Going back to the ROOTS

Young professor starts local language challenge on social media to safeguard indigenous identity

Language is not only a medium of expression but also a person’s identity. This is the reason why Daiarisa Rumnong has embarked on a mission to safeguard that identity of the indigenous populace that has witnessed unrestrained influence of western culture, especially in the North East, over decades.

The young assistant professor of English at St Mary’s College started Speak Your Roots Challenge on Instagram (@speakyourroots2020) on August 3 this year. Rumnong manages the social media page alone and throws up frequent language challenges for social media users.

The @speakyourroots initiative has its genesis in a casual conversation among Rumnong and her friends, Sasha S Laloo and Laurette Dkhar,

“We talked about the various challenges on Instagram and we wanted to do something that would engage the young and the old alike on social media in a meaningful and productive way. That is how I came up with the Speak Your Roots Challenge. It is a linguistic, literary, cultural and social exercise with a purpose to document anything related to indigenous language,” Rumnong told Sunday Chimes.
‘How well do you know your native language? Do you ooze depth and eloquence while speaking your roots? In an increasingly globalised world, it is easy to slip into using English to communicate,’ was the introductory note on the Instagram page.

The first challenge was on the occasion of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9. “Post a word or phrase of your choice in your native language (with the definition/ meaning) using the hashtags #speakyourroots #talklocal,” said the challenge.

In Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s words, “the limits of language” is the limits of one’s world, and Rumnong sets the limits. Every challenge is thought-provoking. One challenge called for participants to submit a local word denoting an indigenous jewellery or cloth while another focused on local games. There is also a list of Khasi prosodic terms like ka shnok (accent), tara (rhyme) and jiamchein (iambic). Contributions come not only from Khasi Hills but from other parts of the state and the northeastern region as well as across the country.

The participation has covered a number of languages and “there has been a gradual and consistent interest in the challenge”. A post by Toony Gill puts up the idiom Deo boro dis diu, which is Konkani for ‘May God give you a good day’. There are posts on Assamese, Tangkhul, Ao Mongsen, Ao Chongli, Bodo, Kokborok, Mizo, Punjabi, Konkani, Nepali, Khasi, Jaiñtia and Garo languages.

“There is no set schedule (for the challenge) and anyone can send an entry as the challenge is always open. In the recent months, entries based on a significant word or phrase, indigenous food, indigenous games and indigenous clothes have been encouraged,” said Rumnong, who pointed out that education, globalisation and personal interest are the factors influencing language preference.

On the western influence on the indigenous people in Meghalaya, Rumnong asserted that the local languages are widely spoken and “English is confined to certain pockets in urban areas”.

“For instance, the use of English may be attributed to the fact that it is easier to communicate in English in Shillong due to the cosmopolitan nature of the city. What should be highlighted is that it is commendable that local languages are being spoken and written in the state,” she added.

The professor observed that Shillong is witnessing a return to indigenous knowledge, practices, language and folklore. At the same time, she acknowledged that more needs to be done to preserve the indigenous languages not only in Meghalaya but in other states in the region.

“There needs to be a continued documentation in written or audio-visual form, bringing them into the mainstream. As a consequence, translation also gains a critical position in presenting indigenous communities as repositories of historical and cultural memory.

“As for the Khasi, Jaiñtia and Garo languages and many other dialects which are spoken in Meghalaya, more books in these languages need to be published starting with children’s literature so that children are made aware of the influence of indigenous languages. Research also has to be taken up in order for the languages to gain more relevance, especially among the youth who are otherwise mainly using the English language. Indigenous languages also thrive and are preserved through the genres of music, theatre and film, as has been done in recent times,” she enumerated.

But the best way to preserve one’s language is to speak the language with children at home so that they have a “strong knowledge of their mother tongue”.

“Reading and writing in indigenous languages also have to be encouraged not only in schools but also at home. The same emphasis that one puts on learning English should also be done for the indigenous language. Having said that, my personal opinion is languages are to be treated equally, with each having its own importance,” Rumnong said.

Speaking Your Roots will continue its mission to protect and preserve local languages and encourage more people to go back to their roots and appreciate their identity. About the future tasks for participants, Rumnong said it would depend on the response. “The challenge can take different forms: a song, a poem, a play, a film or a book. I hope the challenge brings a revived interest in indigenous language and literature that will, in turn, contribute to the well-being of indigenous communities striving to preserve their heritage in the 21st century,” she concluded.