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History of Garo Language and Literature

John Elliot, a British Commissioner from Dacca, was the first man who attempt to make a compilation of Garo words and later published in the AsiaticResearches Vol. Ill in 1799 “Observations on the Inhabitants of Garrow Hills” made during a public deputation in 1788-89 to the Garo Hills. After Elliot there have been a series of British officers, and educationists namely, Francis Hamilton, William Robinson, B.H. Hodgson, W.J. Williamson (the first Deputy Commissioner of Garo Hills) and missionaries, such as the Reverends Nathan Brown, Miles Bronson, T. J. Keith, E.G. Phillips, M.C. Mason and Miss. L.M. Holbrook who have worked to collect words of the language for various purposes official, religious or scholarly. There were also the scholars G.A. Grierson who’s Linguistic Survey of India and A. Playfair's The Garos, were the best known and most authoritative books on the Garo language for many decades.

History of Garo Language and Literature
Ruel C. Sangma

Garo language was first put into writing only when the British officers came to the Garo Hills. The Missionaries who came soon after also took up the task of putting down the language in writing dictionaries and translations of the Bible. The veteran garo historian of our time Mr. M. S. Sangma in his History of Garo Literature stated;
“Garo literature began with the compilation of Garo words. It was the British officials and the American Baptist Missionaries who first reduced the Garo language to writing in the last decade of the 18th century.”


John Elliot, a British Commissioner from Dacca, was the first man who attempt to make a compilation of Garo words and later published in the Asiatic Researches Vol. III in 1799 “Observations on the Inhabitants of Garrow Hills” made during a public deputation in 1788-89 to the Garo Hills. After Elliot there have been a series of British officers, and educationists namely, Francis Hamilton, William Robinson, B.H. Hodgson, W.J. Williamson (the first Deputy Commissioner of Garo Hills) and missionaries, such as the Reverends Nathan Brown, Miles Bronson, T. J. Keith, E.G. Phillips, M.C. Mason and Miss. L.M. Holbrook who have worked to collect words of the language for various purposes official, religious or scholarly. There were also the scholars G.A. Grierson who’s Linguistic Survey of India and A. Playfair’s The Garos, were the best known and most authoritative books on the Garo language for many decades.
Ramke W. Momin, one of the first Garos to obtain education, as well as one of the first converts to Christianity, brought out the first dictionary as a native speaker in 1887. It was a Bengal-Garo Dictionary written in the Bengali script, containing about 35,000 words, a monumental work and remains so even till today. It has recently been Romanized and republished under the title Kubidik meaning ‘a vessel or storage jar of words’, that is, ‘a lexicon or dictionary’.
The Garo language was first written in the Roman script for official reports and sometimes in the Bengali character. In the early stages the Bengali language was used for most purposes by the British.

As stated in the History of Garo Literature: “Regarding the script, both Roman and Bengali scripts were employed in the compilation, but the earliest writings were done in the Roman script. The other noticeable feature of this period of writings was that it was the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal which highlighted these writings by publishing them in different volumes of their journals. Thus the foundation was laid by the British officials as well as by the American Baptist Missionaries for further development of Garo literature.”


Using the Bengali script was found to be cumbersome and tedious and the missionaries doubted the wisdom of continuing education for the Garo learners in the Bengali language. It was also found that the twenty one sounds and letters of the English alphabet were quite sufficient to represent every necessary sounds in the Garo language. Therefore around the year 1902, it was felt necessary and convenient to change to the Roman script and use the Garo language. This proved to be much more practical and gave rise to a much greater interest and encouraged a better response from the native speakers. It was found that in just a few weeks the Garo pupils could read with ease and understand and explain meanings, while previous years were spent in learning Bengali without much progress in learning. Therefore Awe the dialect of Garo is selected as a standard medium. It is done on the basis of mutual intelligibility rather than on the basis of geographical boundaries.


Books on the People, History and Culture of the Garos:

One of the first and most important pioneering works of the last century was the Linguistic Survey of India by G. A. Grierson, an Irish Linguistic scholar and Civil Servant. While still a student in Dublin he had taken prizes in Sanskrit and Hindi. When he began service in Bengal, in addition to his duties in a succession of government posts, he devoted much time to language research. He conducted the Linguistic Survey of India from 1898 to 1928, obtaining much information on 364 languages and dialects. In addition to vocabularies for most of the languages and dialects, skeletal grammars and brief texts were also included. As it covered altogether the Indo-European, Chinese, Austro-Asiatic and Dravidian families of languages in India, the survey was described as a triumph of organization.
His description of the Garo language is still considered an important and authentic account to this day. A. Playfair also wrote a very informative book on The Garos in the course of his official duties, which contains some comments on the language based mostly on the earlier writings of the missionaries and on Grierson.


One of the very informative and helpful book is History and Culture of the Garos written by Milton Sangma, former Pro-Vice Chancellor of the NEHU, Tura Campus, and a well-known scholar among the Garos today. He has also written A History of Garo Literature which has been a rich source of information for many students of the language. Both the above mentioned books are a treasure house of information not only on the history and culture of the Garos but also on the language as well.
A∙chik Aro A∙chik A∙song (The Garos and the land of the Garos) 1973, written by P. C. Kar, former Senior Lecturer of Tura Government College. It gives much information showing the authors close contact with and understanding of the people, as well as, his love for the Garos as he knew them.


Garo Hills the Land and Peoples by L, S. Gassah which is a collection of articles by different writers on the Garos, Koches, Boros and others tribes who live in the Garo Hills and in which some brief mention of the languages is made by different authors.


Dictionaries, Grammar Books, Primers and Folktales:
There are quite a few books written on the folktales of the Garos collected by H. W. Marak, D. S. Nengminza and others. Also, Several Primers and Readers prepared as school textbooks by the early missionaries and a few native speakers as well as who began to realize the need for such books. Some of the books on the folktales, maxims and proverbs of the Garos, collected and preserved by the native speakers are as follows:

  • A∙chik Golporang ‘Tales of the Garos’ (1957) and A•chik Aganbewalrang (Original Tales of the Garos) (1959) were written by H.W. Marak, the Second Edition of the latter was republished by NEHU publications in 1983.
  • The Folktales of the Garos (1960) compiled by Dewansingh S. Rongmuthu and published by the Gauhati University, Department of Publications, Gauhati, Assam.
  • Epic Lore of the Garos (1967) a companion volume to the first one by Dewansing Sangma Rongmuthu and published by the Department of Publications, Gauhati University, Gauhati, Assam.
  • Agan Me•apa ‘Maxims and Proverbs of the Garo’ (1985) compiled by Milton S. Sangma and Julius R. Marak is a popular collection published by the Tura Book Room, which has gone into its Fifth Edition till 2004.
  • Apasong Agana (A•chik Katta Gitcham) ‘Our Forefathers Say: Old Narratives of the A•chiks’ (1970) published by Lt. Misorsing A. Sangma and later reprinted and published by Sharona M. Marak, Tura, 1997.

Some Books and Articles, Primers, Vocabulary and Grammar of the Garo language from the eighteenth century onwards are given below:

  • Garo Vocabulary (1788-89) written by John Eliot, Commissioner of Dacca, who collected the words to help him in the administration of the Garo region.
  • Garo Vocabulary (1800) written by Francis Hamilton who made a comparative study of Garo vocabulary with other languages while he was on official duty in the Zilla of Rangpur, m Assam.
  • Garo Vocabulary (1837) written by Nathan Brown, the first American Baptist Missionary to Assam. In his “Comparison of Indo-Chinese Languages”, words fi^om Garo vocabulary were also included. These were actually collected and given to him by John Strong, a Jimior British Officer serving in the Garo Hills.
  • Garo Vocabulary (1849) by William Robinson an educational oficer in Assam who in his “Notes on the Languages spoken by the various tribes inhabiting the valley of Assam and its mountain confines” included a “Garo Grammar” and got it published m the journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. This was probably the first publication on Garo Grammar.
  • Garo Vocabulary (1849) by B. H. Hodgson in his writing on the “Aborigins of North east India” in which he made a comparison of the Tibetan, Dhimal, Bodo and Garo languages.
  • Garo Vocabulary (1867) by Ramnath Chakravarty, the first Indian to have compiled a Garo vocabulary. He made a comparison of the vocabulary of the English, Garo and Bengali languages.
  • Garo Vocabulary (1868) by W.W.Hunter, who wrote A Comparative Dictionary of the Languages of India and High Asia, devoted a portion of his dictionary to the Garo Vocabulary written by B. H. Hodgson above.
  • A Garo Grammar (1868) by Miles Bronson an American Baptist Missionary to Assam. He also wrote in tiie same year i) Phrases in Englishand Garo and ii) A Garo Primer.
  • A Vocabulary of the Garo and Koch Dialects (1869) by W. J. Williamson, the first Deputy Commissioner to the Garo Hills District.
  • Vocabulary based on Robinson’s and Williamson’s collection of Garo Vocabulary (1872) by E. T. Dalton a British offier who had been deputed to study the life of the Garos. He included the above report in his Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal.
  • Dictionary of the Garo Language (1873) a Bengali-Garo-English Dictionary by T. J. Kieth the second missionary designated to the Garos by the American Baptist Mission in 1872.
  • Garo Vocabulary (1874) was an article included by Sir George Campbell in his “Specimens of the languages of India including those of the aboriginal tribes of Bengal, the Central Provinces and the Eastern Frontiers.
  • Garo Vocabulary (1884), written by S. Endle a missionary to the Boros who compiled a Comparative Vocabulary of Kachari, Garo and Hill Tipera.
  • Bengali-Garo Dictionary (1887) written in the Bengah script by M. Ramke one of the first Garo converts to Christianity as well as the first native to acquire education. When Ramke W. Momin brought out the first dictionary as a native speaker it contained about 35,000 words. It has recently (in 1996), been romanised and republished under the title Kubidik meaning ‘vessel, or storage jar of words’, that is, ‘a dictionary or lexicon’.
  • On the Garo Language (1885) by John Avery, who also wrote on the similarity between the Kachari and Garo Languages in 1887.
  • Garo Vocabulary (1891) by A.W. Davis, which was included in his report on the Census of Assam.
  • Skang Skiani Baksa ‘Primer Part I, (1892) by the American Baptist Mission Union.

Some other books published by the American Baptist Mission upto 1900, but for which the dates could not be verified are:

  • Three Primers and a Reader by I. J. Stoddard
  • Garo Primer (Translated) by Russel Bemadette
  • Garo-English Dictionary, by A. Macdonald
  • New Primer Parti, II, and III by E. G. Phillips

The American Baptist Mission Union continued their work in the Twentieth Century and we have the following publications:

  • English-Garo Dictionary (1904) written by Members of the Garo Mission of the American Baptist Missionary Union and edited by M. C. Mason. It was prepared to meet the urgent demand in Garo School work caused by the substitution of English text-books in place of Bengali text books used in the higher branches of study. It was published in 1904 by the Garo Mission, American Baptist Missionary Union and later reprinted and republished again in 1988 and again in 1994 by Mittal Publications, New Delhi. The publishers of some of the following books could not be ascertained:
  • Garo Primer (1909) by Ms Ella C. Bond and three other primers by her and Modhunath Momin, which could not be dated, namely:
  • Poriani Bak, I, II, III and IV, that is, ‘Readers part III, III and rV’by Ella C. Bond and Modhunath Momin
  • Skichengani Bak II (1920) Garo Primer Part IF by M. C. Mason
  • A•chik Aganani Baksa (1927) A•chik Narratives Part I by Jobang D. Marak and Simison R. Sangma.
  • The School Dictionary: Garo to English (1940) written by D. S. Nengminza published by The Garo Hills Book Emporium, recommended for use in the schools and colleges and still a very popular book today.
  • Merrian Dictionary: English to Garo (1954) written by D. S. Nengminza and published by The Garo Hills Book Emporium. A companion to the School Dictionary mentioned above and still very much in use in the schools today, being recommended by the School Board and reprinted every year for use in the various schools and colleges of Garo Hills.
  • English-A•chikku Dictionary (1955) by Kandura W. Momin, Published by the Tura Book Room, Tura. First published in 1955.
  • English-Garo Dictionary (1957) by Rangam G. Momin, Published by Mrs. R. G. Momin, Upper Chandmary, Tura. Third Edition, Tura, 1970.
  • Garo Reader I, II for Adults (1960) by Levisond M. Sangma.
  • A•chik Composition (1970) by Kenneth M. Momin
  • Oxford Science Dictionary, jointly translated into Garo in the 70’s by O. D. Shira., V. W. Ingty and Carvel R. Marak
  • Ku•bidik (a Garo-English-Assamese-Dictionary) by H. W. Marak published in 1975 by the Assam Academy for Cultural Relations, containing about 14778 words. This is not the same as that written by Ramke W. Momin in 1887 which was originally published in the Bengali script as a Bengali-Garo-Dictionary and was renamed later as Ku•bidik by the Department of Art and Culture, Government of Meghalaya, when they republished it many years later in 1996.
  • Ku•rongdik (A•chikku into English Dictionary) by L. M. Holbrook published by The Garo Literature Society in 1998.

Grammar and some Linguistics Books:
The above mentioned list of writings was simply a collection of the vocabulary of Garo and brief comments on the Grammar of the language. It was only later that more serious attempts were made at writing an actual Grammar of the Garo language by the missionaries, E. G. Phillips, Miles Bronson and M. C. Mason as well as Robbins Burling an American Anthropologist and Linguist. The actual books written on the Grammar and some Linguistic aspects of the language are as follows:

  • Garo Grammar by William Robinson (1849): This was the first ever attempt to write a Garo Grammar by William Robinson a Superintendent of Government Schools in Assam. Perhaps the officer felt obliged to learn the languages of the communities with whom he came in contact during his official tours and in his “Notes on the Languages spoken by the various tribes inhabiting the valley of Assam and its mountain confines” included a “Garo Grammar”. A commendable work for its time, it was later published in the journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, VoL XVIII, Part 1 in March 1949.
  • A•chik Grammar by E. G. Phillips (1902): Towards the end of the 19th Century, Phillips wrote two books on Garo Grammar, one in Garo entitled A•chik Grammar and the other in English entitled Outline Grammar of the Garo Language mentioned below, which were to be used as text books in Garo schools. These were a part of his untiring efforts of the early missionaries M.C. Mason and E. G. Phillips to enable the Garos to get the Grammar of their own language. Published by the Secretariat Press of the Assam Government in the early nineteenth century, it still enjoys a monopoly in the Grammar literature on the Garo language, being used in the Middle and High school levels even till today, as a better Grammar book is yet to be written. It is a good example of the missionaries’ efforts to get a command over a language of the people they work with.
  • Outline Grammar of the Garo Language by E. G. Phillips (1904): As already mentioned above this is one of the two books on Garo Grammar written by E. G. Phillips to give the Garos a Grammar of their own language, a gift by the missionaries, to help improve the lot of the Garos.
  • A•chik Grammar by Samson K. Sangma (1982): This was written keeping children in mind with separate lessons and exercises for each section. The Meghalaya Directorate of Public Instruction approved and accepted it for use in the Lower Primary Schools of Garo Hills.
  • A Garo Grammar by Robbins Burling, published by the Deccan College Post Graduate Research Institute, Poona in 1961, was originally written as a by-product of his anthropological field work among the Garos in the early 1950’s. Feeling obliged to learn the language for practical purposes he soon developed a greater interest in the language and went into deeper research in later years. He attempted to describe the language in keeping with the linguistic tenets of the time. This though interesting was felt to be too technical for the ordinary laymen and was considered useful only by those specializing in linguistics.
  • The Language of the Modhupur Mandi (Garo) by Robbins Burling (2004), in three volumes, of which only the first volume on the Grammar of the language has been published. The book written by Robbins Burling on the language of the Garos of Modhupur in Bangladesh is quite a comprehensive one from the linguistic point of view, however, it describes more of the dialect spoken in Bangladesh and not the standard Garo dialect spoken by the Achiks in the Garo Hills, particularly, Awe, which is accepted as the standard dialect of the Garo language and would therefore not be fully acceptable as a description of the Grammar of the Garo language.
  • Ku•sikni Bidingo Seanirang (Essays on Language) a book written in Garo by B. K. Sangma and published by the author herself in 2005, which gives some introduction to language and linguistics in general, namely, essays on Phonetics and Word formation processes. Also several essays on different aspects of Garo Grammar, such as, a critical study of earlier Grammar books. There is also a description of verbs in English, the tense and aspect of verbs, and of Garo verbs in particular.
  • The Comparative Phonology of the Bodo Garo Languages by U.V. Joseph and Robbins Burling (2006) published by the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore. This is a combined effort at describing the phonology of four languages of the Boro-Garo language family, namely, Tiwa, Rabha, Boro and Garo respectively, in which both the scholars have had considerable experience through their association with speakers of these languages. In particular Robbins Burling with the Garos for about fifty years and U. V. Joseph with the others for at last twenty years.
  • Read more on Oral Folk Narratives of the Garos

Reference:

  1. Sangma, M. History of Garo Literature, NEHU Publications, Shillong.
  2. Momin, Rev. Ramke W. Ku•bidik, Published by the Department of Art and Culture, Govt. of Meghalaya, 1996.
  3. Momin, Rev. Ramke W. Bengali-Garo dictionary, American Baptist Garo Mission, Tura, 1887.
  4. Marak, Caroline R., Garo Literature, Sahitya Akademi, 2002.
  5. Playfair, Major A., The Garos, Spectrum Publications,Guwahati 2nd reprint 1998.
  6. Grierson, G.A., Linguistic Survey of India, III Part. II.

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