Dying languages and the Andamanese birds

December 17, 2013

There are almost 7,000 languages in the world today. In 100 years, half of those languages will be extinct. These are the stories of the people who will die with them.

“Laca” means “bird” in the Andaman Islands, which for thousands of years were almost entirely occupied by the Andamanese. There used to be 5,000 divided in ten different tribes, speaking ten different languages. But then came British colonization, Japanese invasion, Indian government and a tsunami. Now there are 50 Andamanese, confined to one small island, and only a few of them remember those original languages.

Boa Senior and her parents used to speak Bo, one of the original Andamanese languages. According to linguist Anvita Abbi, Bo can be traced to pre-Neolithic times, when the community first settled in the islands after leaving Africa. But Boa Senior’s parents died and for decades she was the only speaker of her old language. Soon, it began to disappear from her mind.

This is how a language dies: children in Boa Senior’s community never learned Bo, focusing instead on the much more useful Hindi (located in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Islands are administered by India). Boa Senior, too, eventually learned the dominant language, and started to forget, word by word, her original tongue.

She died three years ago. But some Bo is thought to have survived; visiting linguists had already recorded some of Boa Senior’s remembered songs. And then there were the birds of the Andaman Islands, with whom Boa Senior was often spotted chatting. They were her ancestors, she said, and the only ones who understood her.


Illustrations by Tomas Pichardo-Espaillat