Did she mispronounce it?

Maina Babu, moi bhat barhise– ‘Maina Babu, I have served the food’, my maternal grandmother was calling me and my brother to have lunch. My brother heard her call and he looked confused. For a brief moment, he thought she mispronounced the sentence.

But it was confirmed that there was no mispronunciation when she called us again using the same sentence. It was not that he did not understand what she was saying but the sentence seemed ungrammatical to him. On the other hand, I, being a linguist, had a faint idea of what was happening. 

My grandmother is a Deori speaker. Deori is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in Assam and some parts of Arunachal Pradesh. The Deori community is divided into four main groups: the Dibongiya, the Patorgoyan, the Borgayan, and the Tengaponiya. Among these groups, only the Dibongiyas speak the Deori language, and the other groups have adopted the regional language of Assam; Assamese (an Indo-Aryan language) as their native tongue. 

Map of Assam showing the Deori speaking area

The confusion happened because my grandmother used the Assamese sentence moi bhat barhise instead of moi bhat barhisu. It can be seen that the only difference between these two sentences is the vowels –e and –u on the verb. These are called person markers: –is a 3rd person marker and –is a 1st person marker. In linguistics, this is known as AGREEMENT. In some languages, verb tends to agree/match with their subjects or in some cases with objects in number, gender, and person. For example, in English, verbs agree in the 3rd person singular in the present tense by adding -s or -eson the verb: he/she/Ram sleeps. Assamese has person agreement. In past and present tense, -u stands for 1st person, -a for 2nd person and -e for 3rd person. For example, moi/ami khalu ‘I/we ate’, tumi/tumaluke khala ‘you (sg/pl) ate’, xi/tai/teoluke khale‘he/she/they ate’. My grandmother used the 3rd person marker -e instead of the 1st person marker -uwhich created the confusion because being Assamese native speakers it was odd for us. It really piqued my interest and I decided to collect some more information on this. I have found that she uses only the 3rd person marker with all the pronouns in every sentence like:

moi/tumi/xi/tai/tumaluk/ami tat goisile

‘I/you/he/she/you(pl)/we went there’

Now the question that arises here is what can be the reason behind this? Is it because Assamese is her second language? Or is it because of some influence from other language? Before answering this question, let’s have a closer look at Deori. As already mentioned above, Deori belongs to Tibeto-Burman language family. The languages of this family can be divided into two groups, Agreement and Non-Agreement, based on the existence or non-existence of agreement in the language. For example, Tibeto-Burman languages like Bodo-Garo, Lolo-Burmese etc. come under Non-Agreement branch of TB languages and languages like Mizo, Kuki-Chin etc. come under Agreement branch. Deori belongs to the Non-Agreement branch of Tibeto-Burman languages. It does not show any agreement. For example: 

aa/jo/no/ba/bao moko habem 

‘I/we/you/(s)he/they ate rice’ 

aa/jo/no/ba/bao moko hana dui 

‘I/we/you/(s)he/they am/is/are eating rice’ 

aa/jo/no/ba/bao moko ham 

‘I/we/you/(s)he/they will eat rice’.

It is seen from the above-mentioned examples that unlike Assamese, Deori does not have any person agreement.

Assamese is my grandmother’s second language. So, it is safe to say that due to the influence of Deori on her second language (Assamese), she uses only the 3rd person marker for every sentence. This is a very well-known phenomenon in linguistics which is known as Mother Tongue Influence (MTI). Mother Tongue Influence means the impact of mother tongue (L1) on the second language (L2). Various studies have proved that second language learners have a tendency to transfer everything from their mother tongue to the second language. 

Upon further investigation, I found that not only my grandmother, but most of the people of her generation exhibit the effect of MTI on their second language (Assamese). Interestingly, the same cannot be said about my maternal cousins whose mother tongue is Deori. The reason behind this may be the fact that they use the dominant/influential language which is Assamese. Another reason may be the language shift because of the co-existence of Assamese and Deori in close proximity. 

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