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Unearthed: 200-yr-old linguistic treasure
- Dictionary of 10 languages of the Northeast traced to British Library in London

Jorhat, Nov. 28: Asomiya Jatiya Prakash, the publishers of the encyclopaedic dictionary, Asomiya Jatiya Abhidhan (Assamese National Dictionary), has unearthed a “linguistic treasure trove”.

The organisation has traced the manuscript of a 200-year-old dictionary, of 10 languages of the Northeast, to the British Library in London.

The lexicon was written by Francis Buchanan Hamilton (1762 to 1829), a British polymath of the 18th century. Hamilton came to India when it was under the East India Company.

The discovery wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Labour Party member Rini Kakati —an NRI who is the Assam co-ordinator of Friends of Assam and Seven Sisters.

The Friends of Assam and Seven Sisters organisation has acquired the manuscript and it will be published for the first time soon.

The chief editor of the dictionary project, Devabrata Sharma, today told The Telegraph that the book — Comparative Vocabularies —was a “gold mine of information” for linguist researchers. It contains words in 10 languages, including English, Assamese, Bengali, Manipuri, Garo, Rabha, Koch, Kachari, Panikoch and Mech.

“The book will throw light on the languages of undivided Assam and the northeastern region as a whole. It is expected to fill in many missing links in the study of the languages,” Sharma said.

“We were able to lay our hands on such a big linguistic treasure after one of the members of our research team — Raktim Ranjan Saikia, assistant professor of J.B. College — came to know about the book during his study on languages of the Northeast,” he said.

The British Library gave the copy of the original manuscript after a request was sent to the library through Kakati, said Sharma. The library was told that the book was needed purely for academic purposes and that the Asomiya Jatiya Prakash had re-printed three rare books on languages and grammar — written by American missionaries in Assam during the 19 th century. The organisation had also published an Assamese dictionary, written by Ruchinath Buragohain — the last Prime Minister of the last Ahom king — Purandhar Singha

Sharma said that the book was written circa 1800, it has 155 pages of landscape-sized paper. There are 18,000 words in all with 1,800 words in each of the 10 languages.

After preliminary reading of the first few pages and making a word-by-word comparison with Vocabularies of the Ashami Kamarupa Languages, the Assamese lexicon written by Buragohain, it has been found that 39 words out of 45 in Buchanan’s book are exactly the same, Sharma said.

Sarma said it has been assumed that Buragohain assisted Hamilton in his grand venture.

Hamilton was basically a medical surgeon who came to India in 1794 with the East India Company and remained in the country till 1815. During his stay, the company employed him on all kinds of surveys — topography, history, living conditions of people, study of over 30 languages of different parts of the country, art, costumes and culture, to fishes, fine arts, plants and agriculture.

“He (Hamilton) was a great scholar and wrote on anything under the sun and had visited Goalpara (in lower Assam) and stayed for some time till he went back to England,” Sharma said.


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