In Wancho, a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in the eastern part of Arunachal Pradesh, and parts of Assam, Nagaland and Myanmar, the word ‘mai’ can mean different things. If you say it quickly, it means ‘good’. If you stretch the last syllable just a little, it means ‘tail’. And if you stretch it a lot, it means ‘meat’. These variations bothered Banwang Losu, when in 2001, as a 17-year-old school boy, he was trying to translate a project on the socio-economic life of his tribe to Wancho.
“For as long as we could remember, we would use the Roman script to write in Wancho. But it was very difficult. Our pronunciations rarely matched the alphabet. A difference in pronunciation meant a change in sound, and a change in sound meant a change in meaning,” says Losu, who belongs to the Wancho tribe that resides in the Patkai hills of Arunachal Pradesh’s Longding district.
Thus started Losu’s two-decade-long journey to develop a script for Wancho — a tribal language that has 55,000 speakers in Longding district alone — from scratch.
Last week the journey bore fruit: the Wancho language was published in the international Unicode standard. This basically means that the script now has a digital identity and can be used to type on computers world over.
“We submitted the proposal in 2017,” says Pune-based Losu, 37. “When I received the news, I was ecstatic. This has been a lifelong dream.”
After he graduated from a government school at Longding district school in 2001, Losu began collecting all the sounds in Wancho, based on his own knowledge of the language as well as numerous conversations with village elders. “Our language had oral folktales and stories — some sounds were familiar to English and Hindi, others were peculiar,” he says.
After many years of research, in 2012, he made a list of letters, printed it on an A4 size paper and showed his friends. “Everyone was so impressed! No one had done anything like that before. The Wancho Cultural Society and Wancho Students’ Union formally took up the project. People came up and contributed more sounds that I had missed. We held awareness workshops,” says Losu.
In 2013, Losu published a book on the Wancho script. “It is in the Roman script but basically a primer on the Wancho script, how to pronounce the alphabet and so on,” he says. Today, the Wancho script has 44 letters: 15 vowels and 29 consonants. In the last three years, many government schools in Arunachal Pradesh teach it as a subject.
“I did all this without the basic knowledge of linguistics,” says Losu. “As a school boy, I wanted to be a pilot — that definitely had more money and more stability. But life took me elsewhere.”
Sometime in the mid-2000s, when he was pursuing his Post Graduate degree at the Rajiv Gandhi University in Itanagar, Losu found a book on linguistics and phonetics in the library. “It was the first time I was reading about the technicalities of language. I got so absorbed, I dropped out of college and started working full-time on developing the Wancho script,” says Losu.
Many people asked him why he was wasting his time. “At some points, I had no good answer. All I knew was that every language in the world — whether it had 15 speakers or 15 millions speakers — was important. And I would do good to preserve my own.”
Last month, Losu joined the Deccan College Post Graduation and Research Institute, Pune for a Masters in Linguistics. Almost six years after he developed a brand new script from scratch, Losu is finally studying linguistics formally.