The common language for the Zo people has been a debate for a long time. The difficulties for the Zo to have a common language resulted from the fact that the Zoram is divided into three countries Bangladesh, Burma, and India, and sub-divided into different states and districts. (For the purpose of this article: Zo covers the Asho, Chho, Khami (Mru), Lai, Zo, Mizo, and Zomi, i.e. all Zo people in Burma, Bangladesh, and India, Chin covers the people of the Chin State or the Zo people in Burma and Mizo covers the Zo people in Mizoram)
All of the Zo dialects belong to the Tibeto-Burman group of languages, and therefore the tone and grammar are similar. Because of their similarity in grammar and tone it is easy for a Zo to learn another Zo dialect and it takes one to two weeks for Zo people to be able to speak another dialect if they study hard enough.
Lai, is easily communicable in Haka, Thanthlang, Matupi, Falam, Lai (Mizoram) districts, Bawm areas in Bangladesh, and Baite areas in Cachar; Assam. There is such a similarity between Hmar and Lai that Hmar should be grouped together as Lai. Thus Lai speakers spread widely in the Zo country from the south to the north. Among Lai dialects there are many sub-groups like the Tashon, Laizo, Zanniat, Zahau, Ngawn, Khualsim, Lautu, Zo, Mara, Haka and more. Some of these dialects might differ to a certain extent but their similarities are so obvious that each of the dialect speakers speak at least one or two other dialects. After knowing a few or couple dialects it is not at all difficult to communicate.
Zopau, sometimes called Paite or Kamhau, is easily communicable in Tedim district, Lamka district, and other parts of Manipur, where Thado is spoken. The Thado had adopted the name Kuki and made attempts to make the Thado dialect the common dialect of all Zo or Kuki people. The Thado or other Zopau are not developed as the Lai or Duhlian because the Zopau has no "R" and the speakers of Zopau are handicapped to learn to say "R". When the people of Tedim district are tested by the Mizoram police whether they are from Mizoram or across the border they have to be able to say "Ar" correctly but many failed. So they requested "Kapu, Vok min ti tir rawh!"
Zopau dialects are mainly the Tedim, Teizang, Sihzang, and Thado but none of them differ so much so that there is no need even to term them as separate dialects.
Duhlian is spoken in the upper half or two thirds of Mizoram State but it is used widely as a common language in Mizoram. It is also used by the Hualngo in the Tedim and Falam districts, some parts of Tahan-Tuingo area, and Paletwa. There is a slight difference between Hualngo and Duhlian but basically they are one dialect.
Chho is communicable in the Mindat-Kanpetlet and parts of Matupi and Paletwa districts. Chho sub dialects are Dai, Muan, Zaungtu, Upu. The dialects are all similar and one or the other is communicable to all.
Chho, Lai, Zopau, Duhlian are thus closely related and if one or the other is not communicable, a Zo always speak another dialect to communicate with a far distant cousin. Should there be a strong desire for a common language each and every one of them could be easily learned in schools and it will be easily spoken by the people.
Among the Zo dialects Khami and Asho are a little more different from the other dialects and it will take longer for the Zo people to be able to adopt Asho and Khami.
Among the Lai, Duhlian, Chho, Asho, or Paite, the Duhlian dialect is the most developed dialect. There are Duhlian to Duhlian dictionaries and Duhlian and English-Mizo dictionaries. Many books have been written in the Duhlian dialect. According to Pu Keivom there is a book printed in the Duhlian dialect every two weeks. No other dialect can compete with the Duhlian literature in the Zo country. In the Universities and colleges in Mizoram, the Duhlian dialect is taught as one subject and students can graduate with a degree in Duhlian literature.
The Duhlian dialect has its own history. The Lushai Hills or the area of the present Mizoram was earlier the home of the Thado. Then other Zo people moved from the east and settled down speaking dialects different from each other. The Sailo clan who gradually dominated the chieftainship in the area during the late 1600s drove out a larger section of Thado to Cachar and north Manipur. When Lallula Sailo became Chief sometime in 1700s he demanded that the people under his chiefdom speak the same dialect. He was the most powerful chief in the area during the 1700s. Thus the Duhlian dialect was born. The name Duhlian originated by the fact that that Chief Lalulla demanded high taxation from his subjects so that the dialect he promoted became the Duhlian dialect, the dialect of the greedy. The Duhlian dialect was formed originally out of the vocabularies of Chho, Paite, Lai, and other Zo dialects. Duhlian is thus the melting pot of all Zo dialects. Unfortunately some uninformed people in Mizoram today claim the Duhlian as Mizo dialect and as their own dialect, that angered many speakers of other dialects.(Mizo tawng i hria em?). Mizo should cover all Zo people but some understand as the Duhlian speakers only.
The Duhlian dialect is understood in the whole of Mizoram, although the Mara, Lai, and Chakma speak their own dialects and languages. This means that 700,000 Zo people out of 2 million Zo people understand the Duhlian dialect. Not only the people in Mizoram, the Hualngo speak the Duhlian dialect. Because of the economic hardships under the military dictatorship in Burma, many people from the Chin State visited Mizoram and stayed long period of time some even for ten to twenty years and worked as laborers, teachers, and undertakers. Thus the Duhlian dialect is understood by atleast two hundred thousand people in the Chin State. The Zo people who reside in the Kalemyo-Tahan-Khampat area learned the Duhlian through Duhlian speakers, who settled down in this area after the second World War. Because they live close together with the Duhlian speakers almost all people in Lamka district speak the Duhlian dialect or tawng.
English as Zo common language
Many people from the Lai speakers including the Chin National Front suggest English to be the common language. The difficulty in making English the common language is the difference in the tone and grammar between the English and the Zo. It will take hundreds of years for the whole Zo population to be versed in the English language. However, the Zo people will have to learn English in the schools and colleges because it is world's unofficial common language. It will be proper to teach English to children in their younger age. Zo people need not use English in their family but one can venture to the world with English.
Another proposal is the teaching of a dialect to the students other than his or her own dialect. For example: teach the Chho students Lai dialect and the Zopau speakers the Duhlian. This might be a road that leads to a common language. The easiest would be to declare one dialect to be the common language. Debates in the internet among Zo people suggests some are reluctant to discuss the common language issue, reasoning that the issue could, if push at this time may create animosities among the different dialect groups. Those who are reluctant to discuss the common language issue seem that they are afraid that the choice might be not their dialect.
Meitei and Burman reaction to Zo common language
Chin or Zo nationalistic movement such as the common language will be seen by the neighbors like the Burman, and Meitei as an attempt to move away from the existing political arrangement. There will be all kinds of obstacles on the road to the Chin common language. In Manipur, the Gangte declared themselves as Mizo in 1998 which angered the Meitei but none of the Zo groups. The Meitei were angry because the division of Zo people benefited them, similar the Burman are afraid of the unity of the Chin by speaking only one dialect or a common language. Zo people are a part of Manipur and under Meitei domination because of the fragmentation of Zo people which is created by their lack of a common language. The fragmentation of people as such hinders Zo unification. They are divided into many sections to be ruled by the more populace Meitei.
The Burman also profited from the division of Zo people because many of them use the Burmese language in communication with each other. The Burman hope that one day the Chin people would use Burmese as the common language. That will be the completion of the Burmanization of the Zo people, which the governments in Rangoon had been working on in the last fifty years.
When Pu Son Kho Lian, the Chairman of the Chin Council in 1964 requested General Ne Win, the Burmese Dictator, to call the Chin State, the Zo State, Ne Win replied that the name is too similar to Mizo. Ne Win was afraid the possible linkage between Zo people in the East and the West and the possible movement for Zo unification. Ne Win refused the suggestion.
The Burmese generally and especially the Burmese military see the future of Burma, all citizens worshipping Buddhism and all speaking the Burmese language. The military dictatorship's aim and object is therefore the Burmanization of the non-Burman nationalities such as the Zomi/Chin or Kachin etc. and the aim at the conversion of all Christians and Muslims to Buddhism. Because the drive for a common language could slow down the Burmanization of the Chin, the military government could take actions that discourage such a push. In the past, during parliamentary democracy the Chin Council could not push such a move as common language for the Chin because the Chin Council had no money for any such projects and had to beg from the central government of Burma. Since independence the Burman under the influence of Burmese philosopher Thakin Kodaw Maing are pushing for Burmanization. The Chin Affairs Minister could loose his position should he stood for Chin nationalism. Under the military regimes a move for the Chin common language could be termed by the regime as the road towards "the deterioration of the union" as if that would separate the Burman from the Chin people. The Burmese military would accuse the Chin of destabilizing the unity.
The use of brute force to make the Chin to become Burman and to convert Chin Christians to Buddhism under the military regimes make the rhetoric of common language a dangerous political move for the individual or for the people as a whole. Such a move could bring immense hardship at the hands of the brutal military regime. Such a move would be suppressed by the military governments because it will slow down the Burmanization of the Chin by the military thugs in Burma.
There will be protests concerning this paper from sections of the Zo people especially from the Lai and Zopau speakers because they have the ambition to make their own as the common language of the Zo people. Even this statement will be protested by many Chin individuals because of the use of Zo instead of Chin. Chin is popular in the Chin State. Mizo and Zomi, which mean Zo people is popular in the northern most Chin State, Manipur, and in Mizoram. Some even suggested (for example Rev. Chum Awi) that the name Zomi fragmented the Zo society, where as some believe that that is the only name acceptable. The name Chin came from the name that the Chinese, Shan, and Kachin called the Zo people "Chiang or Khang". In Burmese inscriptions of the Pagan period it was written as Khlang and Chian but in later inscriptions it was written as Chin. The name Chin originated from the Chinese Chiang and modified into Chin by the Burmese and adopted the name Chin by the British. Today Arakanese still call the Zo people Khyiang. When the British first came to Burma they wrote the name of the Zo people as Kyan or Jo but later adopted "Chin". Thus "Chin" became the name of the Zo people in Burma. Some Zo people are comfortable with the name "Chin" especially the Lai speakers but some are not - Duhlian and Zopau speakers, who prefer Zomi or Mizo, which has exactly the same meaning as "Zo people".
If the Zo in Burma boldly declare today any one of Duhlian, Lai, or Zopau dialect as their common language it seems possible that it will really become the common language. Such a move is necessary, if the Chin do not want to disappear completely as a national race in Burma. Without it the Chin will never have a common language and eventually Burmese will become the Chin common language, because Burmese is a Tibeto-Burman language and is easily learned by the Chin. Even today there are Chin who speak only Burmese and no dialects of Chin. A struggle against such odds as the military regime and powerful section of the Chin people is a real challenge. It is like David challenging Goliath. This kind of movement should be used as a tool for the struggle for democracy. The Chin can gain the support of the democratic minded Burman to their side.
How can we declare one dialect or another as our common language? I believe that for the Chin State, there are various organization such as the Chin National Front, the Chin National Council, the Chin Freedom Coalition, the Indo-Burma- Bangladesh Frontier Indigenous People's Organization, the Zo Reunification Organization, the Zomi Revolutionary Organization, Zomi National Council, the Zomi Baptist Convention, etc, and if all these organizations should agree to something then we can just declare what we all want and start implementing it.
The internet postings clearly suggest that unless their own dialect is not going to be the common language, nobody is ready to accept another dialect than his or her own. The Chin have to take risks unless nothing is going to happen. The Chin even have an armed resistance movement, and what is more dangerous than armed resistance against the military dictatorship or a simple declaration of a common language.
Because every one is selfish to make his or her dialect the common language, it will be best to put this matter in the hands of the village, community, township, or district council. Each council will decide which other dialect they prefer to teach in their schools in addition to their own dialect for the common language. Then they will start teaching a dialect in the schools of a village, community, township, or district, the dialect that the people of the village, community, township, or district prefer to be the common language. This way there will be no competition for the common language and in the end a common language will come to the surface.
Courtesy: Zalenpar, Chin National League For Democracy (Exile), November 1999, Pp. 108 - 113