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.


  1. Garrigus Carraig (f/k/a komfo,amonan) says

    Wikipedia claims that Mizo is spoken in Israel. I was skeptical & then poked around & found the Bnei Menashe. Good heavens.

  2. Yes, it’s a surprising fact that there are ancient communities of Jews in all sorts of places where you don’t expect to find them.
    Also? There are still Samaritans in the world. Only about 700 of them, but that’s 700 more than most people realize.

  3. Sorry, correction there, I thought the link refered to these people:

  4. Hillel Halkin, quoted at length in the Wiki article about the Bnei Menashe, is likely Philologos. He has also translated into English such major Israeli authors as A. B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz.

  5. Bathrobe says

    The only Sino-Tibetan language I know is Chinese (Mandarin). I guess I wasn’t expecting anything, but the vocabulary in the Chin-English dictionary doesn’t even look vaguely familiar. Are there any good primers on “Sino-Tibetan linguistics” that I could get hold of?

  6. Bathrobe says

    I should have looked at Amazon and Google Books first. The prices, of course, are prohibitive.

  7. Zomi Kahih Ka Kipak E says

    Hi! thank you very much for talking about us. There is no meaning for Chin in our languages. It is supposed to be a misnomer for Qin people of China. In Burmese, ‘Chin’ can mean ‘basket’ or ‘friend’- ‘achinchin'(friend). It is also supposed to a corruption of Ciimnuai – an early settlement of some Tedim/Thadou Zomi in Tedim township, Chin State, Burma.
    We called ourselves Zo/Zomi since time immemorial. Currently, there are some tribes who refuse to call themselves Zo/Zomi due to political aspirations or whatever, sticking strictly to the imposed names such as Chin/Kuki.
    Our tradition/culture is quiten weird. Some Bible scholar believes that we might be Jews. Whatever it is, may be, may be not. Thanks

  8. Why can’t I see my own post?

  9. Thanks for providing an insider perspective, Zomi Kahih Ka Kipak E. If you still can’t see your comment, write me at languagehat AT gmail DOT com and I’ll try to figure out what’s wrong.

  10. The Wikipedia article on Zomi seems to have been written by a very strong Zomi advocate.

  11. @Bathrobe: Sino-Tibetan languages are an extremely diverse lot. This is compounded by the fact that Chinese is lexically quite marginal in Sino-Tibetan (which gives the idea that Chinese is a primary branch of the family, otherwise they will call it Tibeto-Burman or something). So a count of Chinese-Tibetan Swadesh cognates does not turn out very much.

  12. [I have a number of in-laws who are (Falam) Chin-speakers.]
    Yes, on the Indian-side of the border (in the state of Manipur) the people (and the language) is called Kuki; on the Burma-side, Chin. My impression though is that the difference in names reflects differences in socio-political identity. Mizo seems to be mutually comprehensible with Chin — not being a speaker of either language, I don’t have a great sense of the similarities/differences, but but my impression is that Mizo speakers can understand Chin speakers and vice-versa, though I imagine there must be differences. The various Naga languages (in India, called “Naga dialects”) are not mutually comprehensible with Chin, Kuki, or Mizo, or with each other.

  13. can anyone refer me to a kuki-english phrase book? thank you,

  14. First and foremost, Kuki-Chin or Kukish languages and Naga languages are two completely different mutually unintelligible languages spoken on the tri junction of Banladesh, India and Burma borders. Under Kuki Chin group of languages there are roughly 70 to 80 dialects with each dialect representing a particular tribe who again politically are broadly classified under three major ethnic nomenclatures, viz.
    1. KUKI in the indian states of Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, tripura, meghalaya and in Chittagong Hill tracts of Bangladesh.
    2. Mizo in the Indian state of Mizoram.
    3. CHIN in chin state of Myanmar.
    The language spoken by a particular Kuki Chin tribe is always mutually intelligible with atleast two or three other nieghbouring languages. Lushei is the Old name for Mizo and is the lingua franca of Mizoram state of india and is mutually intelligible with Falam, a Chin language in the Chin state of myanmar. Though Mizo (Lushei/ lushai) is not spoken in the Kuki areas of Manipur, Nagaland, Assam states of india but its relative 22 Kuki languages like Thadou, Paite, Kom, Hmar etc are spoken.

    As For Naga languages, they are about 16 tribes whose languages are totally and mutually unintelligible with each other and no two tribes shows any similiarity or commoness to each other. But for Political survivor they are united under Naga as thier distinct ethnic identity and the indian state of Nagaland is thier Homeland. but they are also found in states like Manipur, Assam, Arunachal pradesh and in Myanmar. since no two naga tribes can communicate with each other using thier respective languages, they speak in Nagamese, a pidgin of Assamese language with some loan words from Hindi and english. English is the offfical languages in Nagaland state.

    Kuki – Chin and Naga group of languages are to be treated as separate languages. They share nothing in common except for the fact that they share the same ecological, environment and biodiversity and they have lived together since centuries and are closest neighbouring but different ethnic groups with different languages, custom, culture and tradition. This is evident from the fact that there are also Kuki speakers in thousands in Nagaland and in manipur they share the same geographical area. Due to the strong political influence from the Naga tribes, Many Kuki tribes who speak Kuki -Chin languages tends to identify themselves as Naga like those of Anal, Lamkang, Maring, moyon, Monsang, Chothe, Tarao etc

  15. Thanks!

  16. Hillel Halkin, quoted at length in the Wiki article about the Bnei Menashe, is likely Philologos.

    And he has finally fessed up.

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