Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Vanishing Voices (of the Great Andamanese)

Vanishing Voices

By Pankaj Sekhsaria
GEO, June 2009, Indian Edition

The Great Andamanese community is one of the most threatened community in India today. In the mid 19th century when the British established the penal settlement in the Andamans it was estimated that there were at least 5000 members of the Great Andamanese Community that were divided into 10 distinct language and territorial groups. In just a century and a half the population of that community has come down to about 50 individuals, all of them herded onto the small Strait Island a short distance away from Port Blair.

‘Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese, is an unique project being led by Dr. Anvita Abbi, Professor of Linguistics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University to study the language of this threatened community. It has been suggested that the Andamanese languages might be the last representative of South East Asia's ancient pre-Neolithic languages.

Dr. Abbi’s project has created considerably new understanding of the Great Andamanese community – giving us a descriptive grammar of the language, a socio-linguistic description, an archive of their folklore, oral texts and video recordings and also a trilingual dictionary. “The biggest breakthrough,” says Dr. Abbi, “is that we been able to identify the Great Andamanse as the Sixth language family of India while Onge and Jarawa (the other two indigenous communities of the Andamans) constitute a different family altogether. No other Indian language has even a slight resemblance to the verb structures of the Great Andamanese langauge."

Another aspect of the language that fascinates Dr. Abbi is its terminology of the body. “The body,” she explains, “is divided into four basic zones. These are (1) the mouth and its semantic extension (2) the major external body parts (3) the extreme ends of the body like toe and fingernails etc and (4) the bodily products. A detailed study of the possessive constructions in Great Andamanese shows that ethnoanatomy and kinship share the same level of categorization and there is a parallel between certain body parts and kin relations.”

In the language therefore there is a parallel between major body parts of an individual and his/her spouse. Similarly parents and younger siblings are compared to one’s mouth cavity whereas a child and sweat are both considered products from the body.
Time is categorized as the honey calendar which is itself based on the name of the blooming flowers at that particular time. Honey, significantly occupies a special place in the pattern of subsistence and movement of the Great Andamanese and also the other communities like the Onge of Little Andaman Island.

An excellent benchmark of the status of a people is the status of their language; the converse is just as true and we get an excellent illustration of this when we look at the Great Andamanese people. “Only four of the original Great Andamanese languages are spoken today,” says Dr. Abbi and “there are only a handful of these people who can speak their ancestoral language today.” The number was eight a few months ago and is now down to six with the passing away of two of them. The language and the people are both on the brink.

Recent studies from around the world indicate that the extinction of one is followed by the other. When the nonprofit organization Terralingua, (Dr. Abbi is on the advisory board) mapped the distribution of languages against a map of the world's biodiversity, it found that the places with the highest concentration of plants and animals, such as the Amazon Basin and the island of New Guinea, were also where people spoke the most languages. "Wherever humans exist, they have established a strong relationship with the land, and with the biodiversity that exists there," says anthropologist Luisa Maffi. "They have developed a deep knowledge of the plants and animals, the local ecology, as well as a knowledge about how to use and manage the resources to ensure continued sustenance of biodiversity."

There is a deeper link between culture, language and biodiversity. There is a whole treasure house of knowledge and experience within these small communities that has the potential to benefit the whole of mankind. It's hard to quantify what is lost when an entire people and culture are subjected to the kind of slow but relentless extermination the Great Andamanese have endured. Extinction is a tragedy not only of plants, animals, birds and bees. It is also what humans to do other humans and in what they do to themselves as well. Every extinction, be it in the world of the wild or of something human, is the loss of a part of our very own.

You can hear sound recordings of more than 40 songs of the Great Andamanese online at

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