Letter writers in Arunachal Pradesh: Crafting a script for a tribal tongue
“Maung” could mean dream, unconscious or corpse, in Tangsa, depending on how the word is pronounced. “Pho” could mean something left over, or to start something new, to invent, or to judge.
This nuanced language is the native tongue of the Tangsa tribe based, in India, primarily in the Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh (with populations also in neighbouring Myanmar). It’s a tribe with 40 sub-tribes across both countries, each with its own dialect. And, until recently, the language had no written script.
That changed three decades ago, when Lakhum Mossang devised a common script for Tangsa in 1990. The twist was that barely anyone noticed.
For 30 years, Lakhum, a Class 5 dropout and self-taught scholar, struggled to spread awareness about the script and alphabet he had devised. Now, it is all set to be taught in schools in Changlang district. Sadly, Lakhum isn’t around for the celebration. He died following a stroke, in July 2020, never having seen his script brought to life. He was 86.
What he did live to see, was someone take the torch. Wanglung Mossang, 50, a farmer, part-time tourist guide and fellow Tangsa linguistic scholar, began studying Lakhum’s script in 2012.
Initially, Wanglung was just trying to translate Christian religious articles from English into Tangsa. He found he couldn’t do it using Roman script. There were no consonants or vowels to match many of the sounds he needed.
He had heard about a man from a neighbouring village working on a script for Tangsa. He got in touch with Lakhum and was amazed by his creations. “His symbols don’t resemble any existing script,” says Wanglung. The complex alphabet contained of 81 letters, divided into 48 vowels and 33 consonants.
“The script conveys exactly all the sounds of the language. Lakhum Mossang clearly created it using his deep native-speaker intuition,” says Stephen Morey, an Australian linguist who has been studying endangered languages in the region.
To Wanglung, the script and alphabet were like unearthing hidden treasure. “I decided to join Lakhum in this mission,” Wanglung says.
It took a while to build momentum, but in October 2019, things began to move. In a campaign driven by Lakhum and Wanglung, senior members of the Tangsa community formed a script development committee and began petitioning the government to recognise the script and help promote it with the district. They knew it would help preserve not just the language, but also folklores, songs, poems and more.
In a few months, the union ministry of education, under the Scheme for Protection and Preservation of Endangered Languages (SPPEL), approved the script for use in school curriculums. By end-2021, a textbook was ready. Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu launched it on September 5. The textbooks will now be used to teach Tangsa as a third language, from the academic year 2022-23, in Classes 6 through 8.
“The introduction of local languages like Tangsa in schools is one of the many ways in which we can impart in younger generations a sense of the importance of mother tongues,” says Radhe Yampi, assistant director of research (culture) with the government of Arunachal Pradesh.
Menom Mossang, 27, a mathematics teacher at a Changlang school, is looking forward to teaching her language to youngsters from the tribe. “It symbolises our identity and culture. We are proud of the committee for helping our community give shape to what was only spoken so far,” she says.
Meanwhile, in safekeeping with the script development committee, are a number of handwritten documents that now constitute the first pieces of writing in this ancient language. They’re traditional songs and prayers, written decades ago by Lakhum Mossang, as part of his bid to preserve his tribe’s culture.