The Loss of a Language Family: Death of Boa Sr.

This is to condole the sad demise of Boa Sr. who breathed her last yesternight (26th Jan, 2010) at Port Blair.

Boa Sr. was the oldest and the most prolific of the Great Andamanese people of the Andaman Islands. Her death brings a silent catastrophe to the community which lost a heritage that is equal to identity. The deaths of Nao Jr. last year was the loss of the window from that community to the other world. The loss of Boa Sr. is the loss the house itself. What remains now is only the ruins in a shape and size that cannot even tell of the edifice that was there once.

Boa Sr. was almost the last link of the Great Andamanese language family. Out of a total of ten languages, Boa Sr. knew two languges, namely Bo and Jeru, and was familiar with some more languages of the family.

Boa Sr. died at an age of about 85 years. When we met her she seemed fine for her age. She had saved herself from the Tsunami of 2005 by climbing a tree all by herself in Strait Island. She was also the only member in the tribe who did not have anybody in her family surviving. Her mother, To, was a Bo, and father, Renge, was a Jeru. She was married to Nao Sr., a Jeru, at an early age. She did not have any children and her husband Nao Sr. also left her more than a decade ago. Her parents’, as well as her own marriage only testifies further a point made by her that in earlier times marriages used to take place between different language communities, i.e. different tribes. A preference for the same could easily be seen in most of the earlier matrimonial alliances. For example, out of six most senior members of the tribe, which we have recognized as having four different family lineages, four have had mixed parents.

She was the most proficient of the surviving Great Andamanese speakers and retained a vast repertoire of songs and narratives. Many of her songs had such strong influence of Bo that most of the other speakers of Great Andamanese today are unable to derive much meaning from them.
She was presumably the richest surviving member of the Great Andamanese tribe in terms of linguistic-reservoir. Her love for life was quite evident when she used to say that she would love to stay in Port Blair. For a society which was not acquainted even with a barter system, it was interesting to observe that she understood the value of modern currency. Among the things she would often ask for are scissors, blades, and different biscuits. It used to be a treat to watch her when she bursted into laughter upon things she would herself say. Our predecessors would have very much been like her!

It can be said that she was a person who had lived about five to ten thousand years of human history and seen and experienced the different stages of it within a life span. Her loss is not just the loss of the Great Andamanese community, it is a loss of several disciplines of studies put together, including anthropology, linguistics, history, psychology, and biology.

As the world moves for greater ‘development’ and ‘education’ percolates deeper into the veins of the untouched areas of humanity, let us pray that it will be well for all. To me, Boa Sr. epitomized a totality of humanity in all its hues and with a richness that is not to be found anywhere else.

Let’s pray for the peace of the great departed soul of Boa Sr. Amen!


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. sonnedei
    Feb 09, 2010 @ 12:33:20

    I am at a loss of how any social scientist, linguist or any of us of the branches of humanity could not have taken more interest in protecting this legacy by preservation.

    I must confess I am at a loss on how she died without any vocal or oral record of her speech.

    In my opinion it has to do with the real ignorance of of how important we humans are. How could anyone who is a social scientist not study her and leave an ethnography of her life as told through her eyes?

    This is a travesty and ignorance on the part of High brow Ph.D’s who are more interested in garnering credentials for themselves than the love of humanity.

    I cannot imagine Margaret Mead, who did not have a Ph.D and (neither do I nor do I want one) allowing Bo to disappear and her legacy gone forever. Nor Carlos Castenada, no myself ..the real anthropologists are out in the field doing empirical work.

    Very sad, and sadder still that I had no knowledge because if I had I would have flown there and spent time on my money, to annotate, and preserve her life, her language .

    This is a horrible ..and no amount of prayer is sufficient to make up for the disrespect shown for the ancestors of humans.

    Too late now to sing her praises, that should have been recognized when she was alive.. so much for those under
    50 years of age living today..


    • nkchoudhary
      Feb 09, 2010 @ 13:14:25

      Hi Sonnedei,
      This no doubt is a stark reality. The death of one language after another as the human race moves forward and newer generation leaves behind a legacy. While we mourn the loss of a legacy, we should not forget to cherish it. I agree with the concern you have shown.

      We did try our best to preserve the language and the related heritage through our efforts. I myself worked for two years continuously towards this effort and collected a lot of data towards the documentation of the language and the culture. Though I must say that we were also rather belated. When I left Andamans in March, 2006, I already had the apprehension of this catastrophe coming soon. Only that I did not that all this will happen so soon, with the death one after another of all the speakers whom we had vouched to be preserving the language. In fact it was the younger ones like Nao Jr. and Boro who bade goodbye to this Darwinian world first. There has to be a turn of Boa Sr. as well. Only that we should be sorry that she spent her the last days in pain and agony.

      For the documentation of the language, the language and the culture has been well documented through a SOAS, funded project run by a group of linguists headed by Prof. Anvita Abbi at Centre for Linguistics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. I was a part of this group from 2005 to 2007 when the most of its collection work took place. All the data collected , analysed and documented has been made available to SOAS, University of London. We also have a website at the URL: This website also gives a brief on the language, culture and people of the Great Andamanese community.

      I do not mean to say that we should be content be whatever we have done so far for the bereaved community. No this is not enough. But my point is that we should be looking forward to what we can do next. Given that a language is dead and no body speaks it, does not mean that the people are not there. There are people, about 50, of this community. They have been given the status of a “Primitive Tribe” by the government of India and are taken care of by the government in several ways, such as they are provided free ‘house’, ‘ration’, ‘medical facilities’ etc. But this does not solve their problem. When they discovered a wider, broader world at large and late in their life and finally succumbed to it, they needed to assimilate with them. And say that this should be as seamlessly as possible. Does anyone think that this is possible? In a world which is divided on several lines starting from race, to langauge to class to religion to caste, this does not seem possible. THe remaining people of the Great ANdamanese community, i.e. the children of Boa Sr. needs proper attention now. Or may be they do not any attention at all. As they want to be a part of the greater mass of people, I feel that it is the duty of the greater mass to not make any discrimination by reminding them that they belong a community with a dead language. If we can make them feel at home with whatever they have learned from this greater mass of human beings, they will feel at peace and I would say that this has just been a course of time that has just rolled over. We can be happy if we welcome them in our society without any kind discrimation whatsoever and let them feel equal to ourselves in all the ways. I know this is difficult, very difficult. But it is our duty as human beings.


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