Breathing life into a dying language
The Andamans, a cluster of islands 700 miles east of the Indian mainland in the Bay of Bengal, are home to three highly endangered languages. One of them, Great Andamanese, has only five speakers.
Professor Anvita Abbi, a renowned linguist specialising in the minority languages of the Indian subcontinent, has spent many years researching the languages, particularly Great Andamanese. She believes the three comprise two distinct language families, a finding that has since been investigated by population geneticists.
She knows too, the very real dangers facing threatened languages. Last year I wrote about the death of an 85-year-old woman, Boa Sr, (above) the last speaker of a language called Bo. She was the final member of the Bo tribe and with her death, so went the language, apart from a collection of recordings.
“With the death of Boa Sr and the extinction of the Bo language, a unique part of human society is now just a memory,” Stephen Corry, director of the group Survival International, said at the time. “Boa’s loss is a bleak reminder that we must not allow this to happen to the other tribes of the Andaman Islands.”
Boa Sr was the oldest member of the Great Andamanese, an indigenous group of the Andamans. The Great Andamanese once numbered more than 5,000 and were made up of 10 distinct groups each with their own language.
The Bo are believed to have lived on the islands for as long as 65,000 years, making them one of the oldest surviving human cultures. But today, after more than 150 years of contact with colonisers, their diseases and their alcohol, the Great Andamanese number just 52.
Many of the recordings made of Boa Sr and other tribe members were made by Professor Abbi, who spent much time with them, (see left) speaking in a version of Hindi that is used on the islands. Professor Abbi, a scholar at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, told me that towards the end of her life, her friend’s greatest regret was that she could not speak to anyone in her own language. “That is what was so sad – that she had no one,” she said.
Professor Abbi’s work on documenting the threatened languages of the Andamans will form the basis of a lecture she is delivering at 6pm on Thursday evening (Nov 17) at the Brunei Gallery lecture theatre at SOAS, where is currently a visiting academic. She will discuss her work in compiling an interactive Great Andamanese-English-Hindi dictionary. More details can be found here.
But perhaps most compelling, at least for non-specialists, will be the opportunity to hear the sound and video recordings made by Prof Abbi during her field work. The sound of Bo is gently hypnotic. “The earth is shaking as the tree falls, with a great thud,” Boa Sr sang, on one recording captured by linguists. Professor Abbi told me: “This is the very first and the last recording of Bo.”Tagged in: #Andamans #lecture, asia, language
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