In Search of the origin of the names: Kuki-Chin

Kenneth VanBik

Department of Linguistics

University of California, Berkeley

1.         Introduction

This paper is an investigation of the origin of the two names Kuki and Chin which have been used as a cover term referring to many people and languages  in Manipur-Assam State (India), the Naga Hills (India),  Mizoram State (India), the Chittaguang Hills (Bangladesh), Chin State (Burma), Sagaing Division (Burma), and Magwe Division (Burma). The total population of the speakers of  Kuki-Chin languages is quite difficult to estimate as they are distributed too widely, but it is safe to say that there are well above a million speakers of these languages, as the whole Mizoram State of India and the Chin State of Burma are occupied primarily by Kuki-Chin speakers. The Kuki-Chin branch belongs to the Sino-Tibetan (Sinto-Tibeto-Burman) language family.


The term Kuki  first appeared in Rawlins (1787:187)  as "Cuci's, or Mountainers of Tipra". With the different spelling "Kukis", the name was perpetuated by British administrators such as Lt.-Colonel J. Shakespear (Shakespear 1912) and C.A.Soppit (1893) to indicate the migrants into Manipur State, Naga Hills, and the North Cachar Hills of India. They admitted themselves that the term was not recogized by the people themselves  (Shakespear 1912:2), but still used it as a cover term for all these people "who have so much in common, both in language, manners, customs, and system of internal government" (Soppit 1893:iv). According to Bareigts (1981:17),   "(Shendu) et Kuki sont des termes employes de facon plutot pejorative par les Bengali et les Assamais". Bareigts= hypothesis is possible as pejorative exonyms are not uncommon in this part of the world.  An Indian linguist, Shree Krishan (1980:2) argued that the term Kuki  "has its origin in their own (i.e. Thado) language". Krishan traced the word as thecombination of two syllable:  ku  from xul 'hole' and ki from kit 'again' or 'afterward'.  Therefore, Kuki means the people coming again from the hole, the story that these clans shared regarding their origin (Krishan 1980:3). However, Krishan's argument is not convincing. In compounding, these languages do not  normally lose their final consonants, as deleting these final consonants could make the meaning totally different. Assuming that ku comes from  xul  (which is doubtful), deleting final -l  in compounding would make  xul  'hole' into  xu, or ku  which would mean  'smoke'.

It appears that the best way to interpret Kuki  for now is to take what  Rawlins (1787) modified it with, i.e., "mountaineers" therefore "high landers" until we can trace the origin of the  word to counter-check Bareigts' source, i.e., the meaning of Kuki in the dialects of Bengali and Assamese.

1.2. Chin

The word "Chin" , the name which manily designates an ethnic identity in Burma, has been misinterpreted in many social contexts. Because its modern pronunciation is similar to that of the Burmese word >basket=, some people assume that the Chin people are so called because they are people who carry baskets.  There is a well known joke among the Chins themselves: There was a Chin who visited Rangoon. One morning, he was waiting a bus at the Kili-Lanmadaw bus stop. And he was very angry when the bus arrived, because the ticket vendor was shouting, "di chin ma tin ne" which literally means >do not bring on this chin=. And he shout back to the ticket vendor "ba le kwa! chin le lu be" >Hey! Chins are people too!=  But what he failed to notice was a scenerio where the ticket vendor  was trying to prevent a vegetable-merchant from  transporting his goods in a large >chin= in  that passenger bus.

To some it might sound strange that the above incident was a result of a sound change in Burmese language.  As will be shown later how that sound change took place in Burmese, the old Burmese initial khy-  and khr-  merged into ch- which is the modern form. As a result, the old Burmese words  khyang (as in tu-nge-khyang >friend=) and khrang >basket= have the same pronunciation in modern Burmese.

Many scholars have speculated on the origin of the term Chin.  According to Luce (1959:25), Chin  is the modern form of archaic Burmese khyang which is still found in the Arakanese dialect of  Burmese. Luce speculated that this word must mean "allies" or "comrade" as in tu-nge-khyang (Written Burmese form) which mean "friends" in modern Burmese. Therefore, "Chin" is an exonym applied by the Burmans to the Chins which has an origin in the term  ,  khyang,  meaning "allies" or "comrades" in Old Burmese. However, it is puzzling to think that the Burmans would want to call "allies" or "comrades" the Chin, who were a constant threat to the security of their (Burman) villages (cf. Vum Son 1986:20).  According to Woodman  (1962:381-421), the main reason that the British annexed Chin hills to Burma proper was because of the constant invasion and harassment of the British ruled Burman and Shan villages by the Chins.

According to Carey and Tucker (1896:3), the name  Chins  "is said to be a Burmese corruption of the Chinese >Jin=, or >Yen=, meaning >man=". This pattern of speculation is further pursued by native scholars such as Lian Sakhong (2000: 57ff) and H. Kamkhenthang (1988:3f). The speculation is that the word Chin is cognate to Chinese >Jin= or >Yen= which is no longer recognized by the Kuki-Chin people as their collective name in modern time. According to Prof. B. Kalgren, however, the Old Chinese form for >Jin= or >Yen= which could mean >man= is *nian (Karlgreen 1957:110, #388a-e).  Therefore, it is quite a stretch to speculate that the Kuki-Chin people would call themselves as Chin  at some point in their history.

It appears that the origin of the term actually lies in the language of the Asho Chin (aka Plains Chin) - the Chin group with which the Burmans first come into contact.  In Asho Chin, a person is called hklaung (Joorman 1906:12). Therefore, they called themselves, Asho hklaung 'Asho person'. This kind of naming is very common among the Kuki-Chin groups, as in  Lai-mi = Lai-person/people, Zo-mi = Zo person/people. When the Burmans met the Asho Chin, they (the Burmans) took the latter part of their  (Asho Chin) name as a designation them. But, the Burmese had already lost the kl- affricate.

Therefore, the closest  affricate that they can use was khy- , and as a consequence, the term Khyang appeared to designate any Chin group.  In fact, in old Pagan inscriptions (Luce 1959:25), the writer(s) attempted to write the names of these people as closely as possible to its Asho Chin pronunciation. Both spellings, khyang and khlang  are recorded for the same people.

Comparison between written Burmese (WB) and modern Burmese (MB) shows how khy- became ch-  in the history of Burmese (Benedict & Matisoff 1943, LTBA 3:1:iii-x). Wheatley (1982:18-19) also argued convincingly that the three phonetic shifts from WB to MB form a "drag chain" beginning with s  to  th (phonetically dental fricatve) .

1. s  >  th  2. c, ch  >   s 3.        ky, kr >    c khy,khr   >    ch

The claim of the author is that the term Chin originated in the Asho Chin language, i.e., The Asho Chin word khlang (or hklaung) was pronounced khyang by the Burmans, till the Burmese language changed its initial  khy-  to  ch-, dragging the name along with it.


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