Monday, January 12, 2009

Dictionary in Great Andamanese

JNU don compiles dictionary in Great Andamanese
Parul Sharma

Linguist Anvita Abbi has been working with the community for the past eight years

NEW DELHI: In an attempt to restore the endangered Great Andamanese language, a researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University has compiled a trilingual dictionary of about 4,000 words in that language, with translations in English and Hindi.

Linguist Anvita Abbi, who is the chairperson of the Centre for Linguistics at JNU, has been working with the Great Andamanese community for the past eight years.

The dictionary has phonetic representation of words and is replete with real pictures taken by Prof. Abbi herself. The dictionary will have a Hindi version and an English version as well. The author will zero in on the prospective publishers in the next couple of months.

“Great Andamanese is one of the four tribes living in the Andaman Islands. There are only 53 people in that community and only eight persons, the older ones, can speak the Great Andamanese language. It is a moribund language, as children do not converse in it,” said the JNU professor.

The dictionary has also documented different variations of the same word as used by different speakers. It also serves as an “ecological storehouse” comprising a large number of birds, trees, fish and other sea creatures.

Since the Great Andamanese has never had a script, Prof. Abbi also gave them the Devnagari scrip to use it as a medium to write the words of that language.

“Most tribal languages are only spoken and remain unwritten. No one has ever bothered to give them a script. I chose Devnagari because it is a scientific script. Also, the children go to schools in Port Blair and study Hindi. Therefore, they are familiar with this script,” she added.

The trilingual dictionary that has been compiled over three years is a part of a documentation project called “Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese”. The project is being funded by the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London under the “Endangered Language Documentation Programme”.

“We used a lot of modern technology tools to develop a highly interactive dictionary. First, we ourselves got trained in how to make a dictionary. It will also be put on the Internet by the University of London. The online dictionary will also have the recording of a native speaker to pronounce the words and sentences in the language,” said Prof. Abbi.

Most linguists, she feels, shy away from researching on the languages spoken by the tribes on the Andaman Islands.

“Living with the community and managing things on your own is not easy. The bureaucracy in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is also a discouraging factor for linguists to work on the languages.” This past year, Prof. Abbi also came out with a book of letters in the Great Andamanese language.

“That was my tribute to the community, especially the children. I did it out of love for them,” she concluded.

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