Used, But Not Claimed

The emergence of Nagamese as a language hybrid has come about owing to the unique politics, history and language situation of a very diverse part of India that is opaquely referred to by mainland Indians as the ‘Northeast’. Behind this bland label is a region marked by great linguistic diversity, even when compared to the Babel-like situation of the mainland. Close to 220 languages from three distinct language families—Indo-European, Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman—are spoken in this region.[i]

Unlike the case of Manipravalam, a medieval blend of Malayalam and Sanskrit, which was forged as a literary tongue to address notions of what constituted ‘high’ culture,[ii] the roughly two-century-old recorded history of Nagamese brings into view another way in which a language hybrid comes into being, establishes itself and is perceived by its users. It also brings into play the role of the colonizer, the colonized, the newly-independent post-colonial state and various other historical forces that shape both a language and its perception.

Nagamese has been for close to a century and a half the lingua franca of the people of Nagaland and parts of Assam. A hybrid of Naga languages, all of which belong to the Tibeto-Burman family and Assamese, an Indo-European language, Nagamese occupies a distinct space in the region and plays a unique role serving as a connector between the various Naga tribes. It also facilitates communication between the Nagas and the Assamese. To understand the origins of Nagamese, it is essential to briefly dip into the history of the Nagas as a people and the history of their contact with the Assamese.

The origin story

The precise origin and pre-history of the Naga people is something most historians and anthropologists have grappled with and have found no precise answers to. Vedic references to the Kiratas and their sub-tribe, the Nagas, have been understood to refer to the progenitors of modern-day Nagas. The Kiratas referred to the hill-people from East India. The story of Uloopi, the Naga princess who married Arjun on his sojourn to eastern India, is another tale that is often cited as possible evidence of the links between the Nagas and the denizens of Aryavarta. Could this be the mainland Indian view that is perhaps, more conjecture and ‘wishful thinking’ for political reasons, as we shall soon see, rather than fact? That is eternally debatable.

The informed historical view is that Tibeto-Burman tribes came through Burma and entered the Northeastern region around 1000 BC. When they did so, they perhaps displaced Austro-Asiatic populations that had settled there between 2500 and 2000 BC. [iii] The Khasis were pushed into the hills of Meghalaya and the Tibeto-Burmans settled in Assam and in the Brahmaputra valley. The tribes now identified as Naga probably moved into Nagaland after the initial waves of migration had already entered Assam.[iv] Various sources also make mention of the fact that Ptolemy in his Geographia, written around 150 AD, refers to the ‘Nagalogae’ of India, but it is difficult to fathom whom he is referring to, as he says little beyond that. Then for several centuries, the Nagas largely disappear from the available historical records. There is no mention of the Nagas in the records of the kingdom of Kamarupa, which flourished between the fourth and twelfth century in present-day Assam.

In 1228, the Ahoms under Sukaphaa entered the Brahmaputra Valley through Arunachal Pradesh and founded a kingdom. The Ahoms were originally from Yunnan in China and were Tai people, a linguistic community spread across South-East Asia, China and North Eastern India. Over the next few centuries, the Ahoms adopted Hindu religious practices and began to use Assamese. Since Assamese is an Indo-Aryan language, it is connected to Sanskrit, but more specifically, it is descended from the Magadhi Prakrit of Eastern India and had been in use for atleast 500 years before the arrival of the Ahoms.

Ahom buranjis (chronicles) record a number of interactions that the Ahoms had with the Nagas. The initial encounters appear to have been fraught and the Nagas appear to have rebelled against the Ahoms by raiding the plains, plundering the produce and through killings. The buranjis also refer to the punitive expeditions sent to curb the Nagas, which also enabled the Ahoms to capture salt wells in Naga territory.[v] In the centuries that followed, up until the collapse of the Ahom kingdom in 1826 and its incorporation into British India, the Ahoms and Nagas did clash from time to time, but were also, for long stretches of time, able to maintain a tentative peace.

British rule in Assam and Nagaland post 1826 altered the existing equations between the Ahoms and the Nagas and also among the Nagas themselves. In the initial part of their rule, the British appear to have adopted a position of non-interference as far as the Nagas were concerned. But, when Naga raids on the plains intensified, a police station was established in the Nagaland region in 1866 and soon, British writ began to be visible all over, resulting in a complete British takeover of the administration by 1878 and the brutal suppression of successive Naga uprisings.[vi]

There are about twenty-three Naga languages, all mutually unintelligible. While the tribes did share some cultural similarities and lived in close proximity, there was no tongue common to them. Centuries of contact between the Nagas and Assamese had ensured that a few Nagas from the many tribes had a degree of knowledge of Assamese. Owing to the limited contact that the Nagas and Ahoms had, this had long proved sufficient. But the growth of tea plantations in Assam, the establishment of a military garrison at Kohima, the inroads made by missionaries into Nagaland post the inroads made by the British all created circumstances for the various Naga tribes to interact with each other and the Assamese far more than in the past. It was in such a situation that a new language, later to be called Nagamese, emerged, and soon began to be used widely. There is some evidence though that the tongue seemed to have already emerged in pre-British times.

The growth of Nagamese

Lt. Bigges’s Tour Diary, written in 1841, provides details of the first British expedition into Nagaland, which took place in 1839. Bigges mentions the existence of a language that is clearly Nagamese. It is likely that the British observed that a tongue that sounded something like the Assamese they had been exposed to, was already in use in the Naga areas. British inroads into the Naga areas increased the contact that the various tribes had with each other and the outside world and likely, furthered the use of Nagamese and gave it wider currency.

In his monumental Linguistic Survey of India (published between 1903 and 1928, the section on Naga languages was published in 1904), George Abraham Grierson talks of Assamese or Naga pidgins as being spoken in parts of Assam (Nagaland was then part of undivided Assam). The research for the section dealing with the Naga languages seem to have been done in the last decade of the 19th century, and it is therefore evident that Nagamese was already in wide use by then. But clearly, Grierson considered the language as less than important as he did not record it like he did with the many other languages of the sub-continent.

The anthropologists who flocked to Nagaland in British times also mention the presence among the Nagas of a language clearly identifiable as Nagamese. J.H. Hutton’s work on the Angami Nagas published in 1921 talks of ‘broken Assamese’ being spoken in the Naga Hills.[vii] Christoph von Fürer Haimendorf, in his work on the Nagas published in 1939, again mentions that many people including children spoke fluent Nagamese, which he terms ‘the lingua franca of (the) entire Naga Hills’.[viii] Clearly, by then Nagamese had been given a name, had stabilized as a tongue and was being widely used. The heavy influence of Assamese on the language is evident in these observations. But besides Assamese, Nagamese has also borrowed words from Hindi and English and a few from Bengali. Having developed as a tongue, the future trajectory of Nagamese, from here on is closely tied to developments in the Naga political sphere.

Any survey of Naga politics in the 20th century has to dwell on the long-running Naga insurgency against the Indian government. It is perhaps the longest such insurgency and is more than anything else, the clearest evidence of the crystallization of a Naga identity that went beyond the tribal loyalties of yore. The Naga Club formed in 1919 by educated Naga government officials was the first move in this direction. In 1929, the Naga Club submitted a memorandum signed by 200 Nagas from the various tribes seeking a direct relationship with the British and stating their wish to remain out of the Indian ambit.[ix] Later, Nagaland became a theatre of the Second World War and this thrust them into the mainstream. In a sense, the Nagas now began to figure in the Indian imagination as a distinct people whom many saw as part of India even as the Nagas themselves were unsure about their belonging to such a grouping. It might be fair to state that the interpretation of Vedic sources to mean the Nagas came in handy at such a time as it strengthened the case for the inclusion of the Naga areas into the Indian Union on the basis of ‘old’ ties that had by Indian reckoning, admittedly worn thin over many centuries, but could now be revived and accommodated in the ‘diverse’ India that was to soon take birth.

Even as the Indian nation attained independence on 15 August, 1947, the Naga National Council, the most significant of all Naga organizations, led by Angami Zapu Phizo, declared independence a day before. It was to prove to be the first significant event in the post-Independence trajectory of Naga politics which was to later witness decades of violence and bloodshed as the Nagas attempted to assert their sovereignty even as the Indian state insisted on a solution within the broad parameters of the Indian political system. In keeping with this attempt, in August 1960, Nehru stated his government’s intent to create a new state (the sixteenth in the Indian Union) known as Nagaland. The state was formally created on 1 December 1963.

This trajectory has had its bearing on the perception and place of Nagamese in Naga life. With the formation of Nagaland, the Assamese that was extensively taught in schools in Nagaland was then replaced by English, which was proclaimed as the official language of the new state. But surprisingly, the position of Nagamese underwent a peculiar change in these circumstances. While Naga ethnicity and not ‘a’ language is the basis of the Naga identity, the practical requirements of running a state has meant that the Nagamese language has became something of a uniting factor in the state. Among other things, it began to be used on the floor of the legislative assembly, since it was the only language that was spoken and understood by all. Nagamese also began to be used in radio broadcasts and for church services. Inter-tribal marriages also resulted in further use of Nagamese. In 2013, a Nagamese newspaper (in the Roman script) Nagamese Khobor was launched and continues to run.[x] All of those many developments have resulted in the language stabilizing so much so that linguists have observed that three ‘dialects’ of Nagamese now exist:

  • A Nagamese with a limited Assamese lexicon spoken among uneducated Nagas belonging to the different tribes
  • A Nagamese with more Hindi/Urdu loanwords spoken in business circles between Nagas and uneducated non-Nagas
  • A Nagamese with more English loanwords spoken by educated Nagas of different tribes and between them and educated non-Nagas. [xi]

Still, the wide use of Nagamese has not given the language a respectable status in the eyes of the Nagas. More than at any time, this was in evidence when in 2015, the Central government announced its intention to include Nagamese in the Eighth Schedule and give it official recognition (this has not yet been done). Many organizations opposed this move stating that Nagamese wasn’t a Naga language or a marker of Naga identity. The Naga Students Federation, for instance, termed Nagamese a ‘market language’ and a language with ‘no origin’. Others derided this move as one that would act against Naga ‘intellectual interests’ and stated their wish to continue with English till the Nagas were able to resolve this issue among themselves. What works against Nagamese is that except for a small group of people of inter-tribal marriages, it is not a mother tongue for most Nagas. In 1989, only about 30,000 people listed Nagamese as their mother tongue. Latest estimates are unavailable. Still, given that the population of Nagaland is about 2 million, it is unlikely to be a very big number.

Interestingly, the only community that uses Nagamese as a mother tongue are the Kacharis of Dimapur, a non-Naga people (also found in Assam) who seem to have abandoned their own tongue for Assamese at first and with the advent of Naga statehood, began to use Nagamese.

The future of Nagamese is a wide open one. Its extensive use in the region and its role as a lingua franca negates the possibility of it falling into disuse. But its perception as something of a makeshift tongue is unlikely to change anytime soon.


A shorter version on this piece appeared in Mint Lounge on July 8, 2018. 


[i] Mokashi-Punekar, Rohini Views From a Different India: Not Hinglish But Nagamese, Chutnefying English: The Phenomenon of Hinglish, Edited by Rita Kothari and Rupert Snell, Penguin India, 2011

[ii] Venkatesh, Karthik When Malayalam met Sanskrit, many centuries ago, Mint Lounge, June 2, 2018

[iii] Moral, Dipankar North-east as a Linguistic Area Mon-Khmer Studies 27: 43–53., 1997, cited in Mokashi-Punekar (2011)

[iv] Bhattacharjya, Dwijen The Genesis and Development of Nagamese: Its Social History and Linguistic Structure Ph.D Dissertation, The City University of New York, New York, 2001, cited in Mokashi-Punekar (2011)

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Mokashi-Punekar (2011)

[vii] Hutton, J.H The Angami Nagas, 1921

[viii] von Furer-Haimendorf, Christoph, The Naked Nagas, 1939

[ix] Mokashi-Punekar (2011)


[xi] Sachdeva, Rajesh Exploring Ground Conditions for Code Production in Multilingual Settings In Linguistic Landscaping in India with particular reference to the new states, Seminar Proceedings, Mysore: CIIL, 2002 cited in Mokashi-Punekar (2011)


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Karthik Venkatesh Written by:

A few words about myself. I am originally from Bangalore, but circumstances took me to Punjab where I lived and worked for more than a decade. This resulted in a keen interest in things Punjabi – history, literature, culture and politics. I have written on aspects of Punjabi history and translated Punjabi poetry. I'm now back in Bangalore and work as an editor with a publishing firm.

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