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Alternative Names: Meitei, Meitheirón, Meiteron, Meeteiron, Manipuri.

Name Origin: Meithei means 'the people' in this language.

Classification: Sino-Tibetan, Tibeto-Burman, Mikir-Meithei. Earlier, it was thought that Meithei was part of the Kuki-Chin-Naga group. But now, it is considered to be part of an independent branch which also includes Mikir and Mru.

Overview. Meithei is one of the many languages spoken in northeastern India where seven 'sister states', almost cut off from the rest of the country and close to Myanmar, harbor many Tibeto-Burman speakers. All of these states, except Assam, are mountainous. Among them is Manipur ('jeweled city'), the home of the Meitheis who date back their history to 33 CE. They were originally animistic, practicing a native religion called Sanamahism, until converted forcibly to Hinduism by their king at the beginning of the 18th century. Meithei is a tonal, agglutinating, language that has been deeply influenced in its phonology and lexicon by neighboring Indo-Aryan languages.

Distribution. Meithei is spoken in the state of Manipur, in northeast India, which is surrounded by the Indian states of Nagaland to the north, Assam to the west and Mizoran to the south; in the east it borders with Myanmar. Meithei prevails in the central valley of Manipur while the surrounding hills are populated by Kuki-Chin and Naga tribes.

Speakers. According to the 2001 census of India, there are 1,467,000 native speakers of Meithei of which 86 % in Manipur and 10 % in Assam.

Status. Meithei is one of the two official languages of the state of Manipur (the other is English) and one of the 23 officially recognized languages of India.

Varieties. The dialect of the capital Imphal is considered the standard. Other dialects are Sekmai and Pheyeng, spoken near Imphal, and that of the Kwata village spoken on the border with Myanmar near Moreh.

Oldest Documents

They are inscriptions on a copper plate, written in the native script Meithei Mayek (see below), dating from the 8th century CE. Other available documents are manuscripts and inscriptions of a much later date (16th and 17th centuries).


Word structure: the typical syllable is (C)(C)V(C). A consonant cluster may occur in initial position combining a voiced unaspirated stop and a fricative, or a voiceless aspirated stop and l, w or y [j]. Excepting in consonant clusters, voiced stops are not allowed in initial position. The possible final consonants are restricted to p, t, k,  nasals and l.

Vowels (6): Meithei has a six-vowel system close to that of Proto-Tibeto-Burman (i, e, a, u, o).


There are no indigenous words beginning with a. The vowel e occurs in initial position in a few words only.

Consonants (24-25): the consonant system of Meithei has developed aspirated voiced stops and affricates due to Indo-Aryan influence. Stops exhibit a four-way contrast between voiceless unaspirated, voiceless aspirated, voiced unaspirated and voiced aspirated. The r-sound is rolled (trill). It has been proposed that the voiceless aspirated affricate is a Meithei phoneme though it is usually realized as [s].


Tones: Meithei has high and low tones on roots. Suffixes and prefixes have no inherent tone, though they are affected by the root tone. High tone roots are marked with an acute accent but low tone roots are not marked.

Script and Orthography.

From the 18th to 20th centuries Meithei was usually written with the Bengali script but it has its own, called Meithei Mayek, which is now replacing Bengali. Meithei Mayek is very ancient being attested already in the 8th century CE; it derives from a variety of the Brāhmī script developed during the Gupta period.

It is alphabetic and has 18 letters to represent native sounds to which 9 were added for Indo-Aryan ones. A consonant without any added sign has an inherent vowel a; other vowels are noted by placing a diacritical mark around a consonant. There are three independent vowels signs used for initial vowels.

Here, the traditional Indic alphabetic order is followed. Transliteration and Interna-tional Phonetic Alphabet equivalents are shown below each character (the latter between brackets):


Meithei is an agglutinating language. Grammatical information is conveyed mainly by affixes (prefixes and suffixes). Nouns, verbs and pronouns are the major word classes. New words can be formed by reduplication (partial or full), affixation and compounding. Adjectives can be formed by affixation of verbal nouns and stative verbs, and adverbs by affixation of verbal roots.  Nouns can be derived from verb roots by derivational prefixes or by suffixation of a nominalizer.

  1. Nominal. Nouns may be marked by affixes for case, possession and number.

  1. case: the actor is unmarked, the agentive/instrumental is marked by the suffix -nə, the accusative by -pu, the locative-allative by -tə, the ablative by -təgi, the genitive by -ki, the comitative by -kə. The actor is the effector of the action in non-causative verbs. The agent is the instigator of the action and only occurs in causative verbs.

  1. personal possession: is indicated by prefixes attached to inalienably possessed nouns and kinship terms: 1st person i-, 2nd person nə-, 3rd person mə-.

  1. gender: there is no gender marking except in kinship terms where masculine and feminine are marked by suffixes (-pa, -pi, respectively).

  1. number: plurality is marked by a suffix (-sing) that cannot be attached to pronouns and personal names.

  1. pronouns: personal, possessive, demonstrative, reflexive, interrogative, indefinite.

  2. Personal pronouns: first (ə́y), second (nə́ng) and third (). Plurals are made by adding -khoy (ə́ykhoy, nəkhoy, məkhoy). Dual forms are obtained by suffixation with -bani (ibani, nəbani, məbani).

  1. Possessive pronouns are obtained by suffixation of the genitive particle -ki/-gi to personal pronouns (ə́ygi, nə́nggi, mági).

  1. Demonstrative pronouns are made by adding the suffixes -si and -tu/-du (proximal and distal, respectively) to the third person pronoun (məsi = 'this', mədu = 'that'). There are two other similar demonstrative pronouns: əsi, ədu.

  1. All interrogative pronouns begin with the particle kə: kəna (who?), kəday (where?), kəya (how many?), kəri (what?), etc.

  1. Indefinite pronouns are made by adding the suffixes -no, -kum/-gum, or -su to interrogative pronouns e.g. kənano (someone), kənagum (someone), kənasu (nobody).

  1. Reflexive pronouns are made by adding the noun (body) to the possessive prefixes: isá, nə, mə.

  1. Meithei has no relative pronoun.

  1. compounds: nominal compounding is highly productive resulting in a variety of endocentric and exocentric compounds. Some endocentric compounds are right-headed (the last member of it is the most important) or left-headed (the first member is the most important). Exocentric compounds have no head (both members are at the same syntactical level).

  1. Verbal.

  2. It is agglutinative using prefixes and suffixes. Verbs are not marked for number, person, gender or pronominal agreement. Verb roots must add one of eight obligatory mood suffixes: declarative (-í), assertive declarative (-e), optative (-ke), imperative (-u), prohibitive (-nu), solicitive (-o), supplicative (-si) or permissive (-sənu).

  3. Other markers are optional. They may be inserted between the root and the mood marker in a particular order. There are three kinds of them, each occupying a specific slot:

  4. a)markers specifying how the agent affects the object and in which direction.

  5. b)markers indicating where an action has been performed in relation to the speaker, who is the beneficiary of the action, if the evidence of it is indirect, if it is incipient, etc.

  6. c)markers indicating modality and aspect: necessity, obligation, potential, non-potential, intention, probability, progressive, perfect.

  1. There are very few verbal compounds and those that exist are exocentric.


    The Meithei verb is final in a sentence, the agent or actor initial; thus the basic word order is, like in almost all Tibeto-Burman languages: Subject-Object-Verb. The topic tends to be at the beginning of the phrase.

    A noun phrase can consist of a noun and one or more adjectives and a numeral or quantifier, the order of which is free. There are no numeral classifiers. As Meithei does not have a relative pronoun, relative clauses are formed by placing the relativized noun directly after the nominalized clause. Yes-no questions are indicated by suffixation of the interrogative particle -lə to a noun. Content questions are posed by using an interrogative pronoun on its own or suffixed with -no, or, alternatively, by appending -no to the last word of the sentence.


Extensive borrowing from Bengali and other Indo-Aryan languages was unleashed by the massive conversion of the Meithei people to Hinduism in the 18th century.

Basic Vocabulary

one: əmə

two: əni

three: əhúm

four: məri

five: manga

six: təruk

seven: təret

eight: nipan

nine: məpan

ten: təra

hundred: chamə

father: pa

mother: má

son: məcha, nupa məcha

daughter: məcha, nupi məcha

head: kók, lu

hair: sə́m

face: sə́k

eye: mít

foot: khóng

heart: thəwáy

tongue: ləy

Key Literary Work

Cheitharon Kumpapa (The Court Chronicle of the Kings of Manipur). Anonymous

History of the kings and the state until the end of kingship in 1955. It claims to date back to 33 CE. Written in the Meithei script, it is of invaluable historical importance.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati

Further Reading

  1. -'Meithei'. S. L. Chelliah. In The Sino-Tibetan Languages, 427-438. G. Thurgood & R. J. LaPolla (eds). Routledge (2003).

  2. -A Grammar of Meithei. S. L. Chelliah. Mouton de Gruyter (1997).

  3. -Manipuri Grammar. C. Yashawanta Singh. Manipur University (2001).

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