I read this really interesting article on GEO magazine (edition 32) written by Debarshi Dasgupta about the Indian languages that are endangered and on a verge of extinction. Linguists claim that every fortnight, a language dies somewhere in the world. For me the most interesting story was, on 26 January 2010, was the turn day of Andaman and Nicobar islands to lose one. Boa Senior, an 85-year-old woman and last member of an Andaman tribe believed to be among the oldest human cultures on Earth, had died. And with her the language called Bo, and the 70 000 year old culture that spoke this language, had also perished. Survivor of the cataclysmic December 2004 tsunami, she is immortalised online in a video, singing in Bo of the thundering earth before the great waves swept in. Boa’s brief, haunting drone conveys much more that its subtitles – almost as if her song were a dirge for an ancient world, for people waiting for an imminent end.
The question is why even try to save these dying tongues when a world that is becoming increasingly homogenised. Why not focus instead on teaching marginalised communities some of the major languages to help them progress? Few actually realise that languages are more than just a means of communication. They are emblematic of the way a community perceives the world and, thereby, offer a unique insight into those who speak them and the cultures they represent.
In the case of Bo and other Great Andamanese languages, they hold up a mirror to tribal people whose culture dates back thousands of years. For example, Great Andamanese has a word (raupuch) to describe a person who has lost his or her siblings. “This tells us a lot about this society and the emphasis it places on family kinships,” says Anvita Abbi, a professor of linguistics at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Also, the language only has words for three numbers (“one”, “two” and “many”), which radically challenges the theory that all languages have common fundamental structures. Good news is, meanwhile researchers are busily recording dying Indian tongues, they are occasionally announcing “new” ones too.