One of the oft-ignored legacies of the conflicts in the Myanmar and the self-isolation of the country is the effect on the still nascent languages and literatures of the ethnic communities, many of who had only embraced a written language at the turn of the 20th Century …
The Kachin are no different. A Western imposed umbrella term for the six ethnic communities who live in Kachin State, Sagaing Division and northern Shan State, the most numerous of the Kachin are the Jinghpaw and their language has become a ‘lingua franca’ among the groups related to them (though not always happily).
The Jinghpaw language was first codified and written by western missionaries in the 19th Century, but the first dictionary was not completed until 1916. Until last year, that dictionary was still the arbiter of the written Jinghpaw language. But society, and the language of society has moved on in the last century and a struggle has emerged, between the elders and youth in the Jinghpaw community on the inclusion of words for things that simply didn’t exist in 1916. As what happened to English before the introduction of the printing press, the Jinghpaw written language has fractured, with multiple iterations that differ in both lexis and grammar.
A modern, up to do date and complete dictionary of the entire language was needed to standardise the various forms that had taken root.
The task was originally embarked upon by the Kachin Independence Organisation, the political arm of the Kachin Independence Army in 2004, who, probably recognising the enormity of the project, passed it on to a civilian group who reformed themselves as the Kachin Dictionary Committee. Housed in the Manau Cultural Park in Myitkyina on the banks of the Irrawaddy in the north of Myanmar, and funded by private donations, the KDC consists of 16 main committee members and 20 advisors. Many of these are respected writers, academics and cultural elders. Completed in 2014, the multi-volume dictionary went through 4 years of proofreading and editing before being published in 2018. It has since become the authoritative voice on the Jinghpaw language.
To read more about the Kachin, their censored literature and my travels with them, take a look at my award-shortlisted political travel book, ‘The People Elsewhere: Unbound Journeys with the Storytellers of Myanmar’.