbar, who advised Christopher Gimson, the PoliticalAgent of Manipur at that time (1933-1947) about the Meitei script, Meetei Mayek, as well as many other aspects of Meiteilon for the Linguistic Survey of India.

Thomas Callan Hodson wrote in his book The Meitheis (2009, p12), that in discussing the origin of the Loi communities he could not add very much to Dr Grierson’s remarks on the paucity of linguistic evidence and that “none of these dialects has been returned for the survey and they have probably all disappeared.”

The Indian Government, having realised that Grierson’s LSI was not trustworthy, conducted a census in 1991 and found 1,576 ‘mother tongues’ with separate grammatical structure, and 1,796 languages, classified as “other mother tongues”. It was recognised that South India such as Madras, Hyderabad, Mysore and many princely states were neglected and thus under-represented.

Grierson’s Linguistic Survey is now useful only as an aid-memoir. It is practically unreliable as his data gathering methods by untrained field workers lacked professional competence. His conceptual schema for language analysis existed on various levels of abstraction.

For quite sometime I have had a personal and intuitive feeling that Meiteilon is not a Tibeto-Burman language as I have been sceptical about the Meiteis migrating from somewhere in the Far East. This intuitive understanding prompted me to write about this language dissention in the pursuit of this uncertain knowledge.

My critical assessment of competing views of the marching controversy of the origin of Meiteilon is that they are motivationally efficient but phylogenetically ineffectual. Maintaining critical intent, my argument is against the over-determined received “academic” notion that the 2,000-year old Meiteilon is a Tibeto-Burman language and that the Meiteis migrated to Manipur from somewhere in Southeast Asia, by presenting balanced multiple points of view, and by opposing obscurely described claims against modern established views.

A postmodern perspective expands that the inclusion of Meiteilon in the Tibeto-Burman family, which incorporates a world view of population dispersal and language diffusion without any historical facts, based on the central theory of human migration/invasion models, kept alive erroneously by Dr Grierson and Dr Konov, is dangerously undermining the real identity of Meiteilon.

For compelling reasons I consider it necessary to turn to Darwin’s evolutionary paradigm. My theory for the purpose of this discussion assumes a perspective which I am going to enlarge to allow the readers to see things a certain way.

The perspective is that the Meitei language was self-generated and self–evolved in the long Meitei evolutionary process, by natural selection. There were seven clans of Meiteis each speaking a different language. Once a communication was intended among them Meiteilon evolved into a rule-governed system.

My understanding is based on the “Linguistic evolution through language”, edited by Ted Briscoe (2002).

In 1990, Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom proposed that specialisation for grammar evolved by the Neo-Darwinian process of Natural selection, while the consensus of linguistics had been, for a long time, quite the opposite.

A decade later, inquiry into the evolutionary emergence of language was no longer shunned by most scholars (Christiansen and Kirby, 2003), due both to the seminal work of Pinker, Bloom and others in the psychology of language and in linguistics, and crucially to the steady stream of insights offered by formal analyses and computational simulations of language evolution.

The theory emerges from the basis that one cannot only address the language per se within the framework of evolutionary theory but also the origins and subsequent development of languages themselves; languages evolve via cultural rather than biological transmission on a historical rather than genetic timescale.

My theory is that during the end of the late Last Ice Age about 25,000-20,000 years ago, a group to which every Meitei today belongs, separated from the main body of early humans in India, expanding to the east through the Northeast corridor and settled in Manipur, as the Austroasiatic speaking Khasis did in Meghalaya.

This was the time when the anatomical changes from the original dark African ancestors to the Mongolic phenotype occurred because of ‘drift’ or by Natural Selection, as adaptation to cold. Our Meitei ancestors were a small population and thus quite favourable to the force of drift. Manipur in the Pleistocene Age (extreme fluctuation of temperature) was a distant cold country and within the range of “Last Glaciations”.

Language seems to ‘evolve’ at a much faster rate than genetic evolution, and seems to evolve by non-genetic means. Non-genetic evolution might have happened to Meitelon that developed as a regional language under pressure for communication and it evolved much faster than any Tibeto-Burman language as it is doing now.

Meiteilon in the past 50 years has advanced so quickly that it is equal to other major languages in India. One can do Ph D studies at many Indian Universities. It is included in 8th Schedule of the Major Indian languages of the Indian Constitution in 1992.

Impetus for better communication in writing and keeping records led to the development of its own archaic indigenous alphabet – Meitei mayek, while the Tibetans borrowed Devnagri script and the Burmese acquired the Tamil alphabet. The Chinese used pictograms.

Current research in genetics, archaeology and anthropology all over the world, has shown no invasion or migration of people from Southeast Asia to Manipur. There are no facts of invariable connection between Meiteilon and the Tibeto-Burman language family. There is no proto-Tibeto-Burman speaking homeland anywhere in Southeast and East Asia.

The old Meitei language of the Poireiton group such as Andro, Sekmai, and Chairel etc is a tonal language like the languages of Northeast India, where the similarity ends. It has only some similarities with the Kachin language spoken in the Kachin state of Myanmar, and Bodo in Assam.

In Meiteilon, tone is phonemic with three tones. That is the meaning of the word changes in accordance with the tone viz., rising, falling and level. For example, masi yamna phate (this is very bad); masi yaaamna phate (this is awfully bad); and masi aduk yamna phataba nateda (this is not that bad).

Typologically, Meiteilon is an agglutinating language and there are some similarities in vocabulary at the morphological level with the Tibeto-Burman languages as languages do assimilate one from the other.

Meiteilon is not really related to either in the roots of verbs or in the form of grammar to any Tibeto-Burman language. It has only language affinity ie similar in structure which may suggest a common origin. There are however various “doubtful cognates” ie possible chance similarities. There are also “False friends” or false cognates. These are pairs of words in two languages or dialects (or letters in two alphabets) that look similar but differ in meaning.

Shobhana Lakshmi Chelliah, Prof of Linguistics at the University of North Texas is a highly distinguished linguist in Meithei. She did her MA thesis on Meiteilon, from St Stephen’s College in Delhi in 1984 but still uses Meithei for Meiteilon (Manipuri).

She, like everybody else accepted Meiteilon as Tibeto-Burman. After reading TC Hodson and others, she thought Meithei was an endangered language.

She writes: “My primary research is Documentary Linguistics which involves collecting, archiving, and analyzing endangered language data through original field investigation.” Her publications include The Grammar of Meithei, Mouton 1997 which I read five years ago and to which I made a reference in my book- ‘Meiteilon is not a Tibeto-Burman language’. She is currently working on the documentation of Lamkang, a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in Manipur.

In the Introduction by Sohini Ray (Harvard Universirty) in Shobhana’s book, The Grammar of Meithei, she writes: “On the one hand, Meithei shares many features with Tibeto-Burman languages such as tone, widespread stem homophony, agglutination verb morphology, verb derivation, suffixes … lack of grammatical relations such as “subject” and “object” (Delaney 1987, Matisoff 1991b).”

“On the other hand, Meithei is atypical of the Kamarupan group in some significant ways. It lacks pronominal marking on the verb, which is considered an original Tibeto-Burman trait (Bauman 1975, De Lancey1989b), and it lacks numerical classifiers.”

Also due to extensive cultural contact with Indo-Aryan languages, in particular Bengali and Sanskrit, and in recent times Assamese and Hindi, Meithei contains a large number of borrowed lexical items and some non-Tibeto-Burman construction such as the use of question words as heads of relative clauses.”

Equally famous Anna Maria Di Sciullo, Prof of Linguistics, University of Quebec, Montreal, in her “Cartography of phases: Facts and Interference in Meiteilon” (2010), which all the linguistic students know, argues about the relationship between cartographic and phasalheads, the data of which come from Meiteilon, a language that lacks tense morphology.

These references are quoted to the specific point in my argument that Meiteilon is not established as Tibeto-Burman, though everyone accepts it as a fact without question. There are many ambiguities and uncertainties as regards interpretation of this language.

The 19th century geographical approach to the origin of languages on the cartographic (maps and charts) paradigm in linguistics, as in the case of Meiteilon, is now found to be lacking in linguistic competence.

There are vast theories of the myths of languages. The Tibeto-Burman origin of Meiteilon is such a myth. The Meitei language is unique, as are the Meitei people and Meitei alphabet.

Many linguists have used traditional techniques to construct the evolutionary tree of languages by comparing their vocabularies. The trouble is the speed at which word-use changes means that this approach is not much good at looking further back than 10,000 years. The etymology of our Meitei ancestors is 20,000 years old.

Still, ancient European anthropologists interpreted Meithei (Meiteilon) as a Tibeto-Burman language simply because the Meitei look Mongoloid and live in a geographical area where other Tibeto-Burman speaking people live.

There are now many studies that point out the derogatory nature of grouping all Mongoloid people of Northeast India as Tibeto-Burman speakers as mere European ethnocentrism and supremacism.

Even now, many Indian researchers and the Government of India recognise castes and tribals and usually state that most people from Northeast India are tribals and speak one of the Tibeto-Burman languages. Quite a few research projects have been undertaken in India eg by Analabha Basu et al, among the tribals of Northeast India, but the Meiteis were never included, perhaps, because they are not considered to be tribal as is defined under the Indian Constitution.

In the late 20th century, thinking Indians began to question the existence of an Indo-Aryan language in India, as there is no archaeological evidence of a people known as Aryans ever invading India. Even the long-accepted genetic relationship of the hypothetical Sino-Tibetan family remains disputed among the specialists, but accepted without question by non-specialist linguists, as in the case of Meiteilon.

Meiteilon is a non-Tibeto-Burman Indian language in Southeast Asia, surviving with a number of Tibeto-Burman languages like the various Naga languages in the northern region, Myanmarese in the east, Mizo in the southeastern region and Bodo in the west.

My thesis statement that tries to give a tangible and concrete form to the evolutionary nature of Meiteilon with some logical structures and real-world references in linguistics, has in my favour, three of the world’s leading authorities on Tibeto-Burman languages – Emeritus Prof James A Matisoff, University of California (2003), Prof Dr George Van Driem at the University of Berne (2001) and Prof. David Bradley at the La Trobe University, Australia (1997).

Among these, Prof Driem has conducted field research in Nepal, Bhutan, Northeast India and the Western Himalayas since 1983. He propounded the symbiotic theory of language which is a Darwinian concept in relation to evolutionary biology. It incorporates the “meme” concept developed by Richard Dawkins. Driem’s Darwinian model of the human mind explains language as a semiotic (that studies human signs and sign processes) organism.

A meme is a unit – a cultural analogue to a gene that can transmit cultural ideas from one mind to another through speech, writing, rituals etc. Memes may evolve by ‘natural selection’ through processes of variation, mutation, competition and inheritance.

The symbiotic clarification of the origin of language, put bluntly, is the idea that language is an organism, which has nestled in our brain, living in symbiosis. Meiteilon is such a semiotic language.

The three linguists have independently re-classified Tibeto-Burman languages in which Meithei (Meiteilon) is not included anymore. They have left Meiteilon unclassified, as will been seen in Matisoff’s classification below.

Under Kamarupan, ‘Kuki-Chin-Naga’ has replaced Grierson’s ‘NE India’ (Northeast India) that includes Meiteis and Austroasiatic speaking Khasis.

The originality of Meiteilon (Manipuri) is now indisputable though one can go on arguing at length. It awaits classification in the modern language tree though the classification of languages is a matter of considerable disagreement, because the languages change so fast and are mutable. Many linguists are sceptical of attempts to find ancient relationship between living languages.



James Matisoff’s classification:





~ Kuki-Chin-Naga

~ Abor-Miri-Dafla

~ Bodo-Garo


~ Maha-Kiranti (includes Nepal Bhasa, Magar, Rai)



~ Jingpho-Nungish-Luish

~ Kachinic (jingpho)

~ Nungish

~ Luish






Grierson’s classification:

Meiteilon is no more a skeleton in the cupboard. As both methods of the classification of languages ie typology and genetic are very controversial, no one should believe that Meiteilon is one of the Tibeto-Burman languages.


March 22 2011