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)[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.

No current estimate of the number of speakers is 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 subtribe 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.

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.

Table 1. The relationship between the phonemes of Atong and the way they are written in the orthography
Phoneme Letter Phoneme Letter Phoneme Letter
ph m m i i
th n n e e
kh ŋ ng a a
p p r r o o
t t l l u u
k k sʰ ~ s s ə y
b b ch ii
d d j ee
ɡ g h h oo
w w j i aa
ʔ • or '

As we can see in Table 1, the consonant phoneme /sʰ ~ s/ has an aspirated and non-aspirated pronunciation. The aspirated allophone [sʰ] occurs at the beginning of a syllable, while the unaspirated [s] occurs syllable finally. Both phonemes are written with the letter 〈s〉. Aspirated /s/ is by no means uncommon in Asian languages; Burmese and Korean are examples.


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 syllablese are indicated by a following raised dot. The poronunciation 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 Table 2 below. Although long vowels are only found in loans, not all loans 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 tīn ‘three’, which does contain a long vowel.

Table 2 Minimal and near-minimal pairs of words with and without long vowels

With "normal" vowels With long vowels
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'
ri•gol 'penis' (as swearword) gool sa•ak 'got a gool' (in football)

No diphthongs[edit]

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. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "A'tong". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  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. ^ van Breugel, Seino. 2009b. Atong–English dictionary. Tura: Tura Book Room.
  6. ^ van Breugel, Seino. 2009c. Atong morot balgaba golpho. Tura: Tura Book Room.

External links[edit]