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Assamese language

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Assamese language

Native to India and Bangladesh
Region Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland[1]
Native speakers
16 million  (2007)[2]
Assamese alphabet
Assamese Braille
Official status
Official language in
 India (Assam)
Regulated by Asam Sahitya Sabha (literature/rhetorical congress of Assam)
Language codes
ISO 639-1 as
ISO 639-2 asm
ISO 639-3 asm
Glottolog assa1263[3]
Linguasphere 59-AAF-w

Assamese or Asamiya (অসমীয়া Ôxômiya) is an Eastern Indo-Aryan language used mainly in the state of Assam. It is the official language of Assam. The easternmost of the Indo-Aryan languages; it is spoken by over 13 million native speakers.[4] It is also spoken in parts of Arunachal Pradesh and other northeast Indian states. Nagamese, an Assamese-based Creole language is widely used in Nagaland and parts of Assam. Nefamese is an Assamese-based pidgin used in Arunachal Pradesh. Small pockets of Assamese speakers can be found in Bangladesh.

Along with other Eastern Indo-Aryan languages, Assamese evolved at least before 7th century A.D[5] from the Magadhi Prakrit, which developed from a dialect or group of dialects that were close to, but different from, Vedic and Classical Sanskrit.[6] Its sister languages include Bengali, Oriya, Maithili, Chittagonian, Sylheti (Cilôţi), Angika and Bihari languages. It is written with the Assamese script. Assamese is written from left to right and top to bottom, in the same manner as English. A large number of ligatures are possible since potentially all the consonants can combine with one another. Vowels can either be independent or dependent upon a consonant or a consonant cluster.

The word Assamese is an English formation built on the same principle as Sinhalese or Canarese etc. It is based on the English word Assam by which the tract consisting of the Brahmaputra Valley and its adjoining areas are known.[7] The people call their state Ôxôm and their language Ôxômiya.

Genealogically, Assamese belongs to the group of Eastern Indo-Aryan languages, here marked in yellow.


Magadhi Prakrit gave rise to four Apabhramsa dialects regionwise, viz. Radha, Vanga, Kamarupa and Varendra. The Kamarupa dialect spread to the east keeping north of the Ganges and is represented in North-Bengal at present by North-Bengali and in the valley of Assam by Assamese.[8]

It is generally believed that Assamese and the Ahom kingdom in the seventeenth century,[15] where it became the state language. Different kinds of prose developed. According to Goswami (2003), this included "the colloquial prose of religious biographies, the archaic prose of magical charms, the conventional prose of utilitarian literature on medicine, astrology, arithmetic, dance and music, and above all the standardized prose of the Buranjis.[16] The literary language, having become infused with the eastern idiom, became the standard literary form in the nineteenth century, when the British adopted it for state purposes. As the political and commercial center shifted to Guwahati after the mid-twentieth century, the literary form moved away from the eastern variety to take its current form.

Though early compositions in completely differentiated Assamese varieties exist from the fourteenth century, the earliest relics of the language can be found in paleographic records of the Kamarupa Kingdom from the fifth century to the twelfth century.[17] Assamese linguistic features have been discovered in the ninth-century Buddhist verses called Charyapada, coming from the end of the Apabhramsa period and discovered in 1907 in Nepal. Early compositions matured in the fourteenth century, during the reign of the Kamata king Durlabhnarayana of the Khen dynasty, when Madhav Kandali composed the Saptakanda Ramayana. Since the time of the Charyapada, Assamese has been influenced by the languages belonging to the Sino-Tibetan and Austroasiatic families in Northeast India.[18]

Alternative theories of origin

According to Devanada Bharali, Assamese originated in a non-Sanskrit Indo-European language that was brought into Assam by people that immigrated along the northern face of the Himalayas in southern Tibet. This claim is based on the observation that Sanskrit is a highly Dravidised Indo-European languages which gave it the cerebral or retro-flex phonological characteristics not found in Assamese and other Indo-European languages of Europe and Persia.[19] and it is supported by Satyakam Phukan in his self-published "Affinities of the Ainu language of Assam with Assamese and some other languages".


The Assamese phonemic inventory consists of eight vowels, ten diphthongs, and twenty-one consonants.[20]

Front Central Back
IPA ROM Script IPA ROM Script IPA ROM Script
Close i i ই/ঈ u u উ/ঊ
Near-close ʊ û
Close-mid e e এ' o o অ'
Open-mid ɛ ê ɔ ô
Open a a
Labial Alveolar Velar Glottal
IPA ROM Script IPA ROM Script IPA ROM Script IPA ROM Script
Nasal m m n n ন/ণ ŋ ng ঙ/ং
Stop voiceless p p t t ত/ট k k
aspirated ph th থ/ঠ kh
voiced b b d d দ/ড ɡ g
murmured bh dh ধ/ঢ ɡʱ gh
Fricative voiceless s s চ/ছ x x শ/ষ/স ɦ h
voiced z z জ/ঝ/য
Approximant w w l, ɹ l, r ল, ৰ

Alveolar stops

The Assamese phoneme inventory is unique in the Indic group of languages in its lack of a dental-retroflex distinction among the coronal stops.[21] Historically, the dental and retroflex series merged into alveolar stops. This makes Assamese resemble non-Indic languages of Northeast India (such as languages from the Mon-Khmer and Tibeto-Chinese languages).[22] The only other language to have fronted retroflex stops into alveolars is the closely related eastern dialects of Bengali (although a contrast with dental stops remains in those dialects). Note that /r/ is normally realized as [ɹ] or as a retroflex approximant.

Voiceless velar fricative

Assamese and Sylheti are unusual among Eastern Indo-Aryan languages for the presence of the /x/ or /χ/,[23] historically the MIA sibilant has lenited to /x/ and /h/ (non-initially).[24] The derivation of the velar fricative from the coronal sibilant /s/ is evident in the name of the language in Assamese; some Assamese prefer to write Oxomiya or Ôxômiya instead of Asomiya or Asamiya to reflect the sound change.[25] The voiceless velar fricative is absent in the West Goalpariya dialect as against wide usage in Eastern dialects.[26]

Assamese is called "Axamiyaa" in the Assamese language. The /x/ there represents the phoneme similar to the variety, which is present in many European Indo-European languages, like sound of 'X' in Greek Xeros (dry), 'ch' of Loch (Lake) Scottish, Bach, Ulrich (proper nouns) in German etc. Apart from Assamese and Sylheti this sound is not to be found in any of the standard Indian languages.

Velar nasal

Assamese and Bengali, in contrast to other Indo-Aryan languages, use the velar nasal (the English ng in sing) extensively. In many languages, while the velar nasal is commonly restricted to preceding velar sounds, in Assamese it can occur intervocalically.[20] This is another feature it shares with other languages of Northeast India, though in Assamese the velar nasal never occurs word-initially.[27]

Vowel inventory

Eastern Indic languages like Assamese, Bengali, Sylheti, and Oriya do not have a vowel length distinction, but have a wide set of back rounded vowels. In the case of Assamese, there are four back rounded vowels that contrast phonemically, as demonstrated by the minimal set: কলা kôla [kɔla] ('deaf'), ক'লা kola [kola] ('black'), কোলা kûla [kʊla] ('lap'), and কুলা kula [kula] ('winnowing fan'). The high-mid back rounded vowel /ʊ/ is unique in this branch of the language family.

Writing system

Modern Assamese uses the Assamese script and historically Kamrupi script, a variant that traces its descent from the Gupta script. It very closely resembles the Mithilakshar script of the Maithili language, as well as to the Bengali script.[28] There is a strong literary tradition from early times. Examples can be seen in edicts, land grants and copper plates of medieval kings. Assam had its own system of writing on the bark of the saanchi tree in which religious texts and chronicles were written. The present-day spellings in Assamese are not necessarily phonetic. Hemkosh, the second Assamese dictionary, introduced spellings based on Sanskrit, which are now the standard.

Morphology and grammar

The Assamese language has the following characteristic morphological features:[29]

  • Gender and number are not grammatically marked
  • There is lexical distinction of gender in the third person pronoun.
  • Transitive verbs are distinguished from intransitive.
  • The agentive case is overtly marked as distinct from the accusative.
  • Kinship nouns are inflected for personal pronominal possession.
  • Adverbs can be derived from the verb roots.
  • A passive construction may be employed idiomatically.

Negativization process

Verbs in Assamese are negativized by adding /n/ before the verb, with /n/ picking up the initial vowel of the verb. For example:[30]

  • /na laɡe/ 'do(es) not want' (1st, 2nd and 3rd persons)
  • /ni likʰu/ 'will not write' (1st person)
  • /nukutu/ 'will not nibble' (1st person)
  • /nɛlɛkʰɛ/ 'does not write' (3rd person)
  • /nɔkɔɹɔ/ 'do not do' (2nd person)


Assamese has a huge collection of classifiers, which are used extensively for different kinds of objects, that it acquired from Sino-Tibetan languages.[31]
Assamese Classifiers
Classifier Referent
/zɔn/ males (adult)
/zɔni/ females (women as well as animals)
/ɡoɹaki/ males and females (honorific)
/tu/ inanimate objects or males of animals and men (impolite)
/ti/ inanimate objects or infants
/kʰɔn/ flat square or rectangular objects, big or small, long or short
/kʰɔni/ terrain like rivers, mountains, etc.
/pat/ objects that are thin, flat, wide or narrow.
/pahi/ for flower
/sɔta/ objects that are solid
/kɔsa/ mass nouns
/mɔtʰa/ bundles of objects
/mutʰi/ smaller bundles of objects
/taɹ/ broom-like objects
/ɡɔs/ wick-like objects
/ɡɔsi/ with earthen lamp or old style kerosene lamp used in Assam
/jupa/ objects like trees, shrubs, etc.
/kʰila/ paper and leaf-like objects
/kʰini/ uncountable mass nouns and pronouns
/dal/ inanimate flexible/stiff or oblong objects; humans (pejorative)

In Assamese, classifiers are generally used in the numeral + classifier + noun (e.g. /ezɔn manuh/ 'one man') or the noun + numeral + classifier (e.g. /manuh ezɔn/ 'one man') forms.


Most verbs can be converted into nouns by the addition of the suffix /ɔn/. For example /kʰa/ ('to eat') can be converted to /kʰaɔn/ ('good eating').[32]


Regional dialects

Assamese has a number of regional dialects. Banikanta Kakati identified two broad dialects which he named (1) Eastern and (2) Western dialects,[33] of which the Eastern dialect is homogeneous, and prevalent to the east of Guwahati, and the western dialect is heterogeneous. However, recent linguistic studies have identified four dialect groups[20] [34] listed below from east to west:

Non-regional dialects

Assamese does not have caste- or occupation-based dialects. In the nineteenth century, the Eastern dialect became the standard dialect because it witnessed more literary activity and it was more uniform from east of Guwahati to Sadiya,[35] whereas the western dialects were more heterogeneous.[36] Since the nineteenth century, the center of literary activity (as well as of politics and commerce) has shifted to Guwahati; as a result, the standard dialect has evolved considerably away from the largely rural Eastern dialects and has become more urban and acquired western dialectal elements.[37] Most literary activity takes place in this dialect, and is often called the likhito-bhaxa, though regional dialects are often used in novels and other creative works.

There also exist some aregional, community-based dialects:

  • Standard dialect influenced by surrounding centers.
  • Bhakatiya dialect highly polite, sattra-based dialect with a different set of nominals, pronominals and verbal forms, as well as a preference for euphemism; indirect and passive expressions.[38] Some of these features are used in the standard dialect on very formal occasions.
  • The fisherman community has a dialect that is used in the central and eastern region.
  • The astrologer community of Darrang district has a dialect called thar that is coded and secretive. The ratikhowa and bhitarpanthiya secretive cult-based Vaisnava groups too have their own dialects.[39]
  • The Muslim community have their own dialectal preference, with their own kinship, custom and religious terms, with those in east Assam having distinct phonetic features.[37]
  • The urban adolescent and youth communities (for example, Guwahati) have exotic, hybrid and local slangs.[37]
  • Ethnic speech communities that use Assamese as a second language, often use dialects that are influenced heavily by the pronunciation, intonation, stress, vocabulary and syntax of their respective first languages (Mising Eastern Assamese, Bodo Central Kamrupi, Rabha Eastern Goalpariya etc.).[39] Two independent pidgins/creoles, associated with the Assamese language, are Nagamese (used by Naga groups) and Nefamese (used in Arunachal Pradesh).[40]


There is a growing and strong body of literature in this language. The first characteristics of this language are seen in the Charyapadas composed in the between the eighth and twelfth centuries. The first examples emerged in writings of court poets in the fourteenth century, the finest example of which is Madhav Kandali's Saptakanda Ramayana. The popular ballad in the form of Ojapali is also regarded as well-crafted. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a flourishing of Vaishnavite literature, leading up to the emergence of modern forms of literature in the late nineteenth century.

See also


  1. ^ LIS India
  2. ^ Nationalencyklopedin "Världens 100 största språk 2007" The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2007
  3. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Assamese". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  4. ^ 2001 Indian Census report
  5. ^ Sen, Sukumar (1975), Grammatical sketches of Indian languages with comparative vocabulary and texts, Volume 1, P 31
  6. ^ Oberlies 2001, p. ?.
  7. ^ Sarma, Satyendranath (1976), Assamese Literature, Page 43
  8. ^ Goswami, Golockchandra (1982), Structure of Assamese, Page 3
  9. ^ "Dr S K Chatterji basing his conclusion on the materials of accumulated by LSI Vol 1 and other monographs on the Bangali dialects divides eastern Mag. Pkt. and Ap. into four dialect groups. (1) Radha dialects which comprehend Western Bengali which gives standard Bangali dialect and Oriya in the South West. (2) Varendra dialects of North Central Bengal. (3) Kamarupa dialects which comprehend Assamese and the dialects of North Bengal. (4) Vanga dialects which comprehend the dialects of East Bengal (ODBL Vol. I. p140)" (Kakati 1941, p. 6)
  10. ^ There is evidence that the Prakrit of the Kamarupa kingdom differed enough from the Magadhi Prakrit to be identified as either a parallel Kamrupi Prakrit or at least an eastern variety of the Magadha Prakrit (Sharma 1990:0.24–0.28)
  11. ^ "It is curious to find that according to (Hiuen Tsang) the language of Kamarupa 'differed a little' from that of mid-India. Hiuen Tsang is silent about the language of Pundra-vardhana or Karna-Suvarna; it can be presumed that the language of these tracts were identical with that of Magadha." (Chatterji 1926, p. 78)
  12. ^ "Perhaps this 'differing a little' of the Kamarupa speech refers to those modifications of Aryan sounds which now characterise Assamese as well as North- and East-Bengali dialects." (Chatterji 1926, pp. 78–89)
  13. ^ "When [the Tibeto-Burman speakers] adopted that language they also enriched it with their vocabularies, expressions, affixes etc." (Saikia 1997, p. 4)
  14. ^ "... (it shows) that in Ancient Assam there were three languages viz. (1) Sanskrit as the official language and the language of the learned few, (2) Non-Aryan tribal languages of the Austric and Tibeto-Burman families, and (3) a local variety of Prakrit (ie a MIA) wherefrom, in course of time, the modern Assamese language as a MIL, emerged." (Sharma 1978, pp. xxiv-xxviii)
  15. ^ Guha 1983, p. 9.
  16. ^ Goswami 2003, p. 434.
  17. ^ Medhi 1988, pp. 67–63.
  18. ^ Moral 1997, pp. 43-53.
  19. ^ "Axamiyaa Bhaaxaar Moulik Bisar". Retrieved 2014-07-27. 
  20. ^ a b c Assamese, Resource Centre for Indian Language Technology Solutions, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati.
  21. ^ "Assamese, alone among NIA languages except for Romany, has also lost the characteristic IA dental/retroflex contrast (although it is retained in spelling), reducing the number of articulations, with the loss also of /c/, to three." (Masica 1993, p. 95)
  22. ^ Moral 1997, p. 45.
  23. ^ The sound varies between velar ([x]) and a uvular ([χ]) pronunciations, depending on the speaker and speech register.
  24. ^ The word "hare", for example: śaśka (OIA) > χɔhā (hare). (Masica 1993, p. 206)
  25. ^ Whereas most fricatives become sibilants in Eastern Goalpariya (sukh, santi, asa in Eastern Goalpariya; xukh, xanti, axa in western Kamrupi) (Dutta 1995, p. 286); some use of the fricative is seen as in the word xi (for both "he" and "she") (Dutta 1995, p. 287) and xap khar (the snake) (Dutta 1995, p. 288). The /x/ is completely absent in Western Goalpariya (Dutta 1995, p. 290)
  26. ^ B Datta - Linguistic situation in north-east India, 1982 the distinctive h sound of Assamese is absent in the West Goalpariya dialect
  27. ^ Moral 1997, p. 46.
  28. ^ Bara 1981, p. ?.
  29. ^ Kommaluri, Subramanian & Sagar K 2005.
  30. ^ Moral 1997, p. 47.
  31. ^ Moral 1997, pp. 49-51.
  32. ^ Moral 1997, p. 48.
  33. ^ "Assamese may be divided dialectically into Eastern and Western Assamese" (Kakati 1941, p. 16)
  34. ^ Moral 1992, p. ?.
  35. ^ Kakati 1941, p. 14-16.
  36. ^ Goswami 2003, p. 436.
  37. ^ a b c (Dutta 2003, p. 106)
  38. ^ Goswami 2003, pp. 439-440.
  39. ^ a b (Dutta 2003, p. 107)
  40. ^ (Dutta 2003, pp. 108–109)


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