Honorificity and Classifier in Assamese


Assamese is the easternmost new Indo-Aryan language mostly spoken in the Brahmaputra valley of Assam, and also in the other north-eastern states of India to some extent. It is creolised in Nagaland. In Assam, it shares a long areal contact with languages from various families like Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic. This paper investigates the role of honorificity in Assamese, with a special emphasis on its genitive and classifier constructions.

Honorificity is commonly expressed in Assamese through personal pronouns and verb agreement for honorific subjects. Its role in classifiers and pronominal affixes in genitive construction needs special mention. For these phenomena are often regarded as unique features of Assamese owing to non-Aryan influences especially from Tibeto-Burman languages of Bodo-Garo group in Assam. However, unlike Assamese, the role of honorificity is not found in these languages in classifiers and personal pronominal affixes. So there is a scope to study this phenomenon in a typological perspective.

Thus, the significance of the study lies in highlighting an important aspect of Assamese grammar which reflects the language contact situation of Assamese.

Keywords: Assamese, Bodo, Honorificity, Classifier, Language Contact

The Indo-Aryan language Assamese, with geographical position in the centre of Northeast India, known as the hub of Tibeto-Burman speakers, apart from other language families like Tai-Kadai and Austro-Asiatic present a unique scope for a study on language contact. Among the contact induced changes in Assamese, the presence of a rich classifier system and personal affixes in the genitive construction are regarded as unique morphological features in Assamese by various scholars such as Kakati (1972), Goswami and Tamuli (2003).  This paper investigates the role of honorificity, which is a genetic feature of Assamese, in classifier and genitive constructions of Assamese. Further, to examine the phenomena in an areal typological light, a comparison with that in Bodo, a Tibeto-Burman language of Assam that shows areal contact with Assamese has been provided. As classifiers and personal affixes are genetic features in Tibeto-Burman languages, especially of the Bodo-Garo group in Assam, it is interesting to compare Assamese and Bodo in this regard.

Language Background

Assamese is spoken mainly in Assam, and also some neighboring states like Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. It is creolized in Nagaland. Simon et al. (2017), in Ethnologue, reports 12,800,000 speakers of Assamese based on Census of India 2001 report. Bodo is spoken in almost all the districts of Assam. The western Bodo variety spoken in Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon and Dhubri is regarded as standard. There are 1,540,000 speakers of Bodo in India in the year 2007 (Lewis et al 2009). Among the Tibeto-Burman languages of Assam it is the most developed one in terms of it is recognition as one of the scheduled languages in the 8th schedule of the constitution of India and also with regards to language documentation on the language. Most Bodo speakers are fluent bi-linguals in Assamese as the latter is a lingua franca among the various linguistic communities of Assam in the Brahmaputra valley. Figure 1 and Figure 2 present the genetic classifications of Assamese and Bodo respectively based on Simon et al. (2017).


                        Indo Iranian

                                    Indo Aryan

                                                Outer languages

                                                            Eastern Zone



Figure 1: Classification of Assamese (Simon et al 2017).

Sino- Tibetan






Figure 2: Classification of Bodo based on Simon et al (2017)

Scope and methodology

This paper is based in the standard variety of the language, based on the one spoken in Sivasagar district as highlighted in the map. The variety spoken there is regarded as the benchmark of the standard variety found in both spoken and written form. However, standard colloquial Assamese is also spread till the Marigaon district in the middle Assam. The variety spoken in the BTAD district of Kokrajhar in Assam is regarded as the standard Bodo variety, although the speakers are spread in other districts too. Hence the standard varieties of both the languages have ben collected for the sake of consistency. The Assamese data is obtained from the native speakers from various parts of the Sivasagar district through direct elicitation and participant observation. Similarly, Bodo data has been collected from the fieldwork in the standard variety of the language in Kokrajhar district of Assam in the form of narratives and elicitation. The scope of the paper is limited to Assam and the standard varieties of the two languages specified.

Honorificity in Assamese

Honorificity is commonly found in Indo-Aryan languages in the form of verb agreement, and personal pronouns. In Assamese personal pronouns show a three-way distinction, viz. neutral, informal, and formal based on the semantic sense of honorificity; and verbs show subject agreement to them. Table 1 presents the personal pronouns of Assamese with honorificity distinctions.

First person  SingularPlural  
Second persontumitɔiapunitomaloktɔ̃hɔ̃taponalok    
Third person  ma s c u l i n e    tɛ̃o        ћi      tɛkʰɛt      tɛ̃olok      ћihɔ̃t      tɛkʰɛtћɔkɔl                    
  f emi n i n e  tɛ̃o    tai  tɛkʰɛt    tɛ̃olok    ћihɔ̃t    tɛkʰɛtћɔkɔl  
Table 1: Personal pronouns in Assamese

As evident from the table, the pronouns show neutral, informal, formal distinctions in the unmarked singular form and corresponding plural forms. The plural markers -lok,-hɔ̃t, and-ћɔkɔlare used only with human referents for neutral, informal, and formal distinctions respectively. However, as verbs do not inflect for number in Assamese, the subject agreement in honorificity is same in both singular and plural; as illustrated in examples (1)-(3).

(1)        tumi/ tomalok     ãh-a                  (Neutral)

        2SG/2PL            come-IMP.2P

        ‘You come.’

(2)    tɔi/tɔ̃hɔ̃t            ah-ø                  (Informal)

        2SG/2PL            come-IMP.2P

        ‘You come.’

(3)    apuni/aponalok   ah-ɔk                 (Formal)

        2SG/2PL            come-IMP.2P

        ‘You come.’

In the imperative sentences in (1-3), the verbs show different subject agreements for honorificity in the second person. Such agreements are also found in declarative sentences such as (4-7) for second and third persons.

(4)        tumi          bʰat   kʰa-l-a                       (Neutral)

        2SG          rice   eat-PAST.2P

        ‘You ate rice.’

(5)        tɔi       bʰat   kʰa-l-i                               (Informal)

        2SG  rice   eat-PAST-2P

        ‘You ate rice.’

(6)    apuni-o      bʰat   kʰa-l-ɛ                       (Formal)

        2SG-INCL rice   eat-PAST-2P

        ‘You ate rice.’

(7)    kintu         ћi/tai/tɛ̃o / tɛkʰɛt                  etija-hɛ      kʰa-bɔ      

            but                   3SGM/3SGFF/3SG/3SG        now-EXCL     eat-INF

            boh-i-s-ɛ                                    (Neutral/Informal/Formal)


            ‘But she has just started to eat now.’

However, as reflected in (7), third person has the same agreement form -ɛ for all the honorific and non-honorific personal pronouns; and this form is syncretic with second person formal agreement marker -ɛ as shown in (6).

Honorificity and Personal suffixes

In the genitive construction of Assamese, the possessed head noun is cross-referenced for the person of the possessor noun. These personal suffixes occur when the possessed and head noun is a kinship term. They are discussed as deictic markers in Goswami and Tamuli (2003) and are regarded as a unique feature of Assamese influenced by non-IA languages. Examples (8-10) show this phenomenon of Assamese for various persons. Honorificity plays a role here since the person suffixes show various degrees of honorificity.

(8)        tomar                           deutara                                    (Neutral)

[tumi-ar                       deuta-ra]

            2sg-gen                       father-2sg

            ‘Your father’

(9)        aponar                         deutak                         (Formal)

[apuni-ar                      deuta-k]

            2sg.hon-gen               father-2sg.hon

            ‘your father’

(10)      tor                    deuta-r                                     (Informal)

            [toi-ar              deuta-r]

            2sg.Inf-gen    father-gen

            ‘your    father’

Thus, -ra, -k, and -r are personal affixes found for neutral, formal, and informal forms of the second person pronoun.  In the third person -k refers to all the three as exemplified in (11-13).         

(11)      tɛ̃o-r                 deuta-k                                                (Neutral)

            3sg-gen          father-3sg                   

            ‘His/her father’           

(12)      ta-r                   /tai-r                 deuta-k                        (Informal)

            3sg.mas-gen/3sg.FEM-gen   father-3sg                   

            ‘His/her father’           

(13)      tɛkʰɛt-ɔr           deuta-k                                                (Formal)         

            3sg.mas-gen  father-3sg                   

            ‘His/her father’

Tibeto-Burman languages commonly show personal affixes. Among the Bodo-Garo languages in Assam, as Bodo shows a two way honorific distinction in second person pronoun, this phenomenon in Assamese may be compared with Bodo. However, examples (14-15) show that unlike Assamese, the honorificity distinction is not realised in the personal prefix in Bodo.

(14)      nɰŋ-ni nɰ.pʰ   a          pʰɰi-dɰŋmɰn                        (Neutral)

            2SG-GEN       2SG.father      come-PAST

            ‘Your father came.’

(15)      nɰŋtʰaŋ-ni                   nɰ.pʰa pʰɰi-dɰŋmɰn            (Formal)

            2SG -GEN      2SG.father      come-PAST

            ‘Your father came’

In (14) the neutral /nɰŋ/ ‘you’ and in (15) the formal /nɰŋtʰaŋ/ ‘you’ have the same personal prefix nɰ- in the possessed noun. Apart from nɰ-, Bodo has a- and bi- as personal prefixes for first and third person referents respectively, but without honorificity distinctions. It is exemplified in (16-17).

(16)      aŋ-ni                a.pʰa                pʰɰi-dɰŋmɰn

            1SG-GEN       1SG.father      come-PAST

            ‘My father came’

(17)      bi-ni                             bi.pʰa               pʰɰi-dɰŋmɰn

            3SG -GEN      3SG.father      come-PAST

            ‘His/her father came’

As the honorificity distinctions are absent for the first and second person pronouns they have one personal prefix each in (16) and (17) respectively. It is to be noted that both in Assamese and Bodo, these personal affixes are optional.

            It is hard to determine from which non-IA language has influenced Assamese with regards to this phenomenon, but it is certain that in Assamese personal suffixes retain its honorificity degrees of the second person pronoun in the domain of kinship terms.

Honorificity and numeral classifiers

Assamese has a rich set of numeral classifiers which may be broadly divided into animate and non-animate. In the animate type, the human classifiers show honorificity distinctions. In fact, Assamese has a dedicated honorific classifier which may refer to men and women, viz. -ɡɔraki. It also has an honorific classifier, viz. -zɔna for higher humans such as saints and gods and goddesses.

            The honorific classifiers in Assamese are -ɡɔraki and -zɔna which may be used for both the sexes as exemplified in (18) and (19).

(18)      tini- ɡɔraki                               mohila/ lok

            three-CLF:HON                     woman/ person

            ‘Three women/persons’

(19)      ɛ.zɔna                          ɡõћai-r             protima

            one.CLF:HON                        god-GEN        altar

            ‘An altar of god’

The human male classifier -zɔn also indicates formality.

(20)      du- zɔn                                    manuh

            two-CLF:male             man

            ‘Two men’

They may be contrasted with non-honorific classifiers -zɔni and -ta, referring to male and female respectively, as exemplified in (21) and (22).

(21)      du- zɔni                       sowali

            two-CLF:female         girl

            ‘Two girls’

(22)      du-ta                            lora

            two-CLF:female         boy

            ‘Two boys’

The honorificity is determined by various socio-linguistic factors like social status, age, and context of situation and emotion.

            In an informal situation certain non-honorific classifiers may be sanctioned for the same referent, such as –ta vs. -zɔn for men. The former may also replace the latter when used in a sense of annoyance.

            Social status of the referent determines the choice of honorific classifiers too. A professional is usually referred to by the honorific classifier, such as ɛ-ɡɔrakilikʰɔk ‘One writer’.

            Age of the referent also calls for the honorific often. An old man or woman is usually referred to by the honorific classifier. Also, the elder sibling may often be referred to by the honorific and the younger one by the non-honorific classifier, such as, tini-ta bʰaiti ‘three younger brothers’ vs. tini-zɔn dada ‘three elder brothers’.

            Honorific classifiers are also found in various SEA languages such as Tai. It is absent in the BG languages which show a close similarity in terms of classifiers with Assamese. This might be a Tai influence in Assamese, (but the importance of honorificity as a genetic feature might also play a role here).

            Thus, honorificity is expressed by not only the typological means of verb agreement and different personal pronouns in Assamese; but also finds its place in its contact induced features of numeral classifier and personal suffixes in kinship terms.

1PFirst PersonINCLInclusive
2PSecond PersonINFInfinitive
3P  Third Person  NFNon-finite
CLF  Classifier  PROGProgressive
COPCopula  PSTPast


  • Goswami, G.C and Tamuli, J. Asamiya. In Cardona, G & Jain, D (eds.). (2003). The Indo-Aryan Languages: vol. 2, Routledge Language Family Series, London and New York: Routledge
  • Kakati, B.K. (1941). Assamese its formation and Development. Guwahati: Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies.
  • Lewis, M. Paul (ed.), 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International.
  • Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com/ (Last accessed on 9 March, 2012)


Assamese, Bodo, Grammar, Language, North-East Linguistics, Sociolinguistics