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Living Tongues Greater South Asia Languages Project

 Munda Languages Project

In 2005 Living Tongues Institute began a multi-year project to comprehensively document the lexica and grammars of the modern Munda language family. The projected output for these is a set of talking dictionaries and multi-media online grammars. To date we have begun talking dictionaries and multi-media online grammars of four languages (Ho, Remo, Gtaʔ and Sora), and have made small sample recordings of two other languages Bhumij and Santali. None of these projects currently have dedicated funding streams, but the Ho project in 2008-2009 and the Remo project in 2010-2011 did receive small supporting grants, respectively, from the Genographic Legacy Fund and the National Science Foundation under the auspices of the Documenting Endangered Languages program. Earlier dedicated funding was received from Ironbound Films in 2007 to help support our work on Ho, Remo and Sora during the course of making the film The Linguists. All of this generous support is gratefully acknowledged.

The Munda languages are a group of Austroasiatic languages spoken across portions of central and eastern India by perhaps as many as ten million people total. The Munda peoples are generally believed to represent autochthonous populations over much of their current areas of inhabitation.

Munda Map

From Gregory D. S. Anderson "The Munda Verb: Typological Perspectives" Mouton de Gruyter. p. 7. Reproduced with permission

Originally, Munda-speaking peoples probably extended over a somewhat larger area before being marginalized into the relatively remote hill country and (formerly) forested areas primarily in the states of Orissa and the newly constituted Jharkhand; significant Munda-speaking groups are also to be found in Madhya Pradesh, and throughout remote areas of Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra, and through migration to virtually all areas of India, especially in tea-producing regions like Assam. Of course much of the original Munda-speaking territory was subsequently settled or colonized by Indo-Aryan-speakers and Dravidian-speakers.

Orissa Map

From Gregory D. S. Anderson "The Munda Verb: Typological Perspectives" Mouton de Gruyter. p. 7. Reproduced with permission

The pre-history of the Munda languages remains obscure. Munda languages constitute the westernmost representatives of the far-flung Austroasiatic linguistic phylum. Two other Austroasiatic groups are found in the present-day territory of India, the Khasi of Meghalaya and the Nicobarese-speaking groups of the Nicobar Islands. The other subgroups of Austroasiatic are all found outside of India, and it is generally believed that the Austroasiatic ancestral language was not to be found in India but rather further to the East. Thus, at some point the ancestors of the Munda-speaking peoples must have migrated westward into the Subcontinent. When, how, and by what path they entered India remains a subject of considerable debate. Indeed, it is not even clear that there was a single migration of pre-Munda speakers, but there may have been two or more such movements.

Concensus has not yet been reached on the internal relationships of the Munda languages, but several subgroups have been proposed and some of these appear to be sound. It is hoped that further work in comparative Munda grammar and lexicon may shed light on this issue. The northern-, eastern- and westernmost groups of Munda languages are clearly related and appear to fall into two broad groupings. The first of these is the westernmost Munda language Korku which appears to be a sister to the remainder of this subgroup, the large and complex Kherwarian dialect/language chain, the better known varieties of which are Santali, Mundari and Ho. Kherwarian also includes a number of minor varieties as well, e.g. Turi, Asuri, Birhor, Bhumij, Korwa, etc. Korku and Kherwarian together are conventionally known as North Munda. The remaining Munda languages are almost only found in the state of Orissa (some Kharia speakers are found in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh as well), which appears to be the epi-center of diversity of the family. How each of these non-North Munda languages or subgroups (logically known as South Munda in contrast to North Munda) are related to each other remains a topic of considerable debate. Some languages clearly form subgroups, such as Sora with Gorum/Parenga, or Gutob with Remo/Bonda. The classification of the remaining three languages (Kharia, Juang and Gtaʔ/Didayi) remains an open question.

Among the most interesting of linguistic phenomena to be found in Munda languages may be included the highly elaborated systems of demonstratives found in many Munda languages, for example Santali or Gorum. Munda vowel and consonant systems can be quite complex, with different register and secondary articulatory features, many of which are still now in need of description. Another topic of considerable interest are the elaborate and intersecting systems of voice/valence/transitivity, person-marking and tense/aspect that characterize Kherwarian verbal systems. Further, the highly elaborated system of noun incorporation found in Sora push the limits of our understanding of such constructions from a theoretical perspective. The highly developed system of reduplication and expressive formation that characterize most Munda languages also bear mention here. Finally, the interaction of tense/aspect marking and negative operators in negative formations in South Munda Gutob stand out among the most complex of such systems known. Almost all aspects of every Munda language require more analysis before we have an adequate consensus understanding of even their basic features, in particular, syntactic issues and phonetic analysis are in desperate need of further systematic investigation. Studies on topics in the semantics and discourse of Munda languages are practically non-existent. Comprehensive comparative study has not been really possible up to this point either on the lexicon or the grammar, so a more thorough and comprehensive investigation into most historical linguistic issues in Munda also remains a goal for the future.

Estimated number of speakers of some modern Munda languages

Santali ca. 5-7,000,000 Mundari ca 2,000,000 Ho ca. 1,000,000
Korku ca. 3-400,000 Sora ca. 300,000 Kharia ca. 200,000
Gutob < 50,000 Juang < 20,000  
Remo < 8,000 Gorum < 5,000 Gtaʔ < 5,000

Most Munda languages have a base-10 or combined base-10/base-20 numeral system. Sora has a curious base-12/base-20 system. Thus, in Sora ‘twelve’ is migel and ‘thirteen’ is migelboj literally [12-1], ‘fifteen’ is migeljagi [12-3] etc. ‘Twenty’ is bokuri literally [1-20] and 32 is literally [(1-20)-12] or bokuri migel and ‘thirty-three’ is bokuri migelboj [(1-20)-12-1], ‘sixty-five’ is jakuri migeljagi [(3-20)-12-3] and so on.

The verbal systems of the Munda languages represent the most complicated and diverse grammatical sub-system. The tense-aspect systems of the attested Munda languages present a historically complicated picture. As is the case with many languages from across the globe, the categories of tense and aspect are often intimately connected in the Munda languages; frequently elements are grammaticalized first in a particular aspectual meaning and then shift to more generalized tense functions. In the vast majority of the Munda languages, there is some formal contrast between transitive/active and intransitive/middle markers. This may be achieved through either separate transitive and intransitive series of tense markers as in the majority of South Munda languages or through a single tense/aspect marker augmented by a consistent marker of transitivity or intransitivity in the North Munda languages. To be sure, the history of tense/aspect markers is one of the most vexing, complex, and outstanding problems in the diachrony of the verbal systems of the Munda language family. See Anderson (2007) for more details.


 Work on Munda Languages by Living Tongues researchers:

Anderson, Gregory D. S. 2001. A new classification of Munda: Evidence from comparative verb morphology. Indian Linguistics 62: 27–42.
____ 2003. Dravidian influence on Munda. International Journal of Dravidian
Linguistics 32 (1): 27–48.
____ 2004. Advances in proto-Munda reconstruction. Mon-Khmer Studies 34: 159–184.
____ 2006. Auxiliary Verb Constructions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
____ 2007. The Munda Verb. Typological Perspectives. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
____ 2008. Gtaʔ. In G. D. S. Anderson (ed.), 682-763.
Anderson, G. D. S. (ed.) 2008. The Munda Languages. Routledge Language Family Series. Abingdon/Oxford: Routledge.
Anderson, Gregory D. S. and K. David Harrison. 2008a. Sora. In Anderson (ed.), 299-
_____ 2008b. Remo (Bonda). In Anderson (ed.), 557-632.
Anderson, Gregory D. S., Toshiki Osada and K. David Harrison. 2008. Ho and the other
Kherwarian languages. In Anderson (ed.), 195-255.
Anderson, Gregory D. S., and Felix Rau. 2008. Gorum. In Anderson (ed.), 381-433.
Anderson, Gregory D. S., and Norman H. Zide 2001. Recent advances in the reconstruction of the Proto-Munda (Austroasiatic) verb. In Historical Linguistics 1999, Laurel J. Brinton (ed.), 13-30. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
____ 2002. Issues in proto-Munda and proto-Austroasiatic nominal derivation: The Bimoraic Constraint. In Papers from the 10th Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society, Marlys A. Macken (ed.), 55–74. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University, South East Asian Studies Program, Monograph Series Press.
Zide, Norman H., and Gregory D. S. Anderson 1999. The Proto-Munda Verb and Some Connections with Mon-Khmer. In Working Papers: International Symposium on South Asian Languages: Contact, Convergence and Typology, P. Bhaskararao (ed.), 400–419. Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa. Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.
____ 2001. The Proto-Munda Verb: Some Connections with Mon-Khmer. In
Yearbook of South-Asian Languages and Linguistics-2001, K. V. Subbarao and P.
Bhaskararao (eds.), 517–40. Delhi: Sage Publications.


Audio Clips From Munda Languages Project
Researchers from Living Tongues have recorded speakers of several Munda languages. These include Remo, spoken by a few thousand people in the remote tracks along the border between Koraput and Malkangiri districts in southern Orissa. The Remo or Bonda people are among the most celebrated of the non-Hindu indigenous peoples of India, known for the elaborate jewelry the women wear, among other things.

Sora is another South Munda language recorded by researchers from the Living Tongues Institute. It is a language spoken by three hundred thousand people occupying villages centered around terraced mountain rice-fields in southern Orissa and northern Andhra Pradesh. Many have been Christianized or Hinduized. Hear and see some samples from this theoretically challenging language of the South Munda group in which entire sentences maybe expressed by one word, such as ‘we eat pork’.

The main languages threatening the fascinating, diverse, and ancient Munda language family are varieties of Oriya and Sadani or Bengali. For North Munda languages outside of Orissa, the last two mentioned languages predominate, while in northern Orissa, the target variety is relatively close to standard Oriya, while in southern Orissa, a marked ‘tribal’ Desia Oriya which differs considerably from standard Oriya is being acquired (for example it has largely replaced Gorum in Parenga villages in Orissa).

Fieldtrips to India for the Munda Languages Project have been funded by public donations to the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and by support from Ironbound Films. This support is gratefully acknowledged. Without your donations, this work can not continue.

Ho Lexical Language Samples - Audio Files




New Moon

Sora Lexical Language Samples - Audio Files





Snake #1

Snake #2

Snake #3


Elephant #1

Elephant #2


Water Buffalo

Remo Lexical Language Samples - Audio Files





Video Clips From The Munda Project

Ho language origin myth as told by K. C. Naik Biruli

Opino Gomango is a Sora language activist


Photos from Munda Languages Project

Sukra Dangada Majhi, Remo consultant

K.C. Naik Biruli, Ho consultant

Opino Gomango, Sora consultant

C.M. Haibru, Ho consultant

Munda Schoolboys & Schoolgirls

Sora Village Scene

Photo credits: David Harrison, Greg Anderson, Mark Eglinton


More on Munda Languages Project and the Munda Languages (pg 2)

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