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Stephen Morey, LaTrobe University

Stephen Morey
I have just returned from my twentieth field trip to North East India, documenting and describing the Tai, Singpho and Tangsa languages spoken in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, in the parts that border Myanmar.

Although I grew up in a monolingual community I’ve always been fascinated by different languages. As a teenager I wrote to the late Dr. Adam Murtonen at Melbourne University asking how I could go about learning ancient languages: Hittite, Assyrian, ancient Egyptian and Sumerian. He advised me to learn German first, because so much literature on these languages was in German. This advice disappointed me, and while I did learn a bit of German subsequently, I have never learned Hittite, well not yet.

Around the same time, feeling that someone who lives in Melbourne should know about this area, I went to the State Library of Victoria and copied out by hand word lists from books about Aboriginal languages, particularly Victorian Languages: A Late Survey by Luise Hercus. I met Luise about 30 years later and have been delighted to work with her on projects to combine her knowledge gained from native speakers of Victorian languages with the 19th century written records .

At age 16, however, I was seduced by music, specifically the mandolin, and for a decade and a half I concentrated on learning, and then performing, teaching and researching this instrument. Some friends and I formed a group to play mediaeval music, joined by Kate Burridge, singer, hurdy-gurdy player and Morris dancer. I used to listen with fascination as she told us in the coffee break at our rehearsal about her day job: linguistics, and her coming book on euphemism. So when in the early 1990s I developed some physical injury in my hand and had to abandon mandolin, I went to Kate to find out what linguistics was.

I had a year before I could start a University degree. I had researched my family history and learned that some of my ancestors were among the last speakers of Cornish; and then I learned that you can study revived Cornish and so with my spare time (not too much of that these days) I learned Cornish by Correspondence and passed the Gorsedh exam after which I was invited to become a Cornish Bard. It is an inspiration to put more effort into language documentation that my own ancestors spoke a language that was lost. But European languages were not really what I was looking for. By chance, one day I was marching in a huge demonstration against the policies of the then government and I met an old friend. “What are you doing, Gareth,” I asked and he answered “Learning Thai”. At once I decided to learn Thai as well.

After several years of a double major in Linguistics and Thai, I got me an overseas study grant for a semester at the Prince of Songkla University in Pattani, Thailand. I took three subjects (all taught in Thai), Principles of Thai Language, Thai Dialectology and Malay language (Introductory).

My dialectology teacher, Dr. Thananan Trongdi, had heard that my wife and I were planning a trip to India. He said, “Why don’t you go to Assam, there are Thai people there.” I thought Assam was closed to foreigners, as indeed it had been, but by October 1996 it was open and we went there, armed with a name: Nabin Shyam. On the day we arrived and met up with him, he said to us that he would be going to his home village in three days, if we wanted, we could come too. So on the night of 21st October 1996 I spent my first night in a village in Assam: Ban Lung Aiton village in Karbi Anglong District. More than 1000 nights in at least 40 villages over 20 field trips have followed that night!

The Tai people in India have their own writing system; it is based on the Shan alphabet which is itself based on Burmese, but it is unique. We had visited a second village, Namphakey in Dibrugarh District, and there I had mentioned to my hosts that I had learned how to make fonts (I called it ‘computer printing block’). Nobody in the village and ever seen a computer at that time, but they gave me a hand-copied book and a request to make the font. Back in Australia I thought it would be a good PhD project to learn about their language. So a year later I returned, with the font made and a laptop to work on. There followed 5 years in which I studied the Tai languages, then two fellowships over 4 years to work on Singpho, and for the last 7 years I’ve concentrated much of my effort on Tangsa.

Recording devices have changed much in that time. At first, with only my own resources to cover costs, I had just a small cassette player of dubious quality. Over the years sound recorders have changed from Cassette through Minidisc and Microtrack to the Zoom H4n and video from those with cassettes to those that use SD cards. I’ve recorded songs and stories and linguistic information in 5 Tai varieties, 4 Singpho varieties and (at latest count), 32 Tangsa varieties. Although the Tai varieties are all mutually intelligible, and the Singpho ones more or less so, the Tangsa varieties are very diverse and it remains a huge task learning enough about each variety to really understand what’s going on. The immense task of transcription, translation, analysis and archiving is ongoing and will go on for a good deal longer!

All along I’ve had two special interests: manuscripts and songs. Of the three groups I’m working with, the Tai have a long written tradition. Tai Phake and Tai Aiton communities still contain people who can read manuscripts, though not too many in the Aiton; but the Tai Ahom language ceased to be spoken 200 years ago, and the manuscripts, which are different from those of the Phake and Aiton, are hard to interpret. The problem is like this: Tai is a tonal language, with perhaps 5 tonal contrasts likely to have been present in Ahom. But tones are not marked and so a single written word can have many meanings.

Song language, in all three language groups, is equally challenging, differing in form from the spoken language to a lesser and greater degree. It has been very exciting to record songs, to learn about the context, and then record an explanation of their meaning and try to translate it all.

In North East India there are usually not places to stay in villages apart from someone’s house. So I’ve got to know many families in all the different communities that I have stayed in. Because I’m trying to learn as much as I can about the languages, it may sometimes seem to my hosts that I’m always working (it certainly seems so to me at times!). I have found that I can only really enjoy sitting and chatting with people when I have got good enough at the language to be able to chat easily. In my more recent work on Tangsa, because of its huge diversity, this hasn’t really happened, and these days the younger people are usually more fluent in English and so we end up using that. I wish I could learn each Tangsa variety to the level I learned Tai Aiton, but that would take several lifetimes.