The word "Ahom" in Ahom script
Native toIndia
EthnicityAhom people
Extinct18th or 19th century AD[1]
used in religious chants and literary materials
Ahom script
Language codes
ISO 639-3aho

The Ahom language or Tai-Ahom language is a dead language,[2] that was formerly spoken by the Ahom people, but which is currently undergoing a revival. Ahom is an important language in Tai studies. It was relatively free of both Mon-Khmer and Indo-Aryan influences and has a written tradition dating back to the 13th century.[citation needed]

The Ahom people established the Ahom kingdom and ruled parts of the Brahmaputra river valley in the present day Indian state of Assam between the 13th and the 18th centuries. The language was the court language of the kingdom, until it began to be replaced by the Assamese language in the 17th century. Since the early 18th century, there have been no native speakers of the language, though extensive manuscripts in the language still exist today. The tonal system of the language is entirely lost. The language was only partially known by a small group of traditional priests of the Ahom religion, and it was being used only for ceremonial or ritualistic purposes.

There has been efforts to revive the language in recent times. A reconstructed version is taught in various educational institutions in Assam by AHSEC and Dibrugarh University.[3][4]


Tai-Ahom is classified in a Northwestern subgrouping of Southwestern Tai owing to close affinities with Shan, Khamti and, more distantly, Thai. The immediate parent language from which Ahom is descended has been reconstructed as Proto-Tai, a language from 2000 years ago,[5][6] in the Kra–Dai family (unrelated to Chinese, but possibly related to the Austronesian languages),[7] within the (proposed but debated) subgroup of Kam–Tai,[6] although some say that Tai languages are a discrete family, and are not part of Kra–Dai.[5] Ahom is distinct from but closely related to Aiton,[8] which is still spoken in Assam to this day.


Ahom has characteristics typical of Tai languages, such as:

When speaking and writing Ahom, much is dependent upon context and the audience interpretation. Multiple parts of the sentence can be left out; verb and adjectives will remain, but other parts of speech, especially pronouns, can be dropped. Verbs do not have tenses, and nouns do not have plurals. Time periods can be identified by adverbs, strings of verbs, or auxiliaries placed before the verb.[6] Ahom, like other Tai languages, uses classifiers to identify categories, and repetitions of words to express idiomatic expressions. However, the expressions, classifiers, pronouns, and other sentence particles vary between the Tai languages descended from Proto-Tai, making Tai languages mutually unintelligible.[6]

It has its own script, the Ahom script.


Main article: Ahom people

The Ahom people and their language originated in Yunnan in south-west China. They migrated from the border between northern Vietnam and the Guangxi province of China,[5] to the Hukawng Valley, along the upper reaches of the Chindwin river, northern Burma. In the 13th century, they crossed the Patkai Range.[11] and settled in the Brahmaputra river valley, in Northeast India.[9] After increasing their power in Upper Assam, the Ahom people extended their power to the south of the river Brahmaputra and east of the river Dikho, which corresponds to the modern day districts of Dibrugarh and Sibsagar, Assam, where the Ahom still reside today.[11] Tai-Ahom was the exclusive court language of the Ahom kingdom, where it was used to write state-histories or 'Buranjis'.[12]

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the small Ahom community expanded their rule dramatically toward the west and they successfully saw off challenges from the Mughal Empire and other invaders.[11] The rapid expansion resulted in the Ahom people becoming a small minority in their own kingdom, of which they kept control. During the 17th century, the Assamese language entered the Ahom court and co-existed with the Tai-Ahom for some time before finally replacing it.[13] Eventually the Ahom peasants too adopted the Assamese language over the Ahom language for secular purposes, while Ahom was restricted to religious use by Ahom priests.[11] The everyday usage of Ahom language ceased completely by the early 19th century.[14][6] Although the language is no longer spoken, the exhaustive 1795 Ahom-Assamese lexicon known as the Bar Amra preserves the lexical forms of the language towards the end of the Ahom Kingdom.[citation needed]

The language today is used chiefly for liturgical purposes, and is no longer used in daily life. While the written language (and ritualistic chants) survive in a vast number of written manuscripts, Ahom is therefore usually regarded as a dead language.[15] It retains cultural significance and is used for religious chants and to read literature.[9] This is complicated however by the fact that the phonology with its tone system has been completely lost, because the Ahom script does not mark tone and under-specifies vowel contrasts,[16] which obscures the meaning of words as tones are important to distinguish the meaning of words in tonal languages.[17]

Translation efforts

An Ahom manuscript preserved in the Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies, Pan Bazaar, Guwahati.

Fabricated samples of the Ahom script delayed translation of legitimate Ahom texts. Several publications were created based on the fabricated samples, leading to incorrect grammatical analysis and dictionary resources that acted as a barrier to future researchers. A later translation of Ahom Buranji, a major Ahom script was provided by Golap Chandra Barua, the same man responsible for fabricating samples of translated Ahom script. It was discovered years later, by Professor Prasert na Nagara, that the translation was unreliable. Despite these difficulties, along with the lack of native speakers and specific text, studies in Ahom have prevailed, and certain available scripts have been translated and transliterated, using known words, characters and context.[18]

Revitalization efforts

In 1954, at a meeting of Ahom people at Patsaku, Sibsagar District, the Tai Historical and Cultural Society of Assam was founded.[19] Since the late 1960s, Ahom culture and traditions have witnessed a revival. In 1981 the Eastern Tai Literary Organization has been founded in Dhemaji, which produced language text books and publications in the Ahom script. Schools in Dibrugarh and Sibsagar districts started offering Tai language classes, teaching a mix of Tai Ahom, Phakey, Khamti and Central Thai.[20] The scholar Terwiel notes that the view of the Ahom language being a dead language is hotly contested by Ahom priests and spokesmen of the revival movement. According to them, the language did not die out because Ahom priests still use the language for religious purposes. Some even claim that the priestly class speaks Ahom as their mother tongue. Upon further investigation, it was determined that the priests could decipher the Ahom script and read the words aloud. However, because they did not know any tones, they did not have any idea of the meaning of the words except for the simplest expressions.[21]

According to Terwiel, there are great differences between the old Ahom language of the manuscripts, which is easily recognizable as a Tai language, and what the revivalists call Ahom, which does not follow the rules of Tai grammar. It has also changed greatly regarding semantics, literally translating Assamese into Tai words, which leads to sentences which do not make sense to any Tai speaker. Terwiel therefore calls this revived language 'pseudo-Ahom'. Nevertheless, this revived language has been used passionately by revitalists and many neologisms have been created.[22] The demand for translation into Tai-Ahom led to the creation of the first adequate modern dictionary by Nomal Chandra Gogoi in 1987, titled The Assamese-English-Tai Dictionary. This dictionary allowed a reader to find the translation of 9,000 Assamese words into English and Tai. This dictionary filled in missing gaps of the Ahom vocabulary with Aiton and Khamti words and if those were not available, Lanna and Thai words were used. The result was a hodgepodge of multiple Tai languages, that was only linked to the Ahom language by the Ahom script in which the dictionary entries were written. The scholar Terwiel recommended in 1992 to base neo-Ahom on the grammar and tones of the very closely related Aiton language, which is still spoken in Assam.[23] Summarizing, the revivalists use a language consisting of a mixture of Tai words from multiple Tai languages, overlaid on an Assamese grammatical base.[24]

In 1999, the scholar Morey reported that Ahom priests have resorted to compounding words to differentiate between words that are homophones in the revived language, since Ahom lost its tone system. For example in old Ahom, the word su for tiger and su for shirt would have sounded differently by pronouncing them with a different tone. In revived Ahom, they are now differentiated by compounding them with another word: tu for animal and pha for cloth respectively. Subsequently, tu su and pha su can be differentiated.[25]

An effort has been made to revive the language by following the phonology of existing sister languages, especially Tai-Aiton and Tai-Phake.[citation needed]

The Institute of Tai Studies and Research (ITSAR), is a Tai-Ahom language teaching institute in Moran, Sivasagar, Assam, India, established in 2001 and affiliated to Dibrugarh University. It offers a one-year Tai-Ahom language diploma course and a three-month certificate course in spoken Tai-Ahom.[26][27] Other initiatives have been taken, such as workshops and language classes.[28][29] In 2019, the 'Tai Ahom Yuva Chatra Sanmilan, Assam' (TAYCSA), demanded that the Tai-Ahom language be included in the school curriculum of the state of Assam. They also demanded the creation of a two-year diploma course in Mahdavdeva University.[30][31]

An online dictionary containing nearly 5,000 entries (see External links) has been created by analyzing old manuscripts, especially the Bar Amra. A descriptive grammar of Ahom, based on the grammar found in old manuscripts, is being worked on. A sketch has been released, titled “A Sketch of Tai Ahom” by Stephen Morey.[32]



The Tai Ahom consonants have been reconstructed as the following, by analyzing old texts:[8]

Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
voiceless voiced voiceless voiced voiceless voiced voiceless voiced voiceless
Plosive Tenuis p b t d c k ʔ
Nasal m n ŋ
Fricative s h
Lateral l
Trill r
Semi-vowel j

The semi-vowel /w/ is missing from the system, however it is an allophone of /b/ that occurs only in the word final position. Consonants found in the word final position are: /p, t, k, m, n, ŋ, j, b [w]/.[33]


Vowels can occur in syllable medial and final positions only. The following vowel inventory has been reconstructed:[8]

Front Central Back
short long
Close i ɯ u
Open-mid e o
Open a


The language had a tone system, but because the Ahom script did not spell out any tones, the tones are now unknown.[33][16]



The Ahom language has the following pronouns:[34]

Person Singular Plural
1st /kau/ (𑜀𑜧) /rau/ (𑜍𑜧)
2nd /maɯ/ (𑜉𑜧) /su/ (𑜏𑜤)
3rd /man/ (𑜉𑜃𑜫) /kʰau/ (𑜁𑜧)


Ahom uses the proximal demonstrative nai meaning 'this' and the distal demonstrative nan meaning 'that'.[35]


Tai-Ahom mainly used an SVO word order, but an SOV word order has also been attested.[36]


Classifiers are used when forming plurals, counting entities and when specifically referring to one single entity. Some classifiers are: 'kun' (used for persons), 'tu' (used for animals) and 'an' (general). For example 'khai song tu' means two buffalo, where 'khai' means buffalo, 'song' means two and 'tu' is the classifier for animals.[35]


The following interrogatives are found:[35]

Phonemic Meaning
sang What
naɯ/daɯ What
ki How many
phaɯ Who
thaɯ Where



Ahom has the following basic numerals:[33]

Cardinal /lɯŋ/ /sɔ:ŋ/ /sam/ /si:/ /ha/ /ruk/ /cit/ /pit/ /kaw/ /sip/ /kawsip/
𑜎𑜢𑜤𑜂𑜫 𑜏𑜨𑜂𑜫 𑜏𑜪 𑜏𑜣 𑜑𑜡 𑜍𑜤𑜀𑜫 𑜋𑜢𑜄𑜫 𑜆𑜦𑜄𑜫 𑜀𑜟𑜨 𑜏𑜢𑜆𑜫 𑜀𑜟𑜨 𑜏𑜢𑜆𑜫
𑜱 𑜲 𑜳 𑜴 𑜵 𑜶 𑜷 𑜸 𑜹 𑜺 𑜻
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 20
Ordinal /ʔaj/ /ŋi:/ /sam/ /saj/ /ŋu:/ /luk/ /cit/ /pit/ /kaw/ /sip/ /kawsip/
𑜒𑜊𑜫 𑜂𑜣 𑜏𑜪 𑜏𑜊𑜫 𑜂𑜥 𑜎𑜤𑜀𑜫 𑜋𑜢𑜄𑜫 𑜆𑜦𑜄𑜫 𑜀𑜟𑜨 𑜏𑜢𑜆𑜫 𑜀𑜟𑜨 𑜏𑜢𑜆𑜫
1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th 20th

0 in Ahom script is "𑜰".

Comparative table

Below is a comparative table of Ahom and other Tai languages.

English Proto-Southwestern Tai[37] Thai Lao Northern Thai Shan Tai Lü Standard Zhuang Ahom:[33]
wind *lom /lōm/ /lóm/ /lōm/ /lóm/ /lôm/ /ɣum˧˩/ /lum/
town *mɯaŋ /mɯ̄aŋ/ /mɯ́aŋ/ /mɯ̄aŋ/ /mɤ́ŋ/ /mɤ̂ŋ/ /mɯŋ˧/ /mɯng/
earth *ʔdin /dīn/ /dìn/ /dīn/ /lǐn/ /dín/ /dei˧/ /nin/
fire *vai/aɯ /fāj/ /fáj/ /fāj/ /pʰáj/ or /fáj/ /fâj/ /fei˧˩/ /pʰaj/
heart *čai/aɯ /hǔa tɕāj/ /hǔa tɕàj/ /hǔa tɕǎj/ /hǒ tsǎɰ/ /hó tɕáj/ /sim/ /caj/
love *rak /rák/ /hāk/ /hák/ /hâk/ /hak/ /kʲaj˧˩/ /hak/
water *naam /náːm/ /nâm/ /nám/ /nâm/ /nà̄m/ /ɣaem˦˨/ /nam/

See also


  1. ^ Ahom at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ "Linguists and historians are generally united in the view that the Ahom language has been dead for about two hundred years, and that all Ahom use Assamese as their mother tongue." (Terwiel 1996:283)
  3. ^ "Assam Higher Secondary Education Council official Notification".
  4. ^ "Centre for Studies in Languages - Dibrugarh University". dibru.ac.in.
  5. ^ a b c d e f French, M. A. (1994). Tai Languages. In The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (Vol. 4, pp. 4520–4521). New York, NY: Pergamon Press Press.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Hongladarom, K. (2005). Thai and Tai Languages. In Encyclopedia of linguistics (Vol. 2, pp. 1098–1101). New York, NY: Fitzroy Dearborn.
  7. ^ a b c d e Blake, B. J. (1994). Language Classification. In The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (Vol. 4, pp. 1952–1957). New York, NY: Pergamon Press Press.
  8. ^ a b c Gogoi, Morey & Pittayaporn 2020, pp. 14–42.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Diller, A. (1993). Tai Languages. In International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (Vol. 4, pp. 128–131). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  10. ^ a b Buragohain, Dipima (2011). "Issues of Language Contact and Shift in Tai Ahom". International Conference of South East Asian Linguistics Society (SEALS 21).
  11. ^ a b c d (Terwiel 1996:276)
  12. ^ (Terwiel 1992:8)
  13. ^ "In (the 17th) century of Ahom-Mughal conflicts, (the Tai) language first coexisted with and then was progressively replaced by Assamese (Asamiya) at and outside the Court." Guha, Amalendu (December 1983), "The Ahom Political System: An Enquiry into the State Formation Process in Medieval Assam (1228–1714)", Social Scientist, 11 (12): 9, doi:10.2307/3516963, JSTOR 3516963
  14. ^ "It seems that by early in the 19th century, everyday usage of Ahom language had ceased and that Ahom people all spoke the Assamese language as their mother tongue." (Morey 2014:50)
  15. ^ (Morey 2014:50)
  16. ^ a b (Morey 2014:55)
  17. ^ Dipima Buragohain. Issues of Language Contact and Shift in Tai Ahom
  18. ^ (Terwiel 1996:283–284)
  19. ^ Terwiel 1992.
  20. ^ (Terwiel 1996:279)
  21. ^ (Terwiel 1996:283–284)
  22. ^ (Terwiel 1996:284–285)
  23. ^ Terwiel 1992, pp. 6–7.
  24. ^ (Terwiel 1996:286)
  25. ^ Stephen, Morey (2002). "Tai languages of Assam, a progress report — Does anything remain of the Tai Ahom language?". In Bradley, David; Bradley, Maya (eds.). Language Maintenance for Endangered Languages: An Active Approach. London: Curzon Press. pp. 98–113. Retrieved 14 June 2020.
  26. ^ Gogoi, Chao Medini Mohan (2018). "Revitalization of Endangered Language and Culture of the Ahoms: The Background, Problems and Prospects". ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  27. ^ "Centre for Studies in Languages – Dibrugarh University". dibru.ac.in. Archived from the original on 2019-07-23. Retrieved 2020-06-09.
  28. ^ "Language route to roots – 16 sign up for Tai Ahom course in Guwahati school". Retrieved 9 June 2020.
  29. ^ "Workshop on Tai-Ahom Language Organized at Doomdooma, Assam". 2 August 2018. Retrieved 9 June 2020.
  30. ^ "Include Language in Curriculum, Demands Tai-Ahom Organization". 29 October 2019. Retrieved 9 June 2020.
  31. ^ "Clamour for introduction of Tai language in Assam schools". 28 October 2019. Retrieved 9 June 2020.
  32. ^ Morey, Stephen (2015). "Metadata and endangered archives: lessons from the Ahom Manuscripts Project". In Kominko, Maja (ed.). In From Dust to Digital: Ten Years of the Endangered Archives Programme. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers. pp. 31–66. ISBN 9781783740628. JSTOR j.ctt15m7nhp.13.
  33. ^ a b c d Duangthip; Rungkarn (18 April 2013). Tai-Ahom and standard Thai: a descriptive-comparative study.
  34. ^ Morey 2010, p. ?.
  35. ^ a b c Morey 2010.
  36. ^ Diller, Anthony (1992). "Tai languages in Assam: Daughters or Ghosts". In Compton, Carol J.; Hartmann, John F. (eds.). Papers on Tai Languages, Linguistics and Literatures. DeKalb, IL: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University. p. 22.
  37. ^ "Thai Lexicography Resources". sealang.net.