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Number of Speakers: 15 million
Key Dialects: Standard (Central) Assamese, Eastern Assamese, Kamrupi, Goalparia, Mayang, Jharwa (Pidgin Assamese)
Geographical Center: Assam state, India
Assamese, known as Asamiya in the language itself, is the easternmost Indo-European language. Over 15 million people speak Assamese in India. It is primarily spoken in the northeastern state of Assam, where it is an official language. Within India, but outside Assam, the language is spoken in West Bengal, Meghalaya, and Arunachal Pradesh. Outside India, Assamese is spoken by several thousand people in Bangladesh and Bhutan. Including those who speak it as a second language, a total of 20 million people speak Assamese.
Assamese is an Eastern Zone language of the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family. Within the Eastern Zone languages, it belongs to the Bengali-Assamese subgroup and is thus most closely related to Bengali.
Several regional dialects are typically recognized. Central Assamese is spoken in the Nagaon district of Assam state and in neighboring areas. Eastern Assamese is spoken in and around the Sibsagar district. Kamrupi Assamese is spoken in the districts of Kamrup, Nalbari, Barpeta, Darrang, Kokrajhar, and Bongaigoan. The Goalparia dialect is spoken in the Goalpara, Dhubri, Kokrajhar, and Bongaigoan districts. Mayang is the form of Assamese spoken by the somewhat marginalized Mayang tribe in the northern regions of Manipur. Jharwa Assamese is a pidgin language, incorporating elements of Assamese, Hindi, and English. Although Bengali was considered the official language of Assam during the middle of the 19th century, British colonizers decreed Eastern Assamese to be the standard Assamese dialect. Presently, however, Central Assamese is accepted as the principal dialect. Dialects vary primarily with respect to phonology and morphology. A high degree of mutual intelligibility is enjoyed among the dialects.
Assamese is written in the Bengali orthography, a writing system that highly resembles the Devanagari script of Hindi, Sanskrit, and other related Indic languages. As such it is a syllabary script and is written from left to right. The alphabet consists of 12 vowel graphemes and 52 consonant graphemes. Both phonemes and allophones are represented. Assamese spelling is not always phonetically based. Current Assamese spelling practices are based on Sanskrit spelling, as introduced in the second Assamese dictionary Hemkosh which was written in the middle of the 19th century.
The Assamese phoneme inventory consists of eight vowels and twenty-one consonants, depending on the analysis. A wide array of diphthongs are attested (fifteen in total) and as many as five vowels (comprising three syllables) may appear in succession. Consonant clusters are possible in word-initial, medial, and final positions. Word-initial clusters are restricted to sequences of consonant + semivowel (glide), while word-final clusters are restricted to sequences of homorganic nasals and consonants. (N.b. homorganic clusters are sequences in which the constituent phonemes share the same place of articulation). Nasalization and stress are both contrastive in the language. As a result of stress being contrastive, the location of stress is largely unpredictable as in English (e.g. recórd vs. récord). Unlike all Indic languages (with the additional exception of Romani), Assamese completely lacks retroflex articulations. An additional feature that distinguishes Assamese from virtually all Indic languages is the existence of the voiceless velar fricative phoneme, an articulation widely attested in and characteristic of the Semitic languages, for example. Many Indic scholars believe that the voiceless velar fricative (represented in the IPA as [x]) was present in Proto-Indo European and Vedic Sanskrit, but was lost during the Classical period of Sanskrit.
Assamese is a head-final language with an SOV word order. Affixation is largely suffixal (although some prefixation occurs) and postpositions are employed. The case system of the language is Nominative-Accusative and six cases are attested (nominative, accusative, dative, instrumental, genitive, and locative). Nonetheless, certain aspects of the Indo-Aryan split-ergative Case system remain and have been extended. For example, Assamese has preserved the distinct case-marking of agents of transitive verbs, but unlike languages like Hindi, for instance, transitive agents (and some intransitive agents) in all tenses are distinctly case-marked. Assamese has an honorific noun system. In addition to being marked for honor/familiarity, nouns inflect for case, number, definiteness, and gender. In general, adjectives do not inflect for gender. Assamese verbs inflect for person, tense, aspect, and mood. Negation is achieved by way of a verbal prefix.
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Assamese is recognized as the official language of the Indian state of Assam. As such it is used in government, mass media, and in everyday communication.
Assamese developed from Magadhi Apabhramsa, the eastern branch of the Apabhramsa that followed Prakrit. The earliest attestation of Assamese dates from documents written in the 14th century and composed during the reign of King Durlabhnarayana; however, aspects of the Assamese language can be found in the Charyapada Buddhist verses, which date from the 9th century. In 1826, Assam came to be occupied by the British. As a result, the Bengali language was instituted as the official state language of Assam. After much protest and campaign, Assamese was reinstated as the official language in 1872.
Chowdhary, Runima. 1995. Assamese Verbs: A Study in the Structural Paradigm. Guwahati: Anundoram Borooah Institute of Language, Art & Culture.
Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.
Goswami, Golok Chandra. 1966. An Introduction to Assamese Phonology. Poona: Deccan College.
Goswami, Upendranath. 1978. An Introduction to Assamese. Guwahati: Mani-Manik Prakash Panzabar.
Grierson, G.A. 1905. Linguistic Survey of India. Volume V Part I - Indo-Aryan Family, (Eastern Group), Bengali and Assamese Languages. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Medhi, Kaliram. 1988. Assamese Grammar and Origin of the Assamese Language. Guwahati: Publication Board Assam.
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