Discussions on languages of Southasia are often limited to languages spoken in mainland Southasia. Rarely mentioned are the lesser-known languages spoken on the numerous islands of the region. These languages of the islanders, many endangered and vulnerable, are not only treasure troves for linguists but also an integral part of these speech communities’ identity, history, knowledge and culture.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are the largest archipelago system in the Bay of Bengal, situated around 1200 kilometres to the east of mainland India. There are 836 islands in this archipelago, including islets and rocky outcrops, out of which just 38 are inhabited; of these, 11 are in the Andaman group and 13 in the Nicobars. The Andaman group of islands is further divided into two main sub-groups: the main islands in the north, middle and south Andamans are collectively known as the Greater Andamans, and the southernmost island as Little Andaman.
The Andaman Islands are the habitat of four different indigenous groups – the Greater Andamanese, the Jarawa, the Onge and the Sentinelese. Genomic studies have indicated that Andamanese aborigines share prehistoric connections with Southeast Asia and arrived in the islands some 26,000 years ago via what is now Myanmar. These hunter-gatherer communities once inhabited the entire Andamans, but are now restricted to fixed territories. While the exact timeline of the peopling of the Andaman Islands remains undetermined, there is a long history of isolation, cultural distinctiveness and independent societal evolution in these islands.
There are only a few surviving Great Andamanese, members of what were originally the most numerous indigenous groups of the Andaman Islands. According to Anvita Abbi, a linguist and scholar of minority languages, there are now only approximately 56 individuals who can claim Great Andamanese ancestry. Most of these individuals either live on Strait Island in the Great Andamans, off the east coast of the middle Andaman or in the capital city of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands – Port Blair.
The Jarawas live in a tribal reserve spread across the western coast of the south and middle Andamans. Interestingly, the name Jarawa is believed to come from an extinct Andamanese language and community named Aka-Bea, who used it to refer to strangers or hostile people. Although “Jarawa” is widely used to refer to both the language and the community, the members of the community call themselves Ang. Until the last decades of the 20th century, the Jarawas were fiercely hostile to all outsiders in their territory. This hostility towards outsiders ended in 1998–99.
A catalytic moment for this was the Enmey episode. In April 1996, a Jarawa boy named Enmey was found lying with a fractured leg near Kadamtala village, in middle Andaman Island. He was taken to Port Blair for medical treatment by the local administration. Enmey stayed in a Port Blair hospital for a few months, and, upon recovery, was sent back to Jarawa territory with plenty of gifts. A year later, in October 1997, Enmey appeared again at Uttara Jetty port, this time with a group of young Jarawas. This marked the first non-hostile voluntary contact with outsiders initiated by Jarawas in recorded history. One can safely assume that modern medicine was one of the factors which brought Jarawas closer to the outside world.
The Sentinelese people live in North Sentinel Island, one of the islands to the west of south Andaman. It is estimated that between 50 to 100 individuals live in this completely isolated territory protected by the Andaman administration. The Sentinelese live in voluntary isolation and fiercely resist contact with outsiders. The island was brought to global attention in 2018, when they killed an American missionary.
The Onges live on Little Andaman Island. They were one of the first indigenous communities in the Andamans that came in close contact with outsiders, during the late 19th century. The eventual intrusion in their habitat of outsiders bringing infectious diseases brought the Onge population down drastically, from 672 individuals in 1901 to 118 individuals in 2017.
Because Andamanese languages remained uninfluenced by the diffusion of other big language families in the region – such as Austroasiatic, Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian, etc. – they have unique grammatical structures rarely available in other Asian languages.
The indigenous languages of the Andaman Islands are categorised into their own language family, known as Andamanese. The Andamanese language family is further categorised into two sub-families: Great Andamanese, a group of ten recognised ethnolects once spoken in north, middle and south Andamans; and Ongan, comprising the Jarawa and Onge languages. Residents of North Sentinel Island speak Sentinelese. Although there is no linguistic description of this language, it is speculated that it may also belong to the Ongan group because of the cultural affinity between Ongan speakers and the Sentinelese people. The Italian anthropologist Lidio Cipriani has observed that the Onge, the Jarawas and the Sentinelese share cultural traits – for example, all of them do not decorate their bows in any way and use similar kinds of canoes, which are different from the ones used by the Great Andamanese.
While Great Andamanese is a moribund language now, Jarawa, Onge and Sentinelese are vigorously spoken. According to the latest estimates, Jarawa is spoken by 340 individuals in the Andaman Islands.
Here is a list of some common words in the Jarawa language:
Apart from Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Onge and Sentinelese, there used to be another related language in the islands named Jangil, which was spoken by a small community living in Rutland Island in the Little Andamans. Jangil became extinct by the 1920s.
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Because Andamanese languages remained uninfluenced by the diffusion of other big language families in the region – such as Austroasiatic, Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian, etc. – they have unique grammatical structures rarely available in other Asian languages. For example, Great Andamanese languages represent word order combinations (in sentences) absent in Asia. Similarly, they uniquely exhibit a set of somatic (body part) prefixes used productively to derive many nouns.
In October 1997, Enmey appeared again at Uttara Jetty port, this time with a group of young Jarawas. This marked the first non-hostile voluntary contact with outsiders initiated by Jarawas in recorded history.
Another interesting aspect of the Great Andamanese linguistic system is the temporal categorisation model, famously described by the British anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. Radcliffe-Brown arrived in the Andaman Islands in 1906. From his interactions with the Great Andamanese, he observed that there existed a time categorisation system based on honey availability. This honey calendar was modelled on the names of the blooming flowers of the season, and the wild honey collected during that particular time. As a hunting-gathering community, the Great Andamanese collected wild honey for their subsistence. Blooming flowers were regarded as natural reference points for temporal categorisation, and so they were essential in naming the seasons.
Radcliffe-Brown provides a list of flower names in two languages of the Andamans, Aka-Bea and Aka-Jeru, with their corresponding blooming time in the Gregorian calendar:
Temporal categorisation can also be based on the prevailing mode of hunting. On this criterion, the Great Andamanese distinguish between the period before the colonisation of the islands and after it. The Great Andamanese call the period before British colonisation as “bibi poiye”, or the days when there were no dogs, since dogs became part of hunting parties only after they were introduced to the islands by Burmese prisoners kept in the penal colony established there under British rule.
On the southern end of the Andaman archipelago lies the Nicobar archipelago, where seven Nicobarese languages are spoken. These are Car, Chowra, Teressa-Bompoka, Nancowry, Little Nicobar, Great Nicobar and Shompen. In contrast to the indigenous languages of the Andaman islands, the Nicobarese languages belong to the Mon-Khmer branch of Austroasiatic languages. Mon-Khmer languages are spoken over large parts of mainland Southeast Asia, southwestern China and eastern India, besides in the Nicobar Islands. Two well-known representatives of Mon-Khmer languages are Khmer, spoken in Cambodia, and Vietnamese. In mainland Southasia, they are represented by Khasi, Pnar and Lyngngam in northeastern India, War-Jaintia in Bangladesh, and several other languages in Myanmar.
The Great Andamanese call the period before British colonisation as “bibi poiye”, or the days when there were no dogs.
The Nicobarese languages are mostly undescribed, with the exception of Car, used as a lingua-franca in the Nicobar Islands. Reverend George Whitehead, a scholar and missionary who was sent to the islands in the early 20th century, is credited with devising a Latin alphabet for Car Nicobarese. He, with John Richardson, a bishop of Car Nicobar, first translated the New Testament into Car Nicobarese and wrote its first grammar and dictionary.
The Shompens are the people who inhabit the interior forest areas of Great Nicobar Island. Little is known about this hunter-gatherer community. According to the 2011 Census of India, there were just 229 Shompens in the island. Shompens speak the Shompen language, which is distinct but shares the same roots as the other Nicobarese languages. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, this vulnerable indigenous community suffered the loss of lives and also the natural habitat that sustained their traditional way of living. Hitherto unknown to most of the world, the Shompens received some global attention in 2005 through ‘Fire Stones’, a short story written by the Irish author Eoin Colfer for a collection of short stories titled Higher Ground, which celebrated the lives of children who survived the 2004 tsunami. In this short story, a 13-year-old Shompen boy not only survives after the devastating tsunami against great odds but also rescues a 13-year-old fellow islander.
In 2018, a young Shompen man living in Campbell Bay in Great Nicobar took his own life. It was reported that after the devastation of his earlier home by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, he lived with some Nicobarese families and used to talk only in Nicobarese and Hindi. The loss of one’s own language is found to be intricately associated with mental health issues. It undermines self-identity, wellbeing, self-esteem and empowerment. UNESCO has declared 2022–2032 to be the international decade of indigenous languages, drawing our attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalise and celebrate them. Many of the indigenous languages of islanders in Southasia are endangered and marginalised, though they hold a precious legacy for humanity in the understanding they embody of the relationship between humans and the natural world. This age-old bio-cultural knowledge and expertise could be crucial to humanity’s efforts to solve the challenges of the 21st century, like climate change.
In the forthcoming part two of this essay, we will look at two of the lesser-known languages of Sri Lanka: Veddah, a moribund language spoken by an indigenous minority, and Sri Lankan Malay, a mixed language which developed over three to four centuries of contact between Vehicular Malay (Austronesian), Tamil (Dravidian) and Sinhala (Indo-Aryan) . Apart from this, we will learn about Sadari/Nagpuri, a contact language among the Munda people inhabiting the islands of the Sundarban, and explore the deep historical connections of Dhivehi, an Indo-Aryan language spoken in the Maldives and in Minicoy Island in Lakshadweep, with languages like Sinhala, Tamil, Urdu/Hindi, Arabic and Persian.