Is it Meetei or Meitei ?

James Oinam *

At the very outset, I would like to make this clear that my intention is not to pronounce any judgement on which is correct, Meetei or Meitei, or to advocate in favour of any of the above, even if I might have personal preference.

This article covers language debates around the world that might be relevant for us to navigate this contentious terrain.

Even the well-known English language is not without its share of differences in opinion - whether to spell analyze verb with an 's' (analyse) or 'z' (analyze); whether to use 'a' or 'an' before words like 'hospital'.

In France, there is an organization, Académie française, which acts as a custodian of French language. It is responsible for compiling list of French words (publishing official dictionary) and taking care of French language and grammar.

For English language also, there are those who have similar agenda. In her TED Talk, Erin McKean envisions a dictionary (online?) which will contain all the words of the English language, including all the archived words of newspapers printed before the coming of the computer, academic papers held in institutes, and even the slang words. This she conjectures would double the vocabulary of the English language. And it can be done with active support from the common people and not just institutes.

In other fields also, help from the common people is sourced for academic and other purposes. Astronomers are seeking inputs from amateurs to scan the enormous sky, civic bodies are asking for inputs from people to check digging and robbing of archaeological sites by looking at satellite images - to name a few.

Here, one can point out that the author Athokpam Chinglemba Luwang, in his self-published book Meitei Pictographic Writings, recommended establishing a body to study pictographic literature of Manipur. Why not have one for the Meitei/Manipuri language as a whole, including the various languages and dialects spoken in Manipur?

We already call Meiteilon/Meeteilon as Manipuri language, and have taken a lot of loan words from Hindi and Arabic/Urdu. On a Facebook post, a friend jokingly pointed out the Arabic/Urdu word 'shamiyana' has become Manipuri 'seminar'.

What's the harm in imbibing all the Kuki and Naga (and of course others) dialects into Meiteilon, thereby making it Manipuri in the proper sense of the term? I am sure it will only enrich the language and go a long way in bringing down the barriers between the valley and the hills.

On one hand, one can work on 'fixing' language problems through bureaucratic means, but on the other hand we need to remember that it is the learned public who will finally decide what is 'right' through their usage of the language.

Meetei might be etymologically correct and it may be true to its constituent parts - mee (image [of God]) + atei (others), which means something created in the image of God.

But nonsensical words are known to exist in English. For example, Merriam Webster (online) lists irregardless as a valid word, much to the annoyance of some people. But it comes with a note though: 'It is a real word (but that doesn't mean you have to use it)'. So the dictionary lets the people decide.

In British English, the word judgement will be spelt without the 'e' after 'g' if it is referring to court rulings (in American English it is invariably spelt without the 'e', even when you mean opinion) (Butcher and others, 2011, page 159).

So coming to our problem, can Meetei or Meitei spelling be used depending on the context? This would be the third way, the other options being using either Meetei or Meitei consistently.

After all said and done, in the end it will be the learned public who will sanctify the words and grammar through their usage. Spellings, meanings and usage are malleable entities and are known to change with time.

The grammarians and the common people hold the opposite ends of the rope in this tug of war. And the cautious writers stick to the middle ground. What will become of it, only time will tell.

Butcher, Judith, Caroline Drake and Maureen Leach (2011). Butcher's Copy-editing. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.

* James Oinam wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at jamesoinam(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on December 01, 2017.

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