Problems in the Analysis of Manipuri Language. P C Thoudam
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Chapter 2

Phonological Situation

2.0       Historical background


Here the term phonology is used in its traditional sense and not in the sense the modern scholars of language understand it. For a language like Manipuri, which has not been properly analyzed or its analysis is incomplete and unreliable because the Manipuri data were put in the framework of Sanskrit, Bengali, Hindi or English Grammar, generative phonology shall not have priority over the traditional phonetics and phonology. It is also true that the numbers of alphabets employed in writing the language are more than number of the phonemes found in the language. In short many symbols (alphabets), which represent sounds, which are not found in Manipuri are used in the writing. From this one can easily imagine of the problems that might have been in the analysis of the language and particularly in the preparation of the grammars of the language. The reason which has become the most powerful force to thwart in the attempt to standardize the Manipuri language was mainly due to the imperfect knowledge of the structure of the language and their idea that whatever features, (grammatical categories, form-classes, etc.) found in the Sanskrit or Bangla or Hindi or English must be in Manipuri also. They do not feel the difference in the languages. To add to our woes, the modern education was started with the help of Manipuri speaking translators from Sylhet, Dacca , etc after the British took over Manipur in 1891. These people are fluent in Bengali both in speaking and writing.


They have no knowledge of the Meitei Script. Therefore they wanted to start education using Bengali Script. Accordingly, they might have proposed that by using the Assamese-Bengali Script, which has already got the printing materials, it will be more advantageous in printing the textbooks etc. This might be true, because the lessons prepared by them are meant for the people who can read and write Bengali language using Bengali alphabet to read Manipuri language correctly from the writing. It has been prepared for the Bengali people to read and pronounce the language correctly, without giving any consideration for the native speaker’s way of spelling and the writing of the language. As a result of this, we have noticed a large number of defects and discrepancies in the present writing of the language with Bengali script. This has made the issue more complicated and has become the biggest hurdle in the standardization of the writing. The following examples proved that the writing was introduced keeping the Bengali speakers in mind. Examples:


              Agv  /əma/ (transcribed according to the Assamese/Bengali alphabet) the actual and correct transcription shall be  /əmə/. They drop the v whenever some other alphabets are added to such and similar forms. In the words AgMx,  Ag`v,  Ag`Mx, etc. it is noticed that the v after g in Agv is removed. Again, the v after ` in Ag`v is removed in Ag`Mx .



2.1.           The Alphabets used in writing the Language


           The alphabets (Assamese-Bengali Script) used in the teaching of Manipuri and which are found in the School Textbooks are shown below. The Primary level teachers are teaching the students these made aware of the fact these are not sounds, but they represent the sounds in the language. Therefore, the students or learners always consider these alphabets as the sounds of Manipuri language. Almost all of the symbols (alphabets) found in the school textbooks have been employed in writing the language according to the wish of the writer. They disregarded the fact that the sounds represented by some of the symbols/alphabets do not exist in Manipuri at all.  This results to the use of different spellings in writing the same word. Hence there is a problem in the standardization of the writing. The alphabets found in the School textbooks are given below. Some of the symbols are no longer found in the list of alphabets in the books of Assamese and Bengali but they are found in the textbooks of Manipuri.  They are - 9 etc. The Assamese/Bengali alphabets found in the School text books are shown below:

The Vowels

A ǝ     Av α     B i     C i:

D u    E  u:    F   9  

G e      H  ǝ     I o   J ǝw

As ǝŋ   At әh:


The Consonants


K   k     L    kh    M    g     N    gh    O    ŋ

P     c     Q    ch    R    j        S      jh      T    Ŋ

 U     t       V     th      W      d       X      dh    Y       ր

Z     t       _      th    `      d       a      dh    b       n

c   p    d   ph  e      b    f    bh  g    m

h   z     i    r    j     l     e    w   k    sh

l   s     m   s    n      h       χ    o    đ

p   đh   q    y    s     ƞ    t    m      u   ~

                          r    ι

Manipuri alphabets found in the School textbooks

The use of the symbols shown above led to different writings/spellings of the same word having the same sound as follows:


         mb/ kb/ lb  /s«n/ ‘cow’

         mvwZb/QvwUY/QvwUb /sAtin/ ‘umbrella’

         Mvwi/Mvwo/Mvox /gari/ ‘cart/van’

          wiZy/FZy /ritu/ ‘season’, etc.


The phonemes of Manipuri language and their

corresponding alphabets are given in 2.2. below.


2..2  The phonemes found in Manipuri language.


There are six vowel and twenty four consonant phonemes in Manipuri. They are shown below:

The Vowels                     












The Consonants


                                 p       t        c       k  

                               ph     th                kh 

                               b       d        j        g 

                               bh    dh      jh     gh 

                                     m    n                      ŋ  

                                     s²                         h  



                           w              y   


       Phonemes (Vowels and Consonants) of Manipuri Language


Although there are 24 consonant and 6 vowel phonemes in the language, the children have been taught as having 41 consonants and 14 vowels according to the textbook mentioned in 2.1.above. On further examination of the 41 consonants  and  14 vowels,  reveal  that  4  of theconsonants are digraphs and they are secondary forms, one of the vowels is not at all used and it can hardly be uttered by the teachers and two are the combination of the vowel and the digraphs and . The child has been taught wrongly with a false notion. Thus their knowledge of the grammar of his mother tongue is not correct. Since this has been taught and learnt in the early childhood it has become very difficult for them to do away with it when they grew old. This has made the task of standardization not only    difficult but also an uphill task with stiff resistance. This resistance still exists with the majority of the educated class including many of those who have been trained in linguistics.


2. 3. Phonological problem


The problems, which have been cropped up from the application and use of the alphabets employed in the teaching and writing of the language are not incorporated here. Because the problems related with it will be impossible to solve. How can one solve a problem, which is baseless, illogical, unsystematic as well as prepared without any rationale? Therefore, only those problems coming up while we try to analyze the language under the tenets of modern linguistic analysis are discussed. However it is felt necessary to point out that due to lack of proper planning and selection   of wrong script the writers have been given liberty to write in the way they like. So, the same word is   written with different alphabets and also spelt it differently.  Thus, several problems come up in the analysis of the Phonetics and Phonemics of   the  language. Still there are differing opinions in the   concept of the phoneme and its allophones.  The    major problems are:


a)    the status of [ch]. Phonetically it is [s] but if we examine taking into account the three way alternation of the stop phonemes, it is preferable to institute it as [ch]. This can be seen in the following as we find thevariation in {-tok-~-dok-~-thok-}; {-cin-~-jin-~-chin-}; {-kay-~-gay-~-khay-}; etc. There are scholars, who do not accept this logic. Examples:


  /ch«t+tok+p«/         /chit+cin+b«/                 /chAt+kAy+b«/                      

 pull+out+Nom          sweep+in+Nom    bloom+blown+Nom

   /hut+tok+p«/           /hut+cin+b«/             /chik+kAy+b«/

 pierce+out+Nom     pierce+in+Nom     pinch+blown+Nom

      /thAp+tok+p«/       /thup+cin+b«/               /khot+kAy+b«/

   far+out+Nom          fold+in+Nom      scratch+blown+Nom

      /phuk+tok+p«/       /ph«k+cin+b«/           /ph«k+kAy+b«/

 uproot+out+Nom    bitter+in+Nom     remove+blown+Nom

                  /hAN+dok+p«/         /h«N+jin+b«/             /h«n+gAy+b«/

             open+out+Nom        ask+in+Nom             dig+blown+Nom

      /khAy+dok+p«/    /khAy+jin+b«/                 /kho+gAy+b«/

           separate+out+Nom’‘separate+in+Nom’ ‘scratch+blown+Nom

      /phAn+dok+p«/     /phA+jin+b«/                   /phu+gAy+b«/

     cut+out+Nom      catch+in+Nom        beat+blown+Nom

     /ch«N+dok+p«/   /ch«N+jin+b«/              /chAy+gAy+b«/

    shift+out+Nom        shift+in+Nom   damage+blown+Nom

     /pA+thok+p«/        /pA+chin+b«/                 /pok+khAy+b«/

        over-flow+out+Nom     ‘over-flow+in+Nom   burst+blown+Nom      

     /tAn+thok+p«/       /tAn+chin+b«/                /cek+khAy+b«/

drive+out+Nom          drive+in+Nom      crack+blown+Nom

     /loy+thok+p«/      /lAk+chin+b«/                /lAw+thok+p«/

      complete+out+Nom’‘overpower+in+Nom’ ‘declare+blown+Nom

     /k«n+thok+p«/    /kok+chin+b«/               /k«k+khAy+b«/

swipe+out+Nom      lay+in+Nom              cut+blown+Nom



b)    /l/ changes to /r/ in intervocalic positions. Whenever  the prefix /«-/ or /m«-/ or a vowel or any other morpheme ending with  a vowel or semivowel is added before the morphemes beginning with a  /l/,  the  /l/  changes to  /r/.  This  can  be seen  from  the following and a host of such examples.


          /lAnb«/ ‘wrong’ /«+lAnb«/’wrong one’ >/«rAnb«/

     /lon/ ‘language’ /m«+lon/ ‘speech’ > /m«ron/

    /loN-/ ‘branching’ /c«y+loN/ ‘wooden pitch-fork’ >


         /lAyb«k/ ‘fate’ /i+lAyb«k/ ‘my fate’ > /irAyb«k/

    /lAN/ ‘net’ /mi+lAN/ ‘cobweb’ > /mirAN/.


But most of the scholars working on this language are using /l/ in such cases  overlooking  the  above rule.  Since  this is a common phenomena in this language it    shall be analyzed carefully. This is  not   happening  in  cases  where  there  is a  syllable boundary  or  there is a case of   gemmination  i.e.  doubling the sound.   Further, they are  not  occurring in contrastive  positions,  therefore,  they can   be considered as allophones  of  the same    phoneme.  It  is  hard  to accept  to  several    scholars, rather they are  posing the question of  /l/ and /n/ variation in the final positions.  Here it may be remembered that   /l/ and  /n/ occurs  in contrastive positions,        for example:  /lAb«/ ‘male’ and /nAb«/ ‘ill’,  etc.


c)     the  inclusion of  the  sounds  or phonemes  /bh, dh, jh, neven  /b, d, j, g/ in the inventory of phonemes. The argument put forward  in  this  connection  is  these   sounds  occurs  in the loan  words   only   and    they   cannot   occur   in   initial

positions   in   indigenous  words.   Here the argument is the    loan words in which these   sounds  occur  have  become  the  part and parcel of the Manipuri life.  They  are   frequently  used like  the  most frequently   used indigenous words.  Some  of the

indigenous words in which they occur are:


      /tAdh«n/‘older brother (not related)’, 

      /cAwbh«l/ ‘name of a person’, /kANgh«n/

      mosquito net’, etc.


                The loan words in which they are found are: /bhArA/ ‘fare’, /bhAbok/ ‘audience’,

                /dhon/ ‘a kind of drum’, /dhulok/ ‘dholak’, /jhAl/ ‘cymbal’, /ghi/‘ghee’ , /gh«ri/ ‘watch/clock’ etc.


d)    the treatment of clusters is another area which require attention. There are very few clusters in Manipuri but a large number of sequences are found. Due to the influence of modern education and by virtue of Manipuri people becoming bilinguals and multilinguals the majority of Manipuri speakers have been using the clusters in loan words and sometimes in the indigenous words. The idea of ignoring these clusters and transcribing them as   different syllables  shall not  be accepted   because this has to be treated as a change      in the language. Here I would like to remind   the first point in historical linguistics which   has been accepted by all scholars that      Language always change.


e)     there are a few diphthongs in this language. But it is more convenient to institute them as a combination of vowel and a semivowel to avoid the difficulties in the transcription as well as to have VVV syllables and VVVV in two syllables in which to identify  the syllable boundary may be difficult as indicated below:


  /l«i/ transcribed for ‰j or jB flower’ and ‘line’

        /iAi/ transcribed  for BAvB or yuy

        /iiAi/ transcribed for BAvB or Bqvq

        /m«u/ transcribed  for gD

        /m«u/ transcribed for

        /khutiAi/ ‘middle finger’ L–rBAvB or L–rqvq or L–wZAvB

         or L–wZqvq


 VVV syllables /iAi/ ‘precious object’ /-iAi/ ‘middle’ VVVV/iiAi/ ‘mid water’ /l«uAi/ ‘village/crown VVVVV /l«uiAi/ ‘middle  paddy field’


       The syllable boundary in /l«i/ can be either

        /l«i./ ‘flower’ or /l«.i/ ‘line’ and   /iAi/ may be

        read as  /-iAi/ ‘middle’ or  /iAi/ ‘precious

        object’;   /m«u/ may be  read as /m«u. /

        ‘daughter-in-law’/m«.u/ ‘trunk of   tree’;

         /khutiAi/  can  be  read  as */khuti.Ai/ or



There  are  several   such  cases   in   which   the   same   or   similar problems  have cropped  up.  Therefore,  it  is  preferred  to treat h em combination of vowel and   semivowel  and  these  can  be transcribed as follows:


                                /l«y/ ‘flower’ ; /l«yi/  ‘line’

                                /yAy/ ‘precious object’

                                /iyAy/ ‘middle of water’

                                /m«wu/ ‘trunk of tree’

                                /m«w/ ‘daugher-in-law’

                                /khutyAy/ ‘middle finger’ etc.




f)      there are also problems in the analysis of the tones in the language.  Some scholars have instituted as many tones as the number of homophonous forms having different meanings, Again it is not very clear whether the tones are really tones or they stress-pitch. For the time being it has been considered that there are two different pitch variations.