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Meet Sikari Tisso, the man on a life-long mission to document the Karbi language

In the early 2000s, when he was about 40, an existential question plagued Sikari Tisso. “Who am I?” Tisso asked himself one day, on his way back home from work.

A resident of Diphu, a picturesque hill town in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, Tisso was well aware of his identity as a Karbi, one of the many tribes that make up the rich landscape of Assam.

“Ok, so I am a Karbi,” he told himself, “But what makes me one?”

“I have my language, my culture, my tradition, my rituals,” he remembered thinking. But then, soon enough, another more concerning question struck him. “Was is it enough to just ‘have’?”

It was not, Tisso decided, and in the years that followed, set off on a mission to document the forgotten words of Karbi language, a Tibeto-Burman language, spoken by the Karbi tribe in parts of Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Burma and Bangladesh. “I realised that there was no point sitting at home (or in office) with my arms crossed,” he said, “A language is an identity of a person…of a community. We cannot afford to lose it.”
What followed was two decades of extensive travel seeking and carefully documenting, in Tisso’s words, “every word, every breath, every cough” of Karbi-language speakers across Karbi Anglong, parts of Assam, and the Northeast on his motorcycle, a journey that has now landed him a prestigious international honour.

In January, Tisso was awarded the Linguistic Society of America’s Excellence in Community Linguistics Award (2021), which recognises contributions of community members (typically outside the academic sphere of professional linguists) to language revitalisation. Its previous awardees include people who have worked for languages such as the Ersu Tibetan in China, Bardi in Northwestern Australia, and in 2020, Uipo, an endangered Southern Tangkhulic language, spoken in parts of Manipur.

A Natural Linguist

The Karbis— called Mikirs in the Constitution Order, Government of India — are an important ethnic group in the hills of Assam, primarily inhabiting the districts of Karbi Anglong, as well as Lakhimpur, Kamrup, Cachar, Morigaon etc.

While the 2001 Census pegs the number of native Karbi speakers at 419,534 in Assam, certain elements of the language are slowly getting endangered. “Onslaught of more dominant languages, urbanism, and westernisation have made the youth to forget their own [language],” said Tisso. “For example, Karbi has a rich oral repertoire, including special words used in songs and music. But we are on the brink of losing them.”

With this realisation, Tisso has spent most of the last two decades trying to balance his job as an employee of the Fisheries Department and his passion as a language documenter. “My job had me travelling to the interiors of Karbi Anglong,” he said, “Suppose I had to inspect a pond in a particular village, I would make it a point to find older people around the area, who possibly spoke archaic forms of the tongue, and would strike up a conversation with them — ask them to sing for me, or just speak to me.”

Back home, Tisso would work late into the night transcribing the new words he had learnt. By 2004, he had published two books, both documentations of traditional lullabies and children’s rhymes in the Karbi language. He also became an active member of the Karbi Lammet Amei, or the Karbi Sahitya Sabha, the tribe’s apex literary body that worked towards preserving and promoting the language.

A few years later, when Linda Konnerth, an Assistant Professor at University of Regensburg, was in India for her dissertation on the Karbi language, Tisso became the scholar’s man on the ground, accompanying her across pockets of Karbi-speaking Assam on his bike. They worked on standardising the language, and in 2015, when Konnerth’s dissertation, ‘A grammar of Karbi’, was published, Tisso was named as the primary Karbi collaborator.

Konnerth said she still remembers her first trip to Diphu in 2008. “Throughout the train journey from Guwahati to Diphu, Tisso kept talking constantly, full of questions and insights about his language — most of which he had figured out himself,” she said, over the phone from the US.

In her field of work, Konnerth said, she usually came across two kinds of linguists: professional linguists, who usually get academic training at a university, do a PhD, go on to teach, and so on. “And then, there are natural linguists — people from the community, who, for whatever reason, have great passion and a very genuine interest in preserving the language,” she said.

Naturally, Tisso fell in the latter category. “These are people who cannot stop thinking about their language,” said Konnerth, with a laugh, “And these are people we, as professional linguists, can only dream of finding on the ground.”

A Song Language

For 61-year-old Tisso, who retired from his job last month, the award was least expected. “I mean, I was just doing it in my own little way,” he said.
Currently, Tisso, with Konnerth’s assistance, is working towards compiling a Karbi Song Language dictionary. “The project basically draws from the dual persona of the Karbi language as an ordinary, spoken language and also as a song language,” said Konnerth, “That basically means that while the Karbi language is spoken conversationally with a set of words, there are certain songs that use another set of words to describe the same thing. For example, rain is described as ‘Arbe’ in the regular language, but as ‘Ruve’ in the song language.”

The latter mostly pertains to ballads or religious chants. In the Northeast, said Konnerth, many languages could be described as song languages. “It is not very uncommon,” she said.

“But it is these aspects of itself that the Karbi language is slowly losing,” said Tisso, who is also working on a comprehensive bilingual (Karbi-English) dictionary as well as a multilingual dictionary, comprising eight indigenous dialects of the region.

It is hard work, with “no rest”, said Tisso, especially at his age, as he navigates the social landscape during the day, and painstakingly works with audio and text at night. “But this is my life-long mission,” he said, “Enough people give lectures. Sometimes you have to work too.”

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