Eastern Times Correspondent, Dhaka, 21 February: Various ethnic groups have lived in the mountains for generations with each boasting their own cultural traditions and languages. However, with time, many languages have lost a significant portion of its native speakers.
One such language, Rengmitca, is now on the verge of becoming extinct.
Currently, only six people in Bangladesh can speak the language and most of them are over the age of 60.
At the beginning of this century, American linguist David Peterson came to Bangladesh to study Kuki-chin languages. After arriving in Bandarban in 2009, he learned that in some remote areas of Alikadam Upazila, there are tribes of Mro people whose languages are completely different.
He later discovered speakers of the Rengmitca language. He was accompanied by Mro language writer and researcher Yangan Mro.
Yangan, who studied Pali and Sanskrit at Chattogram University, lives in Bandarban city. He works with Mro language and culture.
“In 2013, 22 Rengmitca speakers were found scattered in several neighbourhoods. The number has fallen to six in 2021. The rest of the speakers are dead,” he Our Correspondent.
The six that are still alive do not all live in the same neighbourhood. They live scattered in four separate neighbourhoods of two Upazilas.
“We had no idea that the Rengmitca tongue was still alive. After the Rengmitca speakers merged with the mainstream Mro population, all of them now speak in the Mro language. No-one knows the Rengmitca tongue anymore except for six people. Some of their children can understand the language but they cannot answer in that language,” said Yangan.
One Tinwai Mro spoke about a Rengmitca neighbourhood in Alikadam Upazila.
Krangsi Para is about 300 years old, according to Tinwai. At one time, everyone in the neighbourhood belonged to the Rengmitca tribe. Later, many moved to Myanmar and India and others to another place in Alikadam. Many have died. For all of these reasons, it goes without saying that are not many people left who can speak the Rengmitca language.
“Now, there are 22 families in this neighbourhood of which seven are of the Rengmitca tribe. But no-one knows the language except for three people.”
Singra Mro, a resident of the area, said he cannot speak the language even though he is a member of the Rengmitca tribe. He is only able to understand some simple words. However, Mampung Mro Rengmitca, his 67-year-old father, can still speak the language very well.
The five others who can converse in Rengmitca are Konrao Mro, 70, of Krangsi Para, another Konrao Mro, 60, of the same neighbourhood, Thoai Lock Mro 55, of Mensing Para in Noapara Union, Rengpung Mro, 65, of Waibot Para in Naikhyangchhari Upazila and Mangwai Mro, 63, of Sangplo Para. Among them, the two people who go by the name of Konrao are women and the rest are men.
Mampung said when he was about 10 or 12 years old, there were five Rengmitca neighbourhoods. There were 50-60 families in each neighbourhood. Outsiders had to speak the Rengmitca language while visiting the neighbourhoods.
“Many of the Mros used to laugh at us when we spoke in Rengmitca. Our children also felt shy and did not want to speak the language anymore. Everyone started forgetting their own language due to lack of practice.”
Asked if there was any song or music in the language, Mampung said he is yet to hear any song in the language. However, he has heard of a few rhyming games.
Konrao Mro said none of her two daughters and son can speak the language.
“Now, there isn’t anyone at home to speak Rengmitca with. The habit of speaking in Rengmitca is gone now. Even if I want to say something in my native tongue, there isn’t anyone around who can answer back. That is why I feel sad sometimes.”
But we want to carry on by speaking our own language, said Konrao.
“Newcomers can no longer speak this language; they don’t even know it. We don’t know how this language will survive.”
The Rengmitca speakers may have been a separate population, according to writer Singyong Mro, a member of the Bandarban District Council.
“They are culturally similar to the Mros except for their language. That is why they tied the knot with Mros. In fact, they have become one. They can no longer speak Rengmitca. A lot of the times, they do not want to speak whatever little Rengmitca they know because of hesitation.”
Singyong said several meetings were held in order to find a way to preserve the language. They have also called upon those who speak the Rengmitca language.
“The problem is they themselves are not interested in preserving the language. Encouraging them to speak in their own language and arranging their marriages with other tribe members might be one way to retain the language.”