The Death Of Boa Sr
The Andaman Islands, for those of you as geographically challenged as yours truly, are an archipelago lying in the Bay of Bengal between India and Burma. They are administered by India, and have a large Indian population, but their original inhabitants were a group of isolated peoples whose modern descendants apparently number only about 1,000.
These Andamanese have been a perennial source of fascination for anthropologists, since they appear to be in some sense a relic of the earliest dispersals of biologically modern Homo sapiens out of Africa. Humanity began to expand out of the dark continent several tens of thousands of years ago, with some migrants spreading along the shores of the Indian Ocean to eventually reach southeast Asia and Australia. At some point, members of this ancient migration arrived on the Andaman Islands and stayed.
Physically, the modern Andamanese are small, dark people with anatomical resemblances to Africans, Papuans and Australian Aborigines. As the Oxford zoologist and anthropologist John Kingdon explained at some length in his book Self-Made Man,their traditional culture involved hunting and gathering. Despite having some reasonably sophisticated technology, like bows and arrows, they had no ability to make their own fire and had to rely on saving hot embers from accidental forest fires and the like. Kingdon concluded:
The self-sufficiency of their economy makes it unlikely that the Andamanese had lost skills through forms of cultural stranding or trauma. The absence of fire-making, of sailing boats, of man-made salt, of any form of cultivation, and the uniqueness of their language, all point to the maintenance of an ancient way of life by a relict population.
Kingdon should perhaps have written “the uniqueness of their languages”. There are several different groups whose traditional languages are mutually incomprehensible, and I decided to write about the Andamanese because one of those languages, Bo, has just gone extinct. The last fluent speaker, an old woman known as Boa Sr, died recently at the age of around 85. Only 52 indigenous people now remain on the whole of Great Andaman, an island cluster within thelarger archipelago, and none of them are Bo.
David Shariatmadari, in the Guardian, warns against making too much of the disappearance of the Bo language. For one thing, he thinks Bo should not be described as one of the world’s oldest languages, because all languages evolve: the languages of the modern Andamanese can hardly be considered identical to those of the first prehistoric colonists. This is certainly true, but it is equally true that Andamanese languages might well – like Andamanese cultures – have preserved some genuinely ancient features through their long isolation.
Shariatmadari is also disinclined to see language as an important psychological influence:
Neither do I buy the idea that the language we speak determines the way we think. If that were the case, you’d worry that each language extinction might mean the loss of a unique way of seeing the world. This is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and it’s fun, but doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.
I think this assertion, too, is at best debatable. I suppose it depends on what he means by “a unique way of seeing the world”. Specific languages may not dictate entire modes of thought, but they certainly suggest some interpretations of reality and discourage others. To take a rather trivial example, as a palaeontologist (and thus a type of biologist) I have a casual but long-standing interest in names of animals in different languages. Last summer, while doing fieldwork in Inner Mongolia, I learned that the Mandarin word for “owl” is “māo tóu yīng” – literally “cat-head eagle”. (This in turn allowed me to work out that the Hooters in Beijing calls itself “American Owl Restaurant” in Chinese, but that’s another story.) The comparison would never have occurred to me otherwise, but now I have to concede that the heads of owls really do look rather catlike in comparison to those of other predatory birds. So there we have a small but valid insight, woven into the basic vocabulary of a specific language. Whatever similar insights were woven into Bo are now pretty much gone, or at least confined to dusty academic literature, and that impoverishes us all.
The awkwardly named “UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger” lists 88 endangered languages (including two extinct ones) in Canada, from Aivilingmiutut to Woods Cree. Each of those languages will have insights woven into its structure as well, and saving the ones that can still be saved strikes me as a very worthwhile cause. Unfortunately, it would be wildly optimistic to dream of saving them all.
Here is a very short clip of Boa Sr singing in Bo about a falling tree, a theme that strikes me as sadly appropriate: