Meitei language

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Manipuri, Meitheilon, Meeteilon, Kathe
Meitei language written in Meitei script.svg
'Meiteilon' in Meitei script
Region Northeast India, Bangladesh, Myanmar
Ethnicity Meitei and Pangal
Native speakers
1.76 million [1]
Early forms
Ancient Meitei
(1445 BC  17th cent. AD)
  • Classical Meitei (18th 19th cent. AD)
    • Standard Meitei
    • Standard native tribes
    • Koireng
    • Thangal
    • Tangkhul
    • Kabui
    • Maram
    • Chothe
    • Anal
    • Pangal
    • Sekmai
    • Andro
    • Kakching
    • Ukhrul
    • Senapati
    • Tamenglong
    • Khurkhul
    • Moirang
    • Phayeng
Official status
Official language in
Flag of India.svg  India
Language codes
ISO 639-2 mni
ISO 639-3 Either:
mni   Meiteilon
omp   Old Manipuri
omp Old Manipuri
Glottolog mani1292 [2]

Meitei, or Meetei (also Manipuri /mənɪˈpʊri/ ; [3] [4] Meitheilon, Meeteilon, Meeʁteilon, from Meithei + -lon 'language'; Kathe) [5] is a Sino-Tibetan language and the predominant language and lingua franca of the state of Manipur in northeastern India. It is one of the official languages of the Government of India.


Meitei is the most spoken Sino-Tibetan language of India and the most spoken language in Northeast India after Bengali and Assamese. In the 2011 census of India, there were 1.8 million native speakers of Meitei. Additionally, there are around 200,000 native speakers of Meitei abroad. Meiteilon is also spoken in the Northeast Indian states of Assam and Tripura and in Bangladesh and Burma (now Myanmar). It is currently classified as a vulnerable language by UNESCO. [6]

Meiteilon is a tonal language whose exact classification within Sino-Tibetan remains unclear. It has lexical resemblances to Kuki and Tangkhul Naga. [7]

It has been recognised (under the name Manipuri) by the Indian Union and has been included in the list of scheduled languages (included in the 8th schedule by the 71st amendment of the constitution in 1992). Meiteilon is taught as a subject up to the post-graduate level (Ph.D.) in some universities of India, apart from being a medium of instruction up to the undergraduate level in Manipur. Education in government schools is provided in Meiteilon through the eighth standard. [8]


The name Meitei or its alternate spelling Meithei is preferred by many native speakers of Meitei over Manipuri. [9] The term is derived from the Meitei word for the language Meitheirón (Meithei + -lon 'language'). [9] Meithei may be a compound from 'man' + they 'separate'. [9] This term is used by most western linguistic scholarship. [9] Meitei scholars use the term Mei(h)tei when writing in English and the term Meitheirón when writing in Meitei. [9] Chelliah (2015: 89) notes that the Meitei spelling has replaced the earlier Meithei spelling. [10]

The language (and people) is also referred to by the loconym Manipuri. [9] The term is derived from name of the state of Manipur. [9] Manipur itself has basis on Hindu epic Mahabharata, in which a shining diamond called mani ('jewel') in Sanskrit is thrown from the head of a snake god Vasuki, which spreads natural beauty throughout the land. [9] Manipuri is the official name of the language for the Indian government and is used by government institutions and non-Meitei authors. [9] The term Manipuri is also used to refer to the Bishnupriya and people. [9] Additionally, Manipuri, being a loconym, can refer to anything pertaining to Manipur state.

The term Meetei is used by Meitei speakers who want political autonomy from India, so-called "revivalists". [9]


The Meitei language exhibits a degree of regional variation; however, in recent years the broadening of communication, as well as intermarriage, has caused the dialectal differences to become relatively insignificant. The only exceptions to this occurrence are the speech differences of the dialects found in Tripura, Bangladesh and Myanmar. [11] The exact number of dialects of Meitei is unknown. [12]

The three main dialects of Meitei are: Meitei proper, Loi and Pangal. Differences between these dialects are primarily characterised by the extensions of new sounds and tonal shifts. Meitei proper is considered, of the three, to be the standard variety—and is viewed as more dynamic[ clarification needed ] than the other two dialects.[ clarification needed ] The brief table below compares some words in these three dialects: [13]

Standard MeiteiLoiPangalEnglish translation
chaabachaapachaabato eat
kappakapmakappato weep
saabibasaapipasaabibato make
thambathampathambato put
chuppibachuppipachuppibato kiss

Devi (2002) [14] compares the Imphal, Andro, Koutruk, and Kakching dialects of Meitei.


Meetei language is an SOV language, though topics can be fronted.



The Meitei language is a tonal language. There is a controversy over whether there are two or three tones. [15]


Meitei makes use of the following sounds: [16]

Labial Dental/Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Plosive voiced unaspirated b d ɡ
breathy-voiced dʒʱ
voiceless unaspirated p t k ʔ
Fricative s h
Flap ɾ
Lateral l
Approximant w j
Front Central Back
High i u
Mid e ɐ o
Low a

Note: the central vowel /ɐ/ is transcribed as <ə> in recent linguistic work on Meitei. However, phonetically it is never [ə], but more usually [ɐ]. It is assimilated to a following approximant: /ɐw/ = /ow/, /ɐj/ = [ej].

Phonological processes

Velar deletion

A velar deletion is noted to occur on the suffix -lək when following a syllable ending with a /k/ phoneme. [15]

Grassman's law

Meitei has a dissimilatory process similar to Grassmann's law found in Ancient Greek and Sanskrit, though occurring on the second aspirate. [17] Here, an aspirated consonant is deaspirated if preceded by an aspirated consonant (including /h/, /s/) in the previous syllable. The deaspirated consonants are then voiced between sonorants.

  • /tʰin-/ ('pierce') + /-khət/ ('upward') → /tʰinɡət/ ('pierce upwards')
  • /səŋ/ ('cow') + /kʰom/ ('udder') → /səŋɡom/ ('milk')
  • /hi-/ ('trim') + /-tʰok/ ('outward') → /hidok/ ('trim outwards')

Writing systems

Meitei script

Meitei has its own script, which was used until the 18th century. Its earliest use is not known. Pamheiba, the ruler of the Manipur Kingdom who introduced Hinduism, banned the use of the Meitei script and adopted the Bengali script. Now in schools and colleges, the Bengali script is gradually being replaced by the Meitei script. The local organisations have played a major role in spreading awareness about their own script. The local organisations have played a major role in spreading awareness about their own script.

Many Meitei documents were destroyed at the beginning of the 18th century during the reign of Hindu converted King Pamheiba, under the instigation of the Bengali Hindu missionary, Shantidas Gosai.

Between 1709 and the middle of the 20th century, the Meitei language was written using the Bengali script. During the 1940s and 1950s, Meitei scholars began campaigning to bring back the Old Meitei (Old Manipuri) alphabet. In 1976 at a writers conference, all the scholars finally agreed on a new version of the alphabet containing a number of additional letters to represent sounds not present in Meitei when the script was first developed. The current Meitei alphabet is a reconstruction of the ancient Meitei script.

Since the early 1980s, the Meitei alphabet has been taught in schools in Manipur

It is a syllabic alphabet in which consonants all have an inherent vowel /a/. Other vowels are written as independent letters or by using diacritical marks that are written above, below, before or after the consonant they belong to. Each letter is named after a part of the human body.

There are some texts from the Maring and Limbu tribes of Manipur, which were written in the Meitei script.

Latin script

There exists an informal, but fairly consistent practical spelling of Meitei in Latin script. This spelling is used in the transcription of personal names and place names, and it is extensively used on the internet (Facebook, blogspots, etc.). It is also found in academic publications, for the spelling of Meitei book titles and the like (examples can be seen in the References, below). This spelling, on the whole, offers a transparent, unambiguous representation of the Meitei sound system, although the tones are usually not marked. It is "practical" in the sense that it does not use extra-alphabetical symbols, and can, therefore, be produced easily on any standard keyboard. The only point of ambiguity is found in the spelling of the vowels /ɐ/ and /a/, which are usually both written "a", except when they occur before an approximant (see table below). The vowel /a/ is sometimes written as "aa" to distinguish it from /ɐ/.

/pʰ/ph (rarely f)
/s/s or sh
/a/a or aa
/i/i (rarely ee)
/u/u (rarely oo)


Bangladesh and India currently use the Eastern Bengali script. [1]


Number agreement

Agreement in nouns and pronouns is expressed to clarify singular and plural cases through the addition of the suffixes -khoi (for personal pronouns and human proper nouns) and -sing (for all other nouns). Verbs associated with the pluralised nouns are unaffected. Examples are demonstrated below: [18]

Noun (Meitei)Noun (English)Example (Meitei)Example (English)
angaangbabyangaang kappiBaby cries.
angaangsingbabiesangaangsing kappiBabies cry.

When adjectives are used to be more clear, Meitei utilises separate words and does not add a suffix to the noun. Examples are show in the chart below: [18]

Adjective (Meitei)Adjective (English)Example (Meitei)Example (English)
amaonemi ama laak’iA person comes.
kharasomemi khara laak’iSome persons come.
mayaammanymi mayaam laak’iMany persons come.

Compound verbs

Compound verbs are created by combining root verbs each ending with aspect markers. While the variety of suffixes is high, all compound verbs utilise one of two: [19]

SuffixEnglish translation
-thokout/ come out
-ningTo wish/ want/ desire

Aspect markers appear as suffixes that clarify verb tense and appear at the end of the compound verb. Overall, the formula to construct a compound verb becomes [root verb] + [suffix] + [aspect marker]: [19]

LanguageRoot verbSuffixAspect markerCombined form
Englishsleepout/ come outperfect aspecthas started sleeping
Englishsleepwantperfect aspecthas felt sleepy

Compound verbs can also be formed utilising both compound suffixes as well, allowing utterances such as pithokningle meaning "want to give out".

Number words

NumeralWordEtymologyMeitei Script
1a-ma ~ a-maaꯑꯃꯥ
2a-niProto-Tibeto-Burman *niꯑꯅꯤ
3a-húmPTB *sumꯑꯍꯨꯝ
4ma-riPTB *liꯃꯔꯤ
5ma-ngaaPTB *ngaꯃꯉꯥ
6ta-rukPTB *lukꯇꯔꯨꯛ
11taraa-maa-thoi“ten + 1-more”ꯇꯔꯥꯃꯥꯊꯣꯏ
12taraa-ni-thoi“ten + 2-more”ꯇꯔꯥꯅꯤꯊꯣꯏ
13taraa-húm-doi“ten + 3-more”ꯇꯔꯥꯍꯨꯝꯗꯣꯏ
14taraa-mari“ten +4”ꯇꯔꯥꯃꯔꯤ
15taraa-mangaa“ten +5”ꯇꯔꯥꯃꯉꯥ
16taraa-taruk“ten +6”ꯇꯔꯥꯇꯔꯨꯛ
17taraa-taret“ten +7”ꯇꯔꯥꯇꯔꯦꯠ
18taraa-nipaan“ten +8”ꯇꯔꯥꯅꯤꯄꯥꯟ
19taraa-maapan“ten +9”ꯇꯔꯥꯃꯥꯄꯟ
20kun ~ kulꯀꯨꯟ ~ ꯀꯨꯜ
30*kun-taraa > kun-thraa“twenty + ten”ꯀꯨꯟꯊ꯭ꯔꯥ
40ni-phú“two × score”ꯅꯤꯐꯨ
60hum-phú“three × score”ꯍꯨꯝꯐꯨ
70hum-phú-taraa“three × score + ten”ꯍꯨꯝꯐꯨꯇꯔꯥ
80mari-phú“four × score”ꯃꯔꯤꯐꯨ
90mari-phú-taraa“four × score + ten”ꯃꯔꯤꯐꯨꯇꯔꯥ
100chaama“hundred × one”ꯆꯥꯃ
200cha-ni“hundred × two”ꯆꯅꯤ
300cha-hum“hundred × three”ꯆꯍꯨꯝ
1000lisíng ama“thousand × 1”ꯂꯤꯁꯤꯡ
10000000000000pu-amaꯄꯨ ꯑꯃꯥ

Linguistic tradition

The culture involved with the Meitei language is rooted deeply with pride and tradition based on having respect to the community elders. Young children who do not know about the tales that have been passed on from generation to generation are very rare. Regarding the history behind the ancient use of proverbs that defines the way conversation is held with the Meitei language, it is a way of expressing and telling stories and even using modern slang with old proverbs to communicate between one another. [20]

The Meitei language is known to be one of the oldest languages in northeastern India and has a lengthy 2000-year period of existence. It had its own script. The history behind the Meitei language itself comes primarily from the medieval period of northeastern India. [21]

See also

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Shobhana Chelliah is a linguist who specializes in Tibeto-Burman languages and language documentation, as well as the structure of international English. She earned her doctorate in linguistics in 1992 at the University of Texas at Austin, where her doctoral adviser was Anthony C. Woodbury. Her dissertation focused on the description of Meitei grammar. She has also worked on the digitization of Old Meitei manuscripts from the 16th-18th centuries, as well as the documentation of the Lamkang language. Her other publications are on the typology of case marking, as well as the Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic Fieldwork. Chelliah was the Program Director for the Documenting Endangered Languages program at the National Science Foundation from 2012-2014. She is a Professor of Linguistics at the University of North Texas.

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