Brahmaputra   studies



Introduction - The Project among the Sherdukpens - How to write Sherdukpen ? - Sherdukpen society, a brief description - Sherdukpens and their neighbours - The road to the North, Tawang, Tibet and Bhutan - The road to the south, to Kachari country and Assam - Rupa, a fascinating history Language.

(updated 28th June 2012)



The Sherdukpen language is spoken by the Sherdukpens of Rupa 'province' (Tukpen) and of Shergaon village; it is also spoken, though in a different way, by the people of the Khoina-But-Rahung valley, to the north (see the map further down), although these people are often regarded as 'Monpas'.

A large trap for fish at Jigaon-Shergaon 'border'

Given its lexicon and some features of its grammar, the language belongs to the very large Tibeto-Burman group. The group numbers more than 300 different languages, and was called 'Tibeto-Burman' (or Tibeto-Burmese) by earlier scholars because Tibetan and Burmese were the most well-known languages in the group and among the earliest to be the subject of in-depth research. Most Tibeto-Burman languages are rarely written, if at all, and this is also the case with Sherdukpen. It seems likely that, at least for some parts of the vocabulary, Tibeto-Burman languages from a distant past sounded much like the older forms of Chinese languages; this is the reason why linguists sometimes speak of a 'Sino-Tibetan' group of languages.

One sometimes reads about the 'Mongoloid' populations of the olden days. 'Mongoloid' is an old-fashioned term (not very reliable as far as modern science is concerned) for a number of physical or bodily features, which have never had anything to do with language. Consequently, it is nonsense to talk of 'Mongoloid languages'. In fact, the Mongol language of Mongolia has nothing to do with Tibeto-Burman languages.

A sketch: where Sherdukpen is spoken, with the neighbouring languages
The black dots indicate villages where Sherdukpen is spoken.
They can be grouped into two distinct sets: one is south of Bomdi La (Pass): Sherdukpen proper, the other is north of Bomdi La: Rahung, But, Khoina.

Sherdukpen belongs to this rather large class of Tibeto-Burman languages that compound syllables to make a word in contradistinction to languages such as Chinese where (ideally) each syllable is an independent word. Sherdukpen nouns and verbs tend to add a syllable to the end of each unit, but less so at the beginning:

war gi thük-ko dzao-ba      'they live in the village'

Here –ko and –ba are suffixes, the first to a noun, the second to a verb. They are suffixes, not independent words because they may slightly change according to the word to which they are appended. For instance, 'in the house' is yam-go, not *yam-ko. The particle gi is not affected in the same way, it is not a suffix. This particle gi is very common and indicates what the speech is about, which is often the subject of the sentence, for instance in:

gu gi anu khao be'e      'I am not the elder sister'

In this case, gi is important because gu anu khao would mean 'my elder sister': the presence of gi clarifies the situation.

One interesting exception to this tendency to suffixation is the negation. When a verb has to be in the negative, a prefix is added:

wa gi be-khe'-pa      'he does not cry'

The sentence wa gi khe'-pa means 'he cries'; it is easy to see that the negation be- comes just before the verb. Since it may change its form depending on the verb that follows, it is also a prefix, not an independent word. Another prefixed negation is the negative imperative:

de-khe'      'don't cry'

Personal pronouns do not actually parallel each other in the singular and in the plural. In Rupa, the normal set is:

gu I nang you wa he/she
gawenayou pluralwarthey

In Shergaon, people do not use wa, but ya instead.

In order to illustrate the difference between standard Sherdukpen in Rupa and Rahung speech, one can use the names for the first numbers:










uŋ > ũŋ



bisi > psi












sardza, sarge






sa han

sã lo hen


si nyit

sã lo nik

There is no significant difference, because in Rupa there is also some variation: for example, many words ending in –t may be heard with a –k instead. The most noticeable difference between the two lists concerns the number '6'.

Due to the rather widespread idea that Sherdukpen ancestors 'came from' the North, and made a stay in places that are now Rahung and Khoina, the dialect of these villages is sometimes described as archaic. Actually, nothing corroborates this idea. The manner of speaking in Khoina or Rahung is not 'more archaic' than speech in Rupa.



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