Atong language (Sino-Tibetan)

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Native to India, Bangladesh
Region India, State of Meghalaya and adjacent areas in Bangladesh
Native speakers
(undated figure of 10,000, 4,600 in India)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 aot
Glottolog aton1241[2]

Atong is a Sino-Tibetan language related to Koch, Rabha, Bodo and Garo.[3] It is spoken in the South Garo Hills and West Khasi Hills districts of Meghalaya state in Northeast India, southern Kamrup district in Assam, and adjacent areas in Bangladesh. The correct spelling "Atong" is based on the way the speakers themselves pronounce the name of their language. There is no glottal stop in the name and it is not a tonal language.

There is no current estimate of the number of speakers available; according to the Linguistic Survey of India, it was spoken by approximately 15,000 people in the 1920s. Because the Atong consider themselves, and are considered by the Garos to be a sub-tribe of the Garos; they are not counted as a separate ethnic or linguistic community by the Indian government.

Almost all Atong speakers are bilingual in Garo to a greater or lesser extent. Garo is seen as a more prestigious language. Because there is a Bible translation in Garo, but not in Atong, it is the language used in all churches and most Atong speakers are Christians. Garo is also the language of education in schools in the Atong-speaking area, although some schools provide education in English.

A reference grammar of the language has been published by Seino van Breugel.[4] An Atong–English dictionary[5] and a book of stories in Atong[6] are published by and available at the Tura Book Room.

In India, Atong is considered a dialect of Garo. The word 'dialect' has to be understood in a political sense here, as a form of speech with no official status. The Atong people are members of the Garo Scheduled Tribe. The 'language' of that Scheduled tribe is Garo. The word 'language' here is also politically defined as 'official speech variety'. The 'language' of the Garo Scheduled Tribe is a Standardised form of speech used in education, administration, the press and literature. Within the academic discipline of Linguistics, though, Atong and Standard Garo are different languages, because they have different sound systems, vocabulary and grammar. In Linguistics, one of the another criteria used to determine that two speech varieties are different languages rather than dialects of the same language is 'mutual intelligibility'. To put it simply, when two people cannot understand each other's form of speech, they are different languages. However, due to the fact that a great many Atongs are bilingual in Standard Garo (at least on the perception level, and to various degrees on the production level), mutual intelligibility is a one-way street: Atong speakers understand Standard Garo but speakers of Standard Garo do not understand Atong. In sum, the Atongs belong to the Garo Scheduled Tribe but they speak differently.

Phonemes and alphabet[edit]

The phonemes of Atong are given in IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) in Table 1. That table also presents how the phonemes are written in the Atong alphabet used for everyday writing by people who are not linguists. As we can see in the table, the glottal stop can be written with either a raised dot or an apostrophe. The raised dot[this is a bullet, not a raised dot] ⟨•⟩ was used by missionaries to write the glottal stop in Garo when the writing system for that language was created in the 1800s. The apostrophe is an easier way to write the glottal stop, because it is available on all computer keyboards. The vowel phoneme /ə/ is written ⟨y⟩ in the orthography, as it is in Khasi and Welsh. It was the Welsh Presbyterians that developed the Khasi writing system and used the letter ⟨y⟩ to write the phoneme /ə/ in Khasi.

The relationship between the phonemes of Atong and the way they are written in the Latin orthography and in the Bengali script
Phoneme Letter Bengali Phoneme Letter Bengali Phoneme Letter Bengali
ph m m i i ই ি
th n n e e এ ে
kh ŋ ng ঙ ং a a আ া
p p r r o o ও ো
t t l l u u উ ু
k k sʰ ~ s s ə y এঃ েঃ
b b ch ii ঈ ী
d d j ee এঽ েঽ
ɡ g h h oo ওঽ োঽ
w w j i য় aa আঽ াঽ
ʔ • or ' '

As we can see in the table above, the consonant phoneme /sʰ ~ s/ has aspirated and non-aspirated pronunciations. The aspirated allophone [sʰ], occurs at the beginning of a syllable, while the unaspirated [s] occurs the end of a syllable. Both phonemes are written with the letter ⟨s⟩. Aspirated /s/ is by no means uncommon in Asian languages; Burmese and Korean are examples of those that use it.


Glottalization, or glottal prosody (linguistics), in Atong is a feature that operates on the level of the syllable, and that manifests itself as a glottal stop at the end of the syllable. Glottalization only affects open syllables and syllables ending in a continuant or a vowel. In the following examples, glottalized syllables are indicated by a following bullet. The pronunciation is given between square brackets where the symbol ⟨ʔ⟩ represents the glottal stop and the full stop represents the syllable boundary.

In the examples below, the following abbreviations are used: COS 'change of state', CUST 'customary aspect', INCOM 'incompletive aspect', NEG 'negative',

If the glottalized continuant is followed by a consonant, the glottalized phoneme is not released, i.e. man• -khu-cha [manʔ.kʰutɕa] (‘is not yet possible’.

If the glottalized continuant is followed by a vowel, it is released and the release repeats the continuant so that it can be said to act like the onset of the following syllable, e.g. man• -ok [manʔ.nok] ( ‘was able’.

In a glottalized syllable with final /l/ the glottal stop usually precedes the oral closure of the [l] when followed by another vowel, e.g. mel• -a [meʔ.la] (be.fat-CUST)‘is fat’. This phenomenon also happens, but less frequently, with syllables ending in /m/, e.g. nom• -a [noʔ.ma ~ nomʔ.ma] (be.soft-CUST) ‘is soft’.


Atong has six vowels occurring in indigenous as well as loan words. These vowels are /i,e,a,o,u,ə/. In addition, there are four vowels which are only found in loanwords from English and Indic languages. These are the so-called “loan vowels”, which are usually, but not always pronounced longer that the indigenous vowels. The loan vowels, characterized by a macron, are /ī/ [iː ~ i], /ē/ [eː ~ e], ā [aː ~ a] and ō [oː ~ o]. In the orthography, they are simply written double. Note that /ū/ and /ə̄/ are not attested.

Loan vowels are usually but not always pronounced long, and when they are not pronounced long, the difference between the loan and the indigenous words is a matter of vowel quality. In closed syllables, where Atong vowels would be pronounced lowered and more retracted, the loan vowels will have the same quality as the Atong vowels in open syllables. Not all loan words that have long vowels in the source language have long vowels in Atong, and not all loans that can be pronounced with a long vowel in Atong have a long vowel in the source language.

Examples of minimal pairs and near minimal pairs are given in the table below.

Minimal and near-minimal pairs of words with and without long vowels
With short vowels English translation With long vowels English translation
tin 'corrugated iron tiin baji 'three o'clock'
pel- 'to copulate' peel dong•ok 'failed'
mat 'wild animal' aat baji 'eight o'clock'
ret 'children's game' reel 'rails, train'
ba•- 'to be born, give birth' baaa 'the sound a cow makes'

Although long vowels are only found in loan words, not all loan words contain long vowels, as we can see in the first minimal pair. The word tin, ‘corrugated iron’ is an English loan without long vowel, which contrasts phonologically with the Indic loan word tīn, ‘three’, which does contain a long vowel.


Atong (Latin/Roman alphabet)[5] Atong (Bengali script) English[5] Bengali Bengali (Transliteration) Hindi Hindi (Transliteration)[7]
Nang• jama / chola bykphyl. নাং' য়ামা / চলা বেঃকভেঃল্ Your shirt is inside out. আপনার শার্ট হয়


Āpanāra śārṭa haẏa


अपनी शर्ट के अंदर से बाहर है। Apanī śarṭa kē aṃdara sē bāhara hai.
Na•a angna tangka hyn•chawama? না'আ আংমা তাংকা হেঃনচামা? Won’t you give me any money? আপনি আমাকে দিতে হবে না

কোন টাকা?

Āpani āmākē ditē habē nā

kōna ṭākā?

आप मुझे कोई पैसा नहीं देंगे? Āpa mujhē kōī paisā nahīṃ dēṃgē?
Ningba ytykyi takwa ga•nima? নিংবা এঃতেঃকেঃই তাকৱা গা'নিমা? Will it be good if we do it like this? এটা যদি ভাল হতে হবে

আমরা এটা ভালো না?

Ēṭā yadi bhālō hatē habē

āmarā ēṭā bhālō nā?

यह अच्छा होगा अगर हम इसे इस तरह करते हैं? Yaha acchā hōgā agara hama isē isa taraha karatē haiṃ?

Atong has many loawords from Indic languages, e.g. Assamese, Bengali and Hindi, and from English. These loanwords can all easily be spelled in Atong orthography using the Latin alphabet (also called the Roman alphabet). Example of loans from English are: redio (from the English word 'radio'), rens (from the English word 'wrench'), skul (from the English word 'school'), miting (from the English word 'meeting'). Examples of loanwords from Indic language are morot (from the Hidi word मर्द /mard/ ‘man’), chola and jama (from Bengali, Assamese or Hindi: Bengali চােল skirt’ related to Assamese চােলা [sʊla] ‘jacket, tunic, coat’ and Hindi चोला /cōlā/ ‘gown, cloak', Bengali or Assamese জামা /jāmā/ ‘coat, shirt, blouse jacket’, related to Hindi जामा /jāmā/‘gown.)


If a diphthong is defined as two vowels that can occur in the nucleus of a syllable, then Atong has no diphthongs. There are words that are written with two adjacent vowel graphemes or letters, e.g. mai 'rice', askui 'star' ,and chokhoi 'fishing basket'. However, the letter i in these words represents a consonant phoneme, viz. the off glide /j/ (see Table 1). The writing system uses the letter i in this way because the letters j and y are both used to represent other phonemes.

The canonical syllable structure of Atong is (C)V(C), where C stands for any consonant and V for any vowel. This structure can be maintained if words like mai 'rice', askui 'star' and chokhoi 'fishing basket' are analysed as containing a vowel and a final glide (see glide (linguistics). The glide, presented by the letter i, is the coda of the syllable rather than an element of the nucleus. In phonemic writing the words would look like this: /maj/, /askuj/, cokhoj/.

There are two glides in the language: /w/ and /j/. The glide /w/ occurs in both syllable initial and syllable final position, e.g. wak 'pig' and saw 'rotten, fermented' respectively. The glide /j/ occurs only syllable finally, e.g. tyi /təj/ 'water'. Words with the structure CVVC do not exist, e.g. *gaut or *main (where the asterisk [*] indicates the non-existence of these words).


  1. ^ Atong at Ethnologue (16th ed., 2009)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "A'tong". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  3. ^ Jacquesson, François. 2006. La réconstruction du passé: le cas des langues boro-garo. Bulletin de la Société Linguistique de Paris 101(1), 273-303
  4. ^ van Breugel, Seino. 2014. A grammar of Atong. Leiden, Boston: Brill. [1]
  5. ^ a b c van Breugel, Seino. 2009b. Atong–English dictionary. Tura: Tura Book Room.
  6. ^ van Breugel, Seino. 2009c. Atong morot balgaba golpho. Tura: Tura Book Room.
  7. ^ "Transliteration Tool". Ashtanga Yoga. AYI. Retrieved October 2, 2016. 

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