The long-awaited genetic recognition that Meiteis & Meiteilon are not Tibeto-Burman

Dr. Irengbam Mohendra Singh *

THE REALLY DIFFICULT THING is to persuade people that the 120-year old GRIERSON’S classification OF MEITEOLON is wrong

 'Meiteis & Meiteilon are not Tibeto-Burman'  : Book Cover
'Meiteis & Meiteilon are not Tibeto-Burman' : Book Cover

Meiteilon has been made to hover for over 100 years, with a twig in its beak, all over the world's language firmament, while top linguists have been trying to find a place in the Tibeto-Burman language tree, but it won't fit. It's time to plant her as a separate sapling.

World's Language trees : Every linguist Joe Bloke wants to be the first to graft Meiteilon into any suitable chasm of the Tibeto- Burman language Tree. But it won't grow.

The challenges of writing against the six score-year-old belief are obvious. It's like writing that God doesn't exist. The sources are scant and the mindset of the subject is alien. I do so because I have a strong conviction that Meiteis were the original inhabitants of Manipur and Meitei language and Meitei alphabet are uniquely self-contained. This can only be proven by genetic testing. The truth has now emerged.

Why insist on Meiteilon being Tibeto-Burman?
Not wanting to change the long-agreed opinion of the Irish linguist George A Grierson'.

The farce is now lucidly exposed by the greatest linguist Robins Burling at Tezpur University, Assam on February 5-7 2016. "Everybody loves trees – they look so neat, tidy and plausible, like the evolution of biological speceis. A few, especially, Grierons's, Shaffer's and Bradley's, are regularly cited by all kinds of people, and have taken on the "feel" of established scientific consensus."

Burling continues: "This is not the case, at least, not for many "Tibeto-Burman languages of NorthEast India. To be fair, quite a lot of progress has been made, especially by Matisoff (2003, inter alia). But the work is nothing like complete, especially for Northeast Indian languages and there is nothing like consensus."

  Author's book 'Meiteis & Meiteilon are not Tibeto-Burman' (English 2008) translated to Manipuri was launched in November 2018, in the function room of Hotel Imphal, Imphal.  The event was compered by Richana (2nd from Left) & Kiran (2nd from R) with dolce vita glamour, who spoke with Received English accent. Both were educated in England.
Author's book 'Meiteis & Meiteilon are not Tibeto-Burman' (English 2008) translated to Manipuri was launched in November 2018, in the function room of Hotel Imphal, Imphal. The event was compered by Richana (2nd from Left) & Kiran (2nd from R) with dolce vita glamour, who spoke with Received English accent. Both were educated in England.

Speaking without the mumbo-jumbo of linguistic jargon, to understand that Meiteilon is not Tibeto-Burman, one doesn't have to be a rocket scientist. It does not need complex ideas to work out like plasticine, into vivid models, but simply that if Meiteis are not Tibeto-Burman they couldn't be speaking Tibeto-Burman, though the boundary of linguistic ancestry is never clear as languages come into contact with each other through a variety of contacts. An Englishman's language cannot be French though there are many French words in the English language

Those who have been listening to "Their master's voice" - of Grierson (1903) without questioning, like the faithful dog named Nipper on "His Master's Voice"- funnelled gramophone, thankfully now, must tip into self-parody. I queried his conclusion, and in 2012, I wrote an article titled, "Who said Meiteilon is Tibeto-Burman? Dr Grierson, but he was wrong."

Over the past century, Meiteis and Meiteilon had been classified and reclassified so repeatedly that, top linguists had lost their marbles. Meiteilon still remains unclassified though every prominent linguist has been trying his/her guts out to leave footprints on the sands of linguistic history, which is often wiped out by some incoming tides.

It's very rare that a language cannot be classified into any form, but Meiteilon is a rarer language – a "language isolate" ie a natural language with no proven relationship with any other living languages but has "language affinity" with some ie having some structural similarities that may suggest a common origin (Singh IM. The Origin of Meiteis of Manipur & Meiteilon is not Tibeto-Burman language. 2008. Print. Rev. ed. Wheel Publications Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi. 2009. P41).

Prof Sobhana L Chelliah, University of North Texas, with whom I have spoken, agrees with me that Meiteilon is 'unclassified' into any language group though it has many similarities with Tibeto-Burman languages. In her more recent book, 'Is Manipur a linguistic area' (De Gruyter, Mouton. 2015), which is a publication of her field studies in Manipur, she writes:
"There are 4 representative languages in Manipur, (1) Tangkhul, (2) Lamkang, and Thadou (kuki-Chin), and Meitei (unclassified), which are expected to share many distinctive key features. The languages spoken in Manipur belong to three Tibeto-Burman groups; (1) Kuki-Chin, (2) the ethnic Naga languages, and Meitei (Haokip 201:53). She is implying that it is Haokip who classifies Meiteilon as Tibeto-Burman, and not her.

Having studied the various features that are distinct and similar between these four languages, she concludes: "The four languages, Meitei, Tangkhul, Thadou and Lamkang, share common Tibeto-Burman features and, of course, Tibeto-Burman lexical cognates." [words that are similar in the vocabulary of languages that come from a mother language, but can be borrowed from other language].

Due to their common genetic heritage there are many shared features between the 29 Tibeto-Burman varieties spoken in Manipur. There are however, several features that are not shared between these languages and these create an overlay isoglosses [distinct linguistic features]. Most notable for Meitei is a series of breathing stops which Meitei has due to extensive borrowings from Bengali, Assamese, and Hindi from cultural and economic contact from the 16th to 18th centuries (Chelliah 2005)."

Great borrowing. In a sample of her study, 8% of the words are of Indo-Aryan origin, which are not obvious to Meitei speakers [as they have been used for centuries]. She also wrote that words of Indo-Aryan origin also introduce polysyllabic monomorphemic stems that is unusual for these languages which overwhelmingly have one syllable per morpheme.

Chelliah shares my view on Meiteilon that I chronicled proudly ad nauseam in my book (The Origins of Meiteis & Meiteilon is not Tibeto-Burman, 2009. P 52): 'The Meiteilon has a few lexical homologies with other tribal dialects, not only of the Tangkhuls and the kukis but also of Hebrew and Thai languages…'

Here comes the long-awaited genetic recognition.

A "genetic study", the first of its kind, by 11 Indian researchers, including 4 Meiteis viz Sanjembam YM, Devi KN, Nongthombam AD and Khangengbam SM at the Department of Anthropology, Delhi University, published in 2009, has proven that Meiteis are not Tibeto-Burman (Genet Test Mol Biomakers.2009 Dec;13(6):831-9.doi:10.1089/gtmb.2009. 0047).

Their conclusion: "High heterogeneity and predominance of ancestral haplotype (B2D2A1) among the Meitei suggest an admixture of incoming Mongoloid groups with an already existing proto-Australoids element. The study also highlights the distinctiveness of Manipuri population groups with respect to DRD "gene polymorphism."

Proto-Australoids are aboriginal inhabitants of the Andaman Islands, and Sauntals of Bihar, Bengal and Orissa. A 2009 genetic study of Indian populations demonstrated that these South Asian people unlike modern day Indians, possess ancestral South Indian lineage, and they are the ancestors of Dravidians. They probably came 60,000 years ago, among the first wave of African migrants to India, coming from the Southern Coastal route. This correlates with my proposition that Meiteis came direct from Africa (ibid. pp 27-28).

The "genetic study" involved genetic markers ie dopamine receptor D2 (DRD2) gene through allele and haplotype frequencies, and their distribution patterns. 367 blood samples were collected from eight population groups of which Meitei, Pangal and Bamon are non-tribal; while five communities of Aimol, Kabui, Kom and Thadou are tribals.

Another genetic study by 7 researchers including 2 Meiteis viz Sanjenbam Yaiphaba Meitei, Khagenbam Somibabu Meitei at the Department of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University, W Bengal and Biochemical and Molecular Anthropological Laboratory, University of Delhi, published in 2012, has independently confirmed that Meiteis are not migrants from Southeast Asia (cf. Anthropological Science, Vol. 120(3). 227-234. 2012).

The study concluded: "Gene flow into Northeast India from Eastern Eurasia [Central Asia] leading to heterogeneity of Northeast Indian populations as was also reported by Saraswathy et al (2009), contradicts the mythological history, in which it is believed that peopling of Manipur was done from Southeast Asia (Shakespeare, 1912). The study identified Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) markers in blood samples from 950 unrelated individuals involving 19 population groups from various geographical regions of India with unique cultural, ethnic, and linguistic affiliations."

The finding accords with my analysis that Meiteis are not migrants from Southeast Asia. Manipur like America, is the melting pot of several nations and Meiteilon, a mixture of many languages (ibid. pp 37, 44, 47).

Meitei language is an aggregation of different dialects spoken with different semi-permanent accents or phonetics. The modern Meiteilon with a cut glass accent, is the "Standard Meiteilon", associated with the "Received pronunciation" accent of the educated. It sets a certain set of rules for Meiteilon in terms of grammar, syntax and lexis. With it, modern Meitei songs in differing lexicon and melody began to evolve as an adaptation to modern instruments.

For someone who wasn't previously acquainted with this discipline, my epistemological research was leavened by these genetic studies that confirm my premise that Meiteis and Meiteilon are not Tibeto-Burman.

To conclude, I have pleasure in quoting Prof Robbins Burling, who in 1998, classified Meiteilon as "an independent member of the Eastern Area of language group."

* Dr. Irengbam Mohendra Singh wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at irengbammsingh(AT)gmail(DOT)com and Website:
This article was webcasted on June 20 2019.

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