An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Alternative Name: Asamiya, meaning 'relating or belonging to Assam'. Assam is a relatively recent name, the ancient name of the region was Kāmarūpa.

Classification: Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, Modern Indo-Aryan, Eastern. Assamese is closely related to Bengali and Oriya.

Overview. Assamese developed in the fringes of Indian civilization as a border language in an area where converged several linguistic families. It experienced drastic sound changes and its morphology was reduced to a minimum. This simplification is probably due to the fact that Assamese was, and still is, employed as a communication tool among non Indo-Aryan speakers.

Distribution and Speakers: Assamese is spoken in northeastern India by around 15.3 million people. The vast majority of speakers (99%) live in the state of Assam (in the Brahmaputra valley districts), and few in the neighboring states of Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. There are, also, Assamese speakers in Bhutan (more than 100,000) and in Bangladesh (10,000).

    Only 50% of the total population of Assam speaks Assamese. The rest speaks other Indo-Aryan languages (Bengali 27.5%, Hindi 5.9%, Nepali 2.1%, Oriya 0.9%), Tibeto-Burmese languages (Bodo 4.9%, Mishing 2%, Karbi 1.8%) and Santali, a Munda language, (0.9%).

Status. Assamese is the official language of the northeastern Indian state of Assam. In an area of great linguistic diversity, it is frequently used as a lingua franca (in Assam and in the border states).

Varieties. Assamese has three dialect groups: Eastern (districts of Sivasagar and Lakhimpur), Central (Morigaon district) and Western in a large area to the west of Guwahati (the biggest city of Assam). The Western group has a number of regional variations. Eastern and Western Assamese differ in intonation, morphology and vocabulary, and mutual intelligibility is difficult.

Oldest Documents. Assamese inscriptions are late and the earliest extant documents are literary compositions:

13th c. Prahlada Carita ('Life of Prahlada') by Hema Saraswati. The "biography" of a good-natured demonic being, very unlike his evil father.

late 13th c. Bavruvahana Yuddha ('The fight of Bavruvahana') by Harivara Vipra. A poem, in 600 couplets, telling the fight between the epic hero Arjuna and his unrecognized son Bavruvahana who kills him though he is later restored to life.

late 14th c. Ramayana by Kaviraja Madhava Kandali. A translation into the vernacular of the famous Sanskrit epic.


Vowels (8). Some oral vowels have nasal counterparts. In Assamese, like in the other Eastern Indo-Aryan languages (Bengali, Oriya), short and long vowels, typical of Indo-Aryan, have coalesced and their distinction is no longer phonemic. The high  back rounded vowel [ʊ] is unique among Eastern Indo-Aryan languages; it is slightly lower and more centralized than [u].


Besides the monophthongs listed above, Assamese has up to 10 diphthongs.

Consonants (23). The retroflex stops present in the majority of Indo-Aryan languages have completely disappeared in Assamese. They merged with the alveolar series. Likewise, the voiceless  palatal affricates [tʃ] and [tʃʰ] merged into alveolar [s] while the voiced palatal affricates [dʒ] and [dʒʰ] merged into [z]. On the other hand, the three sibilants of Sanskrit merged into a voiceless velar fricative which is not found in other Indo-Aryan languages [x].


In Western Assamese all oral consonants are palatalized before [i]/[ɛ] and before [j] in clusters.

Script and Orthography

Assamese uses the Bengali script, a descendant of Brāhmī. It is an abugida alphabet composed of 48 letters, in which every consonant carries the inherent vowel [ɔ].

Its principles are similar to those of the Devanāgarī script (see Hindi). Except for two characters (r, w), the Assamese script is identical to that of Bengali.

  1. the Assamese script has signs for short and long vowels (ā, ī, ū) but they are all pronounced short.

  1. the syllabic vowel [ri] is present only in Sanskrit loanwords.

  1. in the original script nasalization is marked by a dot or candrabindu (a dot inside the lower half of a circle) above the vowel while in transliteration is indicated by a tilde above the vowel.

  1. the aspirated stops are rendered as digraphs ([pʰ] = ph, [dʰ] = dh, etc).

  1. for historical reasons the fricative [s] is represented c/ch.

  1. the Assamese  script has three signs for sibilants (ś, ṣ, s) but they are all pronounced like the velar fricative [x].

  1. the nasal [ŋ] is rendered ng.


  1. Nominal

  2. gender: is usually not marked but it can be indicated by adding a qualifying word after the noun (like 'male' or 'female'), by using different nouns for male or female, or by adding feminine suffixes (-i, -ni, -ani, -uni) to a masculine noun.

  1. number: singular, plural.

  2. Nouns qualified by quantifiers (like ‘many, several’ or numerals) are not marked for number. Otherwise, human nouns are pluralized with the suffix -bʊr, and non-human ones with -bilak. A different suffix, hɔ̃t, is used for members of a class, group or profession, relatives, names, and some pronouns.

  1. bɔhut manuh (‘many man’ = men)

  2. manuh-bʊr (‘men’)

  3. sɔrai-bilak (‘birds’)

  4. kʊmar-hɔ̃t (‘potters’)

  5. deuta-hɔ̃t (‘fathers’)

  1. definiteness: Assamese doesn’t have a definite article but it indicates definiteness with enclitic morphemes suffixed to nominals which differentiate between animate-inanimate, and male-female. Besides, they may indicate dimension, size, and degree of respect. For example:

  1. -zan: is used for respected human males.

  2. -zani: is used for females, human and non-human, and denotes a lack of respect.

  3. -garaki: denotes respect and is applied to male and female humans.

  4. -to: is used for male animals and inanimates.

  5. -ti: is applied in the same way as -to, but to denote a diminutive or endearing term.

  6. -ta: is used after numerals (is impolite if applied to humans).

  7. -khan: is applied to things of a definite dimension.

  8. -khani: is used in the same way as -khan, but to denote a diminutive or endearing term.

  1. case: nominative, accusative, instrumental, dative, genitive, locative.

  2. The nominative case marks the subject, with the suffixes -e or -i, when the verb is transitive, but the subject is not marked when the verb is intransitive.

  3. The accusative case marks animate objects  with -(ɔ)k; inanimate objects are not marked.

  4. The instrumental is marked by -(e)re, except when it denotes a medium, then the suffix is -edi, e.g. khirkiedi ('through the window').

  5. The dative marks the indirect object and the object of verbs of motion with the suffix -(ɔ)loi.

  6. The genitive is marked by -(ɔ)r.

  7. The locative case is marked with -(ɔ)t.

  8. For example, the declension of manuh (‘man, human being’) is as follows:

  1. nominative: manuhe

  2. accusative: manuhɔk

  3. instrumental: manuhere

  4. dativo: manuhɔloi

  5. genitivo: manuhɔr

  6. locativo: manuhɔt

  1. The case suffixes are the rightmost elements of nominal forms, i.e. they are placed after plural and definiteness markers if there are any. Adjectives used attributively are not inflected for case.

  1. pronouns: personal, demonstrative, interrogative, relative and indefinite. Pronouns inflect for case like nouns.

  1. Personal pronouns are genderless, except the third person, but distinguish three degrees of status in the second person, and proximal and distal location in the third person. The reflexive pronoun is nize (‘self’).

  1. Demonstrative pronouns mark two deictic degrees: eitʊ (‘this’) and xeitʊ (‘that’). Plurals distinguish between human and non-human: eibʊr (‘these’, human), bephʊr (‘these’, non-human), xeibʊr (‘those’,  human), bʊiphʊr (‘those’, non-human).

  1. The interrogative pronouns are: kʊn (‘who?’), ki (‘what?’), kʊntʊ (‘which?’).

  1. The indefinite pronouns are: kʊnʊba (‘somebody, someone’) and kʊnʊ (‘nobody, anybody’) for humans; kiba (‘something’) and ekʊ (‘nothing’) for non-humans.

  1. The relative pronouns are: zi for humans and zih for non-humans.

  1. Verbal. A conjugated verb form includes: root + aspect marker + tense marker + personal endings (in that order).

  1. person and number: 1st, 2nd inferior, 2nd familiar, 2nd honorific, 3rd.

  2. Personal endings distinguish three status degrees for the second person, but they do not distinguish between singular and plural; if needed a suffix (-hɔ̃k) is added to mark the plural. The ending for the 2nd person honorific and 3rd person are the same in all tenses.

  1. aspect: imperfective (including habitual and continuous actions) and perfective (completed activities). The habitual aspect is unmarked. Continuous or progressive aspect is marked by the suffix -i. Perfective aspect is marked by -is.

  1. mood: indicative, imperative. The non-polite imperative is identical to the non-inflected stem.

  1. tense: present indefinite or habitual, present continuous, present perfect, simple past, past continuous, past perfect, future, future continuous, contrafactive (conditional).

  1. The present tense has no tense marker. The past tense is marked by the affix -(i)l. The future tense is marked by -(i)m for the 1st person, and by -(i)b for the 2nd-3rd persons.

  1. black: verb root

  2. red: tense markers

  3. blue: personal endings

  1. The perfect tenses are formed by adding  the perfective marker to the present and past tenses. The continuous tenses are compound, combining the main verb (marked for aspect) and the copula (expressing person). For example, the 1st person of kɔ (‘say’) is as follows:

  1. present indefinite: kɔʊ̃

  2. present continuous: kɔi asʊ̃

  3. present perfect: kɔisʊ̃

  1. past indefinite: kɔlʊ̃

  2. past continuous: kɔi asilʊ̃

  3. past perfect: kɔisilʊ̃

  1. future indefinite: kɔm

  2. future continuous: kɔi thakim

  1. black: verb root; brown: aspect marker; red: tense marker; blue: personal ending.

  1. voice: active, passive.

  1. non-finite forms: infinitive, conjunctive participle, imperfective participle, perfective participle, conditional participle.

  2. The infinitive, ending in -(i)ba, can function as a nominal and it also participates in constructions with modal verbs.

  3. The conjunctive participle or gerund ends in -i and signals that an action precedes another one e.g. thak-i = having kept. It is invariable.

  4. The imperfective (or present) participle, ending in -õte, expresses that an action is  simultaneous with another one e.g. kha-õte = while eating.

  5. The perfective (or past) participle ends in ā and derives from Old Indo-Aryan -(i)ta. It is mainly adjectival.

  6. A conditional participle is made by suffixing (i)le to the stem e.g. Rame ga-ile (‘if Ram sings’).

  1. derivative conjugation: causative. The causative conveys the idea of 'to cause to', 'to make to' and is marked by the affixes -a, -ija or -ʊwa.


Word order in Assamese is usually Subject-Object-Verb. It is a head-final language i.e. noun modifiers precede their noun, objects precede verbs, and it uses postpositions.


Assamese occupies an area where several different language families converge, namely Indo-Aryan, Tibeto-Burmese, Dravidian and Austronesian. Its lexicon has been greatly influenced by them. Also, during the Mughal period, Arabic and Persian words entered the language. Later, English and other European languages became the main source of loans.

Basic Vocabulary

As the Assamese script doesn’t represent accurately the sounds of the language, a phonetic transcription into the International Phonetic Alphabet is is included between brackets.

one: ek [ek]

two: dui [dui]

three: tini [tini]

four: cāri [sari]

five: pā̃c [pãs]

six: chay [sɔy]

seven: sāt [xat]

eight: āṭh [atʰ]

nine: na [nɔ]

ten: dah [dɔh]

hundred: sha [xɔ]

father: pitā [pita], deutā [deuta]

mother: mā [ma]

brother: bhai [bʰai] bhayāi [bʰɔyai], bhātri [bʰatri], bhrātri [bʰratri]

elder sister: bāi [bai]

younger sister: bhanī  [bʰoni]

son: putek, put, putra [putrɔ]

daughter: kanyā [kɔnya], putrī [putri]

head: śir [xir]

face: mukh [mukʰ]

eye: ā̃khi [ãkʰi]

hand: hasta [hɔstɔ], hāt [hat]

foot: pad  [pɔd], pāo [pao]

heart: hiyā [hiya],

tongue: jibhā [xibʰa]

Key Literary Works (forthcoming)

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Asamiya'. G. C. Goswami & J. Tamuli.  In The Indo-Aryan Languages, 429-484. G. Cardona and D. Jain (eds). Routledge (2007).

  2. -Assamese Grammar and Origin of the Assamese Language. K. Medhi. Panbazar Guwahati (1936).

  3. -Assamese Language: Origin and Development. B. Hazarika. Joya Publication (1985).

  4. -Resource Centre for Indian Language Technology Solutions. Indian Institute of Technology. Guwahati. Available online at:

  1. Top   Home   Alphabetic Index   Classificatory Index   Largest Languages & Families   Glossary



Address comments and questions to: