Tanchangya Language

a. Introduction

The Tanchangya language is one of the eleven indigenous languages in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in Bangladesh, and an ethnic group in India and Myanmar. It is categorised under Indo-Aryan languages, a sub-group of Indo-Iranian branches of Indo-European language family, despite different scholars’ opinions of Tibeto-Burman language family. Tanchangya language is rich to some extent with its folklore in oral literature. But due to the result of negligence very few have paid attention to it. The language has inevitably intermixed with surrounded majority languages where they are living in Myanmar, India and Bangladesh. They have adopted quite several words from Indo-Aryan, Tibeto-Burman, even Persian, and Dutch.

Tanchangya language is obscure perhaps as well as their history. Therefore, different scholars put forward different opinions on Tanchangya language. In CHT, there is a record and even composed patriotic songs in CHT on ‘ten languages with eleven tribes’ (দশ ভাষাবাসী এগারটি জাতি)”. When one inquires whose language is omitted that is certainly the Tanchangya language. Chakmas incline that Tanchangya is a subtribe of Chakma[1]. As a result, Tanchangya language or identity is none other than Chakma.  ‘They also say that Tanchangyas are the ‘real Chakmas’; in private, however, a Tanchangya is Tanchangya’[2]. Tanchangyas are not willing to accept such propaganda since no Myanmar chronicles have recorded the Tanchangya are Chakma. The difference is noted in the ‘Gazetteer of Chittagong Hill Tracts’, ‘they spoke a dialect slightly different from those of Chakmas’[3]. Indeed, the difference between Tanchangya and Chakma is not because of living in different geographical locations but because of being different ethnicities.

Another notable feature of Tanchangya language is the assimilation of Burmese and Arakanese words. Such as ‘lʰʌŋ/লাং’ for “breaking the dawn” with few Mon similarities such as ‘ʌmɒ/আম’ (house) ‘tɒl/তল’ (ground floor) whereas such feature is comparatively not found in Chakma language. Tanchangya have migrated from Burma two centuries ago but still they (three countries Tanchangya) understand those words. Considerable similar vocabularies are found between Chakma and Tanchangya but such similarity also exist among Assamese, Bengali, and Odia, due to the root langauges of Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali. This short writing is an attempt to bring about the Tanchangya language family and to trace the historical identity of Tanchangya language.

Language family

Tanchangya people claim their language belongs to Indo-European language family. However, according to Myanmar scholarship, Dainak/Daingnet (Dainak, Tongchangya, and Tanchangya are the same tribe but the only difference is by their identification in respective countries of Myanmar, India and Bangladesh) belongs to Tibeto-Burman race. In addition, Debnath also asserts that Tanchangya ethnically is Tibeto-Burman[4]. Myanmar scholars might have thought the ancient Sakyan race is the present Tsak or Chak/Thek, who are dwelling in northern Rakhine state in Myanmar and in Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.

Dilemma may raise in the Tanchangya language whether it is Indo-European or Tibeto-Burman Language Family. However, it has closer derivative etymologies of Indo-Aryan languages with its distorted form. Therefore, after studying the language it will be clear on the language family. Moreover, according to Tanchangya’s oral history, their language is under the Indo-European family. Whether Magadhi, Prakrit, Sanskrit or Pāḷi, all counts under Middle-Indo-Aryan Languages. Furthermore, they claim that they are the descendants of Sakya, who lived in northern India, Kapilavastu in 6th century B.C.E. ‘The Sakyan small kingdom was called Kapilavastu, which was included under Kosala kingdom’[5]. Since during the Buddha’s time ‘Magadhi spoke in the whole Kosalan kingdom’.[6] Therefore, Sakyan must have spoken Magadhi in their kingdom. At present Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and border areas between India and Nepal are the Sakyan places.

In ancient Burma Tanchangyas are contemporary with other Tibeto-Burman and Mon-Khmer tribes. ‘Pyu, Thek/Thet/Sakya, Mon, and Kanyan are the ancient people in Burma[7]’. They dwelt in central Burma Tagaung from 9th to 7th century B.C.E. and with Arakanese until 14th century C.E. in Arakan (until now they dwell as a Daingnet in Rakhine state in Myanmar). For that reason, Tibeto-Burman words assimilated in Tanchangya languages to some extent. Thus, scholars incline that Tanchangya language belongs to Tibeto-Burman Language Family.

A language could change to another language family over time. One may belong to another language family but due to the assimilation with an influential group, a tribe is likely to adopt other language. Such a case happened to the Assamese of North-east India. According to the history of Assam, ‘in the 13th century C.E. the powerful Mongol, Chengis Khan invaded Nanchao (Southern China called Yunnan) the Tai Groups (Shan, Tai, Laos, and Assamese). Thus, they were compelled to migrate in the Shan Plateau in northern Myanmar, Assam and in North-Eastern States in India’[8].

Ancient Assamese language is Tibeto-Burman unlike modern Assamese.  They are a subgroup of Tai which belongs to Tai-Kadai language family. However, Vaishnavism (who patronised Sanskrit) influenced the modern Assamese in around 16th century C.E. Due to that now their ancient language as well as their religion (i.e. Buddhism) are almost unrecognisable. When Hindu kings ruled the Ahom Kingdom around the 15th or 16th century C.E. they got Sanskrit influenced heavily. Hence, Assamese also has become similar even with Bengali due to the neighbour majority of Bengali in ancient Bengal. The present Assamese alphabets are also similar to Bengali which is just a difference of a few alphabets. The similar theory also could apply to the Tanchangya language for assimilating Tibeto-Burman words because they have been living together with Tibeto-Burman for many centuries. Consequently, they have adopted some words from Burmese and Arakanese. But it does not mean they belong to the Tibeto-Burman language family. They are linguistically Indo-European and by race they are Mongoloid.

Sources of language

The primary sources of Tanchangya language are rooted in Indic languages.  They are Pāḷi, Prakrit, Sanskrit, and other Middle Indo-Aryan languages. The reason for being closest with Bengali language is that because Bengali itself based on Pāḷi, Prakrit, and Sanskrit. Nowadays, the broken Bengali words or slightly modified words are directly used in the language due to administration, business, education, and legal matters in various ways where they dwell.  And it will be even more if they neglect in the future. The Tanchangya words are distorted; however, 80 percent of vocabularies are derived from Indo-Aryan languages.

Beside the Indo-Aryan language, Tanchangya people also adopted from Tibeto-Burman words. However, they are comparatively few. According to the etymological derivative meaning, the Tanchangya words can be classified into fourfold namely Middle-Indo-Aryan (Pali, Prakrit, and Sanskrit), Tibeto-Burma (Burmese and Arakanese), Foreign words (Persian, Dutch, and English) and Original language. Biro Kumar Tanchangya noted the original derivative words in his “Introduction to Tanchangya” as  “original language (nɪt bʰəsʌ/নিত ভাসা)  of  Tanchangya[9]”.


Some syntax elements will be examined in order to clarify the Tanchangya language family. From the linguistic perspective, syntax is universally accepted for determining its language family. Tanchangya like all Indo-Aryan languages, the sentence structure is subject-object-verb (svo). For instance, “mʊɪ/মুই (I) bʰʌt/ভাত (rice) kʰʌŋɒt/খাঙত (eating)”. However, two more patterns are also intelligible structures in Tanchangya language. The first pattern is omitting the subject, for instance bʰʌt (rice) and kʰʌŋɒt (I am eating). The second pattern is object (bʰʌt/ ভাত/ rice)-verb (kʰʌŋɒt/ খাঙৎ/   eating)-subject (mʊɪ/মুই/ I am), unlike common sentence structure of ‘subject-object-verb’ (SOV). But two structures are also easily intelligible to readers and listeners. The core reason for omitting the subject is that in every “verb” of Indo-Aryan languages, it inherits the subject, number, and person. Therefore, the subject is easily understood by looking at the verbal formation.  

Besides omitting the subject, the verb also occasionally does not require in sentences. For instance, “ əmʌttʊn মত্তুন (to us) dɪbə (দিবা) (two) pɒwə (পআ)  (sons)”. Like Pali language, as “gottena gotamo nātho” which literally means “Lord is Gotama by Clan.”. In this instance, verb is omitted due to obviousness. Indeed, it is one of the characteristics of Middle Indo-Aryan language, i.e. Pali.

Another notable feature is the diminution of retroflex and two sibilant consonants. The retroflex (i.e. ṭ, ṭh, ḍ, ḍh, and ṇ and dental (t, th, d, dh, n) consonants pronounce similarly.  Moreover, pronunciation between the retroflex sibilant ‘ṣ’ and palatal sibilant consonant ‘ś’ are the same as dental sibilant ‘s’. The inherent aspirate sound also pronounces with no aspirate sound in the group consonants.

Moreover, Tanchangya language is not a tonal language. All the syllables in a word and all the words in a sentence receive equal stress like most of Indo-Aryan languages. However, most of the Tibeto-Burman languages are tonal languages. Therefore, the subject inherits in the verb and the tonal differences clearly show that Tanchangya language is not a Tibeto-Burman language family, but it belongs to Indo-Aryan European language family.

Stages of language                                  

Direct evidence does not support the evolution of Tanchangya language. However, from a theoretical perspective, it can be assumed the evolution of the Tanchangya language falls into three stages. They are:

  1. -This period is probably from 9th century B.C.E. to early 14th century C.E. The Sakyan used it until their migration to Arakan from Micchagiri (Present name Thaye) in central Myanmar near the bank of Irrawaddy[10]. This could be on the good basis for the Tanchangya language to preserve closely with Indo-Aryan languages such as Prakrit, Pāḷi, and Sanskrit. In this stage, scripts were unknown; if they were that could be Brahmi scripts.
  2. – This period might happen around the 14th century to 18th century C.E. In this period, ancient Burmese and Arakan language could have influenced to some extent. According to the one of the Myanmar Chronicle ‘Danyawady Ayedaw Bung’ Mengdi, the Arakan king captivated the Sakyan to Arakan Kingdom from Central Myanmar called Micchagiri (Thayet in Magwe Division). During this period Tanchangya language is believed to be a mixture of Indo-Aryan, and Tibeto-Burman language. Therefore, those Tibeto-Burman words are still found in Tanchangya language. For example, “kjɔŋ) (ক্যং)” means monastery, is a loanword from Myanmar language but the pronunciation is like Arakanese due to closer contact with Arakanese in Arakan. During this time, Arakan King gave the name Dainnak/Daingnet to Tanchangya people. In 1818 C.E. the Dainak left Arakan for Chittagong Hill Tracts[11]. Even after their settlement, they were able to speak Arakanese fluently according to the saying of forefathers. Even their names also like Arakanese names such as Aung Koi Ching (ɔŋ kɔɪ ʧɪŋ) (অং কৈ চিং), Chui Hla Prue (ʧʊɪ lʰʌ prʊ) and (চৈ লহা প্রু)’ Thus, they still use most of the religious terms equivalent with Arakanese.
  3. – The Tanchangya language has influenced inevitably depending on their location, where they live nowadays. This period perhaps began from the 19th century C.E. onwards until the present.

Depending on geographical location, the influential languages have been compelled to adopt Tanchangya languages. In Bangladesh, Tanchangya language got a lot of influence from the Bengali language whereas in India they use frequent English words, particularly among the young generation. In Burma, Dainak uses frequent Burmese words. However, the old generation who do not have any knowledge either on Bengali or English language in the remote areas preserve the ancient Tanchangya language. The Dainak people in Myanmar do still preserve ancient Pāḷi, and ancient Indo-European language family words despite mixture with frequent Arakanese.

It is the Dainak language which differs from Tibeto-Burman languages in Myanmar. According to Aung San Suu Kyi, ‘the early peoples of Arakan are something of a mystery. It is thought that they were a mixture of Mongolian and Aryan peoples who had come over from India. Certainly, the early kings of Arakan were of Indian stock[12]. The Arakanese belong to Tibeto-Burman linguistically but by race they belong to Mongoloid whereas the Dainak are Mongoloid by race and linguistically belongs to Indo-Aryan. Further, Aung San Suu Kyi states that the language of some of the other groups shows the influence of Bengali. Indeed, to whom she is referring to is the Marmagyi (Barua in Bangladesh) who speak Bengali and Dainak, whose languages have some similarities with Bengali.  Hence, the usage of Tanchangya vocabularies is a little bit different based on their localities. However, still most of the words are similar among the Tanchangyas in Bangladesh, Tongchangya in Mizoram, Tanchangya-Chakma in Tripura and Dainak (Chakma) in Rakhine State and Yangon Division in Myanmar.

Classification of language

Based on sept/kingship group (gɒsʌ) (গসা)Tanchangya language is classified into 12 kingship group. Out of the 12 only four kingship group languages are distinctive, which differ slightly among Tanchangya languages. For example, the sentence of ‘Where are you going brothers?’ in Tanchangya:

  1. mʊɒ gɒsʌ (মুঅ গসা)- kʊrɪ dʒɒtte  dʌlɒk? (কুরি জত্তে দা লক্?)
  2. dɒnjʌ gɒsʌ (দোন্যা গসা)- kʊrʊ dʒɒtte  dʌlɒk? (কুরু জত্তে দা লক্?)      
  3. kʌrvʌ gɒsʌ (কার্বা গসা)- hudɪ dʒɒtte  dʌlɒk? (কুদু জত্তে দা লক্?)
  4. mɔŋlʌ gɒsʌ & melɔŋ gɒsʌ(মেলং গসা  আহ মংলা  গসা)-kwet dʒɒtte  dʌlɒk?(ক্বেত  জত্তে দা লক্?)

Among twelve kingship groups in Tanchangya language, kʌrvʌ gɒsʌ and ɔŋjɔ gɒsʌ (অঙয়- গসা) show some similarity with Chakma’s vocabularies. For instance, “berʌ” in Chakma is also called “berʌ” (বেরা) in kʌrvʌ gɒsʌ tribe unlike mʊɒ gɒsʌ and dɔɪnjʌ gɒsʌ which they call “beseɡʌ” (বেসেগা). Therefore, Tanchangya language is analysed into four categories owing to the distinctive language pattern.


Tanchangya language is one of the minority languages in Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar. They preserve language orally. Despite minority language, the Government of Bangladesh regards it as a separate language whereas in India they consider a sub-tribe of Chakma in Mizoram, India. The language is mainly based on Middle-Indo-Aryan language of Pāḷi, Sanskrit, and Prakrit. But due to the evolution of the language, its deviation is also almost untraceable. Therefore, scholars’ opinions on the Tanchangya language of Tibeto-Burman is beyond the historical evidence. In fact, simply with the deviation from the original word, it is unwise and beyond the fact directly to make into conclusion that the language belongs to Tibeto-Burman language. All the above factual information clearly identifies that the language belongs to Indo-European Language Family. Indeed, Tanchangya language is just Tanchangya language without being a sub-language of Chakma or others. Their language is mostly preserved in orally in a local ballad song called “ɡɪŋɡʊlɪ/গিংগুলি” concerning history, culture, and believes. For further researchers, interested scholars are welcome for comments and criticism on the discussed points.


[1] Here are some published books noted on “Tanchangya is a sub-tribe of Chakma”. (Chakma 2006: 20); (Rajput 1963: 2); (Ishaq 1971: 44); (Lewin 1869:62). rchers, ebnath asserts that Tanchangya language is Tibeto-Burman  

[2] (Debnath 2011: 54)

[3] (Ishaq 1971: 44); For details clarification of differences between Chakma and Tanchangya see (Debnath 2011: 54).

[4] (Debnath 2011: 54)

[5] (Law 2008: 5)

[6] (Basham 2004: 394)

[7] (Harvey 2010, 3)

[8] Grierson 1902: 1)

[9] (Tanchangya 1995: 30)

[10] (Tin and Luce 2008: 1)

[11] (Ishaq 1971: 44)

[12] (Kyi 2010: 63)

Works Cited

Basham, A. L. The Wonder that was India. Delhi: Picador, 2004.

Chakma, Saradindu Shekhar. Ethnic Cleansing in Chittagong Hill Tracts . Dhaka: Ankur Prakashani, 2006.

Debnath, Rupak. “Ethnicity of Chakma and Tanchangya.” Journal of Applied Science & Social Science II, no. I (March-April 2011): 51-55.

Grierson, G. A. “Notes on Āhom .” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 56, no. 1 (1902): 1-59.

Harvey, G.E. History of Burma: From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the English Conquest. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 2010.

Ishaq, Muhammad, ed. Bangladesh District Gazetteer: Chittagong Hill Tracts District Gazetteer. Dacca: Bangladesh Government Press, 1971.

Kyi, Aung San Suu. Freedom from Fear. Revised Edition. London: Penguin Books, 2010.

Law, Bimala Churn. Geography of Early Buddhism. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2008.

Lewin, T.H. The Hill Tracts of Chittagong and the Dwellers Therein: with Comparative Vocabullaries of the Hill Dialects. Calcutta: Bengal Printing Company, Limited, 1869.

Phukan, Satyakam. “An Analysis of the Ethno-Linguistic Roots and Connections of the Chakma and Tanchangya People.” Dr Satyakam Phukan’s Webpages. 12 2013. https://drsatyakamphukan.wordpress.com/2013/12/chakma_tanchangya_origin_analysissml.pdf (accessed 03 05, 2017).

Rajput, A. B. The Tribe of Chittagong Hill Tracts. Pakistan Publications, 1963.

Tanchangya, Biro Kumar. Tanchangya Parichiti (Introduction to Tanchangya). Bandarban, Bangladesh: Tanchangya Maha Sommilon, 1995.

Tin, Pe Maung, and G. H. Luce, trans. The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Myanmar. Third Edition. Yangon: Unity Publishing House, 2008.