Zou: The Language “Of the Hills”

Article by Sweety Bayan

The Zo or Zou tribe is a group of Tibeto- Mongoloid people inhabited mainly in the Chin state and the Sagiang division of Myanmar and also in the Churachandpur and Chandel districts of Manipur, a North-Eastern state of India.

Zou clans speak more or less the same dialect or language and they are mutually intelligible. They have similar customs and traditions, as a whole, the tribal community has a common culture of its own. Zou language is the cognate or sister language of the Tiddim Chin, Paite, Gangte,Vaiphei, Simte, Sizang and Thadou-Kuki. Zou do not have a script of its own. It uses a Latin script and the meaning of certain words changes the use of a falling, rising, or even intonation.

David Bradley(1997) in his book; “Tibeto-Burman languages and classification” and Dr. Khoi Lam Thang in his thesis; “A Phonological Reconstruction of Proto Chin, M.A Thesis, Payap University Chiang Mai, Thailand, October 2001″ have classified Zou language under the Northern Chin group. The ancient element of Zou language can be found in its poetical language and forms, and most of these cognate groups of languages understand it very easily. Zous speak mostly in their dialect when they communicate among themselves. They are mostly multi-lingual. They speak in Meitei language or in Kuki language at public places, such as market, schools or at government offices. English along with Meitei are taught at schools and colleges.

Typologically, Zou is an SOV language: concatenative, partially agglutinating type with syntactic gender, number, case, aspect-tense and mood distinctions. It is a tonal language like other Kuki Chin languages. Zou is head-final and verb-final language with syntactic gender, number, case, aspect-tense and mood distinctions. It is a Head-initial language in NP where the noun occupies the head, and Specifier-initial in DP and, it is Head-final in other phrases (PP, VP, Adj.P).

Phonemic inventories of Vowels/Diphthongs:  

The vowels manifest length and tonal contrasts. There are short vowels and long vowels in Zo; a, e, i, o, u and a:, e:, i:, o:, u: (aa, ee, ii, aw, uu) respectively, altogether there are 10 vowels; 5 of each vowel manifest as short and long categories. The vowels occur in all positions.

A short diphthong /ou/ sound is represented by [o] diphthong as well conventionally, it manifests only short category as in example; /Zɔ/ which is also represented as /Zou/, or /Zow/. However, it is combined with other vowels to produce other diphthong sounds where [o] represents a short sound to take the place of [ɔ].

Phonemic inventories of Consonants/consonant phonemes:

The Zo main consonant system has 19 consonantal phonemes. The sub-system consonantal phonemes have 5 borrowed from others. The consonants are 7 (seven) types: voiced stops (b, d, g), voiceless aspirated stops (kh, ph, th), affricates ts, dz; fricatives (s, v); voiceless fricative [hl]; voiceless glottal fricative /h/ and the velar voiceless stop /k/. In general, the consonants occur all positions with some restrictions.

Zou/Zo is a monosyllabic, agglutinating, non-restricted tone language having two minimal tone pairs for most of its main verbs and adjectives. Philip Thanglienmang in his research article said that Zo tones produces 4 (four) underlying lexical tones in isolation, and can be categorized as Rising tone (H), Falling tone (L), Mid or Level tone (M) and a slightly Low tone that resembles the Falling tone, at certain times it seems both falls in one category only.

The Zou language seems not to differentiate between present and past tense since this language doesn’t mark present and past events with different markers. Thus it’s reasonable to declare that the Zou language has a different marking system for two tenses- nonfuture and future. Nonfuture or the real events are marked by the marker ‘zanɪ’, while the future events are marked by ‘ d̪iɳ ‘.

  • Examples are given below:
  • a) Simple Present Tense

                naupaɳ-      nu          ɪn         nataɳ       ə            du     hi

                child        FEM      AGEN   banana   PROA    like  AUX

               ‘ The girl like banana’

              b) Simple Past

                  zani              ɪn      ama-  pa         ə        kiɁmu    hi

               Yesterday   AGEN   3S   MAS   PROA   sleep   AUX

              ‘He slept yesterday’

In Zou, there are two negative markers-

1) siɁ

2) lou

/siɁ/ is normally used in imperative, optative, and conditional moods. /lou/ is normally used in obligatory, confirmatory, prohibitive and Jussive moods. Both can be used in conditional mood.

The history of the origin of the Zou community can be found in myths and legends. Some believe that the Zou and Paite are of the same origin but only got separated during the British Raj. An American Baptist Missionary, J.H. Cope, mentioned the pre-colonial history of the Chin Hills in a Church Journal, Tedim Thu Kizakna Lai. The journal provides factual data on the Zomis in Chin Hills before the advent of the Britishers. The Zous had a resentful struggle with the Kamhau-Suktes to get control over the hill tracts between Manipur (India) and Chin Hills (Burma). The written records of the Zou tribe were made available in India in the early 1950s with the emergence of a new generation of educated Zous. Therefore, the term Jou was used instead of Zou to refer to the present Zou tribe of Manipur, and the term has appeared in JougamThusuo1 in the year 1954 A.D. In 1956 the government of India recognized them as the schedule tribe of India with the spelling “Jou”. To make it similar to that of the Zo bretheren of Burma, the government of India changed the spelling from Jou to Zou, according to both oral and written records.

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