Andaman Islands Language Becomes Extinct as Elder Dies
Off the Coast of India, Another Language Dies
On some days, Boa Sr would sit silently in the jungle surrounding her home on one of India's Andaman Islands and gaze up at the sky. According to researchers who looked on, birds perched above would descend to the ground and inspect her; in turn Boa Sr spoke to them in her native tongue, calling them her ancestors and her friends.
Her speech was rich with words of the natural world, words of the forest and the sea that some linguists suspect date back tens of thousands of years to the first migrations of man. Boa Sr was the last person alive to know them. In early February, she passed away, leaving behind no surviving siblings or children. As she died, so too did the language of her people.
Boa Sr, thought to have been around 85 years old at the time of her death, was the last living member of the Bo, one of 10 tribes that comprise an ethnic group known as the Great Andamanese people. Like some other indigenous groups on this archipelago 745 miles (1,200 km) east of the Indian mainland, the Great Andamanese evolved in isolation for millenniums until the 1850s, when the colonial British began to settle the Andamans.
Since then, the population has plummeted, from at least 5,000 to just 52 people now lumped together in a sprawl of cottages on one island. For most of those left, especially children, specific tribal tongues have given way to a pidgin Andamani dialect of Hindi. Boa Sr was in effect their last link to the olden days. "It's the end of thousands upon thousands of years of history," says Miriam Ross, spokeswoman for Survival International, a London-based NGO that defends the rights of tribal peoples. "A whole way of looking at the world is finished, and there's no way of bringing it back."
Experts say the vanishing of the Bo language comes at a particularly perilous moment in the history of human speech. "There's a consensus [among linguists] that we are seeing an unprecedented pace of language extinction. And it is accelerating," says David Harrison, a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and co-founder of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.
Of the world's roughly 7,000 spoken languages, over half are spoken by only 0.2% of all the people on earth. Nearly 80% of the world's population speaks just 83 languages, a proportion that is growing as globalization and urbanization encourage migrants and rural outliers to learn the dominant tongue in lieu of their own. Every 14 days, estimates Harrison's institute, a language dies.
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