The death of a language means the passing of many things — a way of life, a cultural identity, a repository of indigenous knowledge. Language is not merely a mechanical means of communication but a medium that shapes the very way we think; as the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein observed, the limits of one’s language are the limits of one’s world. The outpouring of nostalgic sorrow and ruminative melancholy over the death at 85 of Boa Sr — the last speaker of the Bo, one of the ten languages of the tribes that populated the Great Andaman archipelago — is recognition that the passing of this grand old lady represents the irreplaceable loss of a part of the world’s heritage, the passage of the remnants of a living culture into memory. It is a reminder of the fragility of the indigenous people of the Andaman islands and the importance of protecting their lives and their culture — which dates back an estimated 70,000 years — from further degradation in the name of ‘upliftment’ and ‘civilisation.’ The dwindling numbers of indigenous people, most of whom were either killed by British colonisers or died through diseases imported by settlers, is reflected starkly in the population of Great Andamenese, down to around 50 from an estimated 5,000 a century ago. Once in residence along the length of the Great Andaman region, they now live in tiny Strait Island, largely deprived of their cultural and linguistic identities.
Only three other tribes survive in the Andaman islands: the 250 or so Jarawas, who resisted contact with outsiders until two decades ago and whose way of life is threatened by the ‘friendly contact’ promoted by the Great Andaman Trunk Road that cuts through their forest homeland; the Onges (around 100), who live in a remote pocket in the Little Andaman; and the Sentinelese, who have fiercely resisted outside contact, and whose numbers and language remain unknown. The Andamans is celebrated for being a storehouse of faunal and floral diversity but its linguistic and cultural diversity has largely been neglected. The languages or dialects of the Great Andamanese are regarded as one of the five language families in India; if Onge-Jarawa is derived from a separate linguistic ancestor as some believe, then this remarkable region would have contributed to two of six language families. While the study of language and cultures is a matter for academics, the effort to preserve them is a political enterprise, a process that requires empowering indigenous communities to protect their ancient traditions and tap into local resources in an autonomous and sustainable way. In the Andamans, more than elsewhere, we need to protect the future of the past.