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Saving a world

Rrishi Raote  |  New Delhi 

There is a word in Great Andamanese, raupuch, that means “one who loses his sibling”. “I don’t think any other language — English, — has a word for this relationship,” says linguistics professor When she told her informants this fact, they were perplexed. They asked, “Don’t you love your sister or brother?”

is one of just a few thousand words in the Dictionary of the Language, the first and only full compendium of this near-extinct group of languages from the Andaman Islands. It was painstakingly compiled over four years by Abbi, who teaches at in Delhi, and will be published next month by

The book captures not only words but also slices of the universe and way of thinking. There are now just over 50 surviving Great Andamanese, in the town of Port Blair or on tiny Strait Island a few hours away by boat. They no longer speak pure Jeru or any of their other languages; for everyday use they have a creole of various tongues, or a local version of This is why Abbi’s dictionary is a work accomplished in the very teeth of history.

Any later, and she might have missed Bo. The last speaker of this ancient language — its roots lie 70,000 years in the past — was Boa Sr, who died in January 2010 aged about 85. Boa Sr’s voice can be heard in recordings made by Abbi and saved on her website,

An early section in the dictionary recounts the effort it took. Abbi and her students crossed crocodile-filled water, ran for their lives ahead of incoming tides, braved biting and stinging creatures, not excluding the obstructive babus of Port Blair, to meet the tribes on their home ground. (Tourist operators seem to have no trouble getting access to restricted areas, Abbi says.)

This despite the fact that the Great Andamanese have been “mainstreamed” and are much more accessible than, say, the Jarawas. In a fit of altruism in the early 1970s, the administration shifted the remaining population of Great Andamanese onto Strait Island. The state built huts and hands out food and a dole.

The population and self-respect of the tribespeople collapsed. “Their culture was hunting and gathering,” says Abbi to me. “We have completely taken them off from their environment.” One result, as she writes, is that the language ceases to be useful. “As the transmission of a language to the younger generation ceases, the loss of the language leads to the loss of beliefs, values and knowledge.” It is a vicious circle. The same thing is now happening to the Jarawas.

Give a maxi dress to a Jarawa, says Abbi, as seen in the ugly tourist video now in the news, and she will need soap to wash it. Where will money to buy that soap come from? A few years ago, she says, one man was given a T-shirt. “He did not know it was not skin,” so he never took it off. He fell ill and developed eczema. “It is an economy for which they are not yet ready.”

Boa Sr in the last years of her life had nobody to speak with in her own language. Abbi says she told her, “‘Madam, everything is finished.’ She was very sad. She could see the decline and the ruin of her own community in front of her eyes.”

Stop a moment to consider this: imagine the weight of your ancestors, two thousand generations or more, looking down upon you, knowing that after you, they go forever. There is a little hope, as Abbi writes: “As we motivated [the tribespeople] to go down memory lane and converse about topics such as hunting, naming a child and boat-building, which they had forgotten, a stage was reached when they realized that their language was being revived somewhat.”

Apart from the dictionary, Abbi has co-written a book on the bird knowledge of the Great Andamanese, an alphabet book for children, and the first of a series of 10 illustrated folk tales is just out from the National Book Trust. I wish her luck and success in every grant application.  

First Published: Sat, January 21 2012. 00:34 IST