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The death of an old lady and of her ancient language

Posted by Rozenn Milin on 22 February 2010

On February 5, 2010, Mrs Boa Sr. passed away. She was the last speaker of Aka-bo, a language that dated back several millennia and spoken on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.

Her death was widely covered in the international press leading us to wonder why the death of an old lady and the extinction of her “little” language have triggered such emotions…

To understand the symbolic weight of this “double” death, of both the woman and her language, we must go back in time, not only of this part of the world but back to the origins of Humanity.

The Adaman archipelago is made up of 204 islands more than 1000 km off the Indian coasts, divided up between the Great and the Little Andaman. Four population groups live on these islands:

  • The Sentinelese, between 50 and 200 members who are extremely isolated and who, apparently, have never been in contact with Westerners. They are one of the most isolated populations in the world;
  • the Jarawa, who number a little less than 300;
  • the Onges, with nearly 100 individuals;
  • the Great Andamanese, whose language was composed of a dozen dialectal variants, one of which was the Aka-bo language. This specific language is now extinct and there are only 50 people left who speak one of the Great Andamanese languages.

Researchers generally believe that the Andamanese languages could be the last vestiges of pre-Neolithic languages…

These populations apparently left Africa 70 000 years ago to finally settle in Southeast Asia. The men and women who made up these communities were probably the first “modern” human beings to settle in this part of the world.

They survived throughout the centuries until the arrival of the English in 1858. From then on, the Andamanese were decimated – killed by the new settlers or from foreign diseases.

At the start of the 21st century, their long voyage is coming to an end. How can only several hundred individuals scattered across a handful of islands resist the massive uniformizing waves of globalisation?

The day the last speaker of an Andamanese language dies, the loss will be irreparable: an entire linguistic family will disappear. What is at stake here is nothing less than the disappearance of one of the most ancient cultures of our planet, one that dates back to the dawn of time….

“You cannot begin to imagine my pain and anguish as I witness a remarkable culture and a unique language disappear,” said Professor Anvita Abbi, the linguist who has been documenting the Aka-bo language, through recordings of Mrs. Boa Sr.

Today, we measure the full importance of her work. These are the last traces of a language that nobody will ever speak again. And this reminds us of the urgency of recording, filming, and documenting all the other languages and cultures around the globe that are currently threatened. The Fondation Chirac’s Sorosoro programme is committed to this monumental task.

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