Karbi is a Tibeto-Burman (TB) language spoken by about half a million speakers located in the Karbi Anglong District of Assam, Northeast India. Its genetic affiliation within the TB family has remained unclear. Previous treatments provide information on the language; however, a detailed documentation and grammatical analysis is needed as a comparative resource for typologists, who seek to understand commonalities and differences between languages and language families of the world. Most of the several hundreds of TB languages have remained un- or under-described to the present day. This project supports fieldwork in Karbi Anglong, and is concerned with the collection and analysis of naturalistic data reflecting how the language is actually spoken in the everyday life of the community. The execution of the project is based on strong collaboration between linguists from the University of Oregon and the Karbi Lammet Amei (Karbi Literary Association). The co-PI will train community members to help with data collection and analysis.

This project will produce a modern, detailed descriptive grammar that will also contribute to the understanding of Karbi culture and cultural knowledge, and of the history of Northeast India by working out genetic relationships to other TB languages. The collaborative foundation of the project will create an innovative model of linguist-community interaction, which is not only preferable from an ethical standpoint but also has the important advantage to help accumulate more data and more naturalistic data by training community members to help with recording and analysis of oral texts. A technical linguistic grammar will be the prerequisite for a pedagogical grammar that will help strengthen the status of Karbi, and potentially other minority languages in the area.

Project Report

This project has studied Karbi grammar. Formerly known as Mikir, Karbi is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken mostly in the Karbi Anglong district inside the state of Assam in Northeast India. Northeast India, in geographical size comparable to the U.S. state of Oregon, is home to about 200 languages, which makes this area one of the world's most diverse places, both linguistically and ethnically. A major result of this project is a Karbi text database and a simple dictionary database that includes words and their translations into English. Based on these databases, the most important outcome of this project will be a comprehensive, descriptive grammar of Karbi, serving as the co-PI's doctoral dissertation. A detailed descriptive grammar of a language is a fundamental contribution to scholarship. The most immediate and wide-range utility of this research on Karbi grammar is for Tibeto-Burman linguistics and, with the prospect of language teaching materials, the Karbi community. More specific aspects of the grammar provide essential data for various other disciplines. For Tibeto-Burman linguists, a modern, easily available, descriptive and comprehensive grammar of Karbi written in English offers a valuable work of reference that provides data on all aspects of language structure and use, including the sounds of the language with an accurate discussion of the tone system based on recent insights in the field (phonetics and phonology), word formation processes (morphology), the structure of constituents, clauses, and sentences (syntax), and conditions of actual language use (discourse pragmatics). These data are useful not only for the study of typological patterns in the Tibeto-Burman family, but also for the study of the relationships between grammatical phenomena more generally. For the Karbi community, the research carried out under this project has been the basis for language development and, thus, the preservation of their cultural identity. Through close collaboration with the Karbi Lammet Amei (KLA; Karbi Literary Association), a considerable number of folk stories were audio- and video-recorded, transcribed, and linguistically analyzed, which secures their preservation for generations to come. The collection of oral literature is also a contribution to various disciplines of Western scholarship, first and foremost ethnology and anthropology. Through the documentation of Karbi words and grammatical constructions, this project has also created a basis for future work on the linguistic affiliation of the Karbi language. So far, it is only known that Karbi belongs into the Northeast Indian group of Tibeto-Burman languages, but which Tibeto-Burman languages exactly it belongs to, is still unclear. By providing detailed data on Karbi, this project has contributed further pieces to the puzzle of historical relationships between Tibeto-Burman languages, and the people that speak them.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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William J. Badecker
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University of Oregon Eugene
United States
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