A correspondent (thanks, Paul!) sent me a link to the online Chin English Dictionary created by David Van Bik; I thought it was pretty neat, but it bothered me that when I entered “chin” I only got one translation, khabe, presumably the anatomical term. “What’s the word for Chin in Chin?” I wondered, and naturally went straight to Wikipedia, where entering “Chin languages” got me redirected to Kukish languages, which was the first startlement. The introductory paragraph made me blink:
The Kukish languages, also known as Kuki-Chin (Kuki/Chin) and Mizo–Kuki/Chin, are a family of fifty Tibeto-Burman languages spoken in eastern India and Burma. Most speakers of these languages are known as Kukī in Assamese and as Chin in Burmese; some are also identified as Naga, though the Mizo (Lushai) are also ethnically distinct.
There follows a list of dozens of Karbi and Kukish languages, none of which I’d ever heard of. In hopes of elucidation I turned to Andrew Dalby’s wonderful Dictionary of Languages: The Definitive Reference to More than 400 Languages, where the entry on “Kuki-Chin and Naga languages” started:
In the Chin Hills of western Burma, and the Indian states of Mizoram and south-eastern Assam, a group of SINO-TIBETAN LANGUAGES is spoken. Their fragmentation — most have only between 10,000 and 50,000 speakers — has three causes: the broken landscape, the absence until very recently of large-scale political units, and the fact that the speakers have evidently been settled over most of their present habitat for many centuries. Thus early dialects gradually differentiated until they reached the point of mutual unintelligibility.
Dalby goes on to explain that “almost the only exception in this region to the rule of linguistic fragmentation” was Lushei, which had become a lingua franca with about 350,000 speakers and “is now the official language of the Indian state of Mizoram.” I didn’t see it at first in Wikipedia’s list of dozens of Karbi and Kukish languages, but closer investigation showed it was in the Central group as “Mizo (Lushai).” The Wikipedia article is under Mizo language, but in the first paragraph it says forthrightly that “even in most of modern writings Lushai (or Lusei) is being used instead of Mizo.” Or, apparently, Lushei.
But what about Naga, you ask? Well, Dalby continues: “North of the Chin languages extend two further groups of related languages, spoken in Nagaland, Manipur and eastern Assam. They are grouped by linguists as ‘Naga’ and ‘Konyak’.” Wikipedia, under Naga people, says:
The Nagas, though they have no common language, speak many varieties that belong to the Tibeto-Burman language group of the Sino-Tibetan language family. A language known as Nagamese creole is commonly spoken in Nagaland, and adjacent Indian states. It is a language based on Assamese and does not truly reflect the various languages and dialects spoken by the different Naga tribes in Nagaland and acts as a binding force to the different tribes of Nagaland. However, the present official language of the Nagaland state is ‘English’ with which a majority of the urban people are fluent but rarely spoken in the rural areas where Nagamese is popularly used to communicate between villagers of different tribal districts.
It seems that once you move out of the comfortable world of well-studied language families like Indo-European and Semitic, you have to be prepared for a considerable amount of mess and confusion.