Ancient dialect becomes extinct after death of last speaker

ONE of the world’s oldest dialects, which traces its origins to tens of thousands of years ago, has become extinct after the last person to speak it died on a remote Indian island.

Boa Sr, the 85-year-old last speaker of “Bo”, was the oldest member of the Great Andamanese tribe, said RC Kar, deputy director of Tribal Health in Andaman.

She died last week in Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

“With the death of Boa Sr and the extinction of the Bo language, a unique part of human society is now just a memory,” said Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, an organisation that supports tribes worldwide.

“Boa’s loss is a bleak reminder that we must not allow this to happen to the other tribes of the Andaman Islands,” he said.

Kar said Bo was one of the 10 dialects used by the Great Andamanese tribe.

According to Survival International, there are now only 52 members surviving members of the tribe, which is thought to have lived on the Andaman Islands for as many as 65,000 years, making them descendants of one of the oldest cultures in the world.

The Great Andamanese had the biggest population of all the island tribes until the early 20th century.

Originally 10 distinct tribes, the Great Andamanese were 5,000- strong when the British colonised the Andaman Islands in 1858. Most were killed or died of diseases brought by the colonisers, Survival International said.

The surviving Great Andamanese depend largely on the Indian government for handouts and alcohol abuse is rife.

The cluster of more than 550 Andaman and Nicobar islands, of which only about three dozen are inhabited, are home to six tribes of Mongoloid and African origin, who have lived there for thousands of years.

The home of the Great Andamanese is Strait Island, a small island of Middle Andaman Region.

Boa Sr survived the Asian tsunami of 2004, and reportedly told linguists afterwards: “We were all there when the earthquake came. The eldest told us ‘the Earth would part, don’t run away or move’.”

A linguist at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) who spent several years speaking with Boa Sr in a version of Hindi, Professor Anvita Abbi said she felt a great sadness at being the last of her kind and that she could not speak to anyone in her own language.

“Boa was the last of the Bo tribe. That is what was so sad – that she had no one,” she said.

Narayan Kumar Choudhary, of JNU said: “Her death brings a silent catastrophe to the community which lost a heritage that is equal to identity. The loss of Boa Sr is the loss of the house itself. What remains now is only the ruins.”

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