What are we doing to save our vanishing voices?

By Malini Nair

Official apathy and surrounding dominant cultures have all but killed the ancient Great Andamanese languages that date back to pre-Neolithic times.

With the death last week of 84-year-old Boa Senior, the islands have lost the last speaker of the Bo language spoken by the tribe of the same name.

“This is the fate of minority languages all over the world. But with proactive effort these languages could have been saved the way some Australian aboriginal tongues were; or Hebrew was. Why didn’t we introduce primers for tribal children, introduce non-tribals to the languages?” asks Anvita Abbi, who heads the centre for linguistics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Abbi’s anguish is understandable.

She and her team of three linguists have been at work since 2001 documenting the endangered Great Andamanese languages.

Funded by a UK agency, the project — named Vanishing Voices of Great Andamanese — has been battling the indifference of the local administration to the fate of these rare cultures.

Last November, the only surviving speaker of another tribal language Khora passed away. With this the total number of Andamanese tribals who can speak their 65,000-year-old tongue is now down to a depressing five.

The language in which they now conduct the business of life is Hindi! What brought it to this pass? Mostly the fact that the inter-generational transfer of the language — from grandparent to parent to child — came to a halt. It made more sense for younger generations of tribals to learn and use the more officially current language in Port Blair, Hindi.

“There was no sense of pain at losing the language, so it had to die,” points out Abbi who with her team spent tough weeks and months accessing the tribals living in Strait Island.

To get to the island you need to secure a special permit that is zealously guarded by the officials. Often, the tribal would themselves volunteer to come to Port Blair to help the team with its research.

Boa Sr however was a genial soul, with a full-throated laugh, not quite the tragic figure she might seem. She has no children or siblings and no one with whom she could gab in her mother tongue. But she could converse in Hindi.

“She may have been illiterate but she understood the worth of the work we were putting in. She was elated when we showed her what we were doing with her inputs”, recalls Abbi.

Boa Sr has passed away and with her a language with deep roots. But for future generations of linguists and nostalgic Great Andamanese, there is hope.

The VVGA has put together a dictionary and CD of the language. It has also analysed and documented the grammar of the language.

Any Great Andamanese tribal who wishes to revive the language can do so. That might seem like a remote possibility but it is better than consigning the language to forgotten history.