Two unique languages disappear with death of last speakers

When Boro died on Strait Island last November, Boa lost a friend. The world lost a language.

Last week, Boa also died. Another language died with her.

The death of these last surviving speakers of two Great Andamanese languages, Khora and Bo, has resulted in the extermination of their unique tribes on the islands.

“There are just 50 Great Andamanese left,” says Anvita Abbi, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University who has undertaken a project to document the languages of these tribes. “Now we only have Jeru and Sare speakers in the group.”

Originally, the Great Andamanese were a group of ten tribes with a total population of 5,000 when the British colonised the Andaman Islands. Over the years, most were killed or died of the diseases brought by settlers.

When the tsunami hit the islands in 2004, 80-year-old Boa was still strong enough to climb a tree. But she was shaken by the death of her friend Boro, a frail introvert with curling white hair, last year.

“When Boro died, Boa told me she felt very lonely,” says Dr. Abbi. “Already, Boa used to lament that no one else shared her mother’s language. She would sing her songs in Bo, but no one else could understand her…No one else could help her translate them for me,” she added.

Dr. Abbi was unable to get a full grasp of the Bo and Khora languages with the inputs of just one speaker. However, she and her team have compiled a dictionary of 2,500 words in Great Andamanese, a mixture of all four languages — Bo, Khora, Sare and Jeru. The tri-lingual, tri-scriptal book could help not just linguists but ecologists as well, as many of the words are the names of plants, birds and fishes.

“For example, one of the words is ain. Boa told me of these small bushes, which grow by the seashore…She said that when ain leaves are crushed and put in water, it intoxicates the fish which float up, making them easier to catch,” says Dr. Abbi.

Subsequent experiments on the west coast of the Andamans showed that Boa’s recollections were correct, although the bushes were later destroyed by the tsunami.

“It’s a storehouse of indigenous languages for environmentalists,” Dr. Abbi adds.

Survival International director Stephen Curry says that the death of Boa and the extinction of the Bo language should spur action to save the remaining tribes.

“A unique part of human society is now just a memory. Boa’s loss is a bleak reminder that we must not allow this to happen to the other tribes of the Andaman Islands,” he says.

If outsiders helped wipe out the Great Andamanese, they are also helping to record their voices. Dr. Abbi’s dictionary project includes an audio CD. “If you click on a word or phrase, you can hear Boa’s voice saying it…You can hear her songs.”

There are songs of celebration and of mourning, of the rain and the sea, of hunting and dancing — all in a language now dead. Is anyone listening?

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