10 years since Tsunami: Tribes survived disaster, but their languages are doomed

10 years ago when the Boxing Day tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean many feared for the aboriginal people tucked away in the forests of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. They did not access weather satellite information. They did not have emergency radios or the latest hi-tech communication devices. But when the waves receded it told a different story says Anvita Abbi who led the Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese project.

“Not a single tribal, Sentinelese not Jarwa, not Onge faced death while we lost 7000 people like you and me,” says Abbi.

One of those survivors was Boa Senior, the last native speaker of the Bo language. She told Abbi later the elders had advised that when the earth stopped shaking, you needed to get up and make your bed. And that’s what she did.

Abbi says the tribals all had their own stories of survival. Boro, a Great Andamanese tribal climbed up a particular tree which he knew would not be swept away by the waters unlike many other trees around him. “The Onge were fishing in the morning,” says Abbi. “The moment they saw the first wave, they knew some havoc was coming and ran into the forest.”

File photo of Lakshmi, center, Selvi, right, and Ariamala, rear with mask, grieve as earthmovers clear debris of their damaged house at a fishermen's colony which was hit by a tsunami, in Nagappattinam. AP

File photo of Lakshmi, center, Selvi, right, and Ariamala, rear with mask, grieve as earthmovers clear debris of their damaged house at a fishermen's colony which was hit by a tsunami, in Nagappattinam. AP

She says while we think of the tribals and their ways as “primitive” the tsunami show us vividly the power of their knowledge base.

“The Andamanese have six different names for distance from the seashore. Water touching the sand has one name. Water six inches away from it has one name. Water up to your ankles has another name and so on and so forth until the faraway distant sea.”

But when you take those same tribals and “re-settle” them in a faraway landlocked place like Delhi, all those words start to become meaningless. And the knowledge base starts fading away as well. “The Great Andamanese are so amalgamated they did not realize what was happening and the water came up to their huts,” says Abbi. “Then they ran. But they knew swimming. Some swam for seven hours and survived.”

Their ancient knowledge about nature, hardwired into their brains, helped them ride that tsunami. It proves, says Abbi, that when a tribe like the Jarawas want to be left alone, it’s better that they be left alone.

For other tribes it’s too late. Their languages are being lost because they want to learn Hindi to get government jobs. There is nothing wrong with learning Hindi per se but it is coming at the expense of their own language. When Abbi met Bo Senior, she had noone to talk to in her own language. “She was very depressed. Once I saw her talking to birds. Being childless she would try to interact with children but they were not interested in learning her language. So she would talk to herself.”

Abbi says for the tribes that are already some 50 years removed from their heritage living and language, thanks in part to government projects of outreach and assimilation, might as well learn Hindi and move on. “They have to survive,” she acknowledges.

The tsunami in a way laid bare a sophisticated knowledge base of languages that date back perhaps 20,000 years or more. These tribes are the last survivors of a pre-Neolithic population, descended from a migration from Africa that took place over 70,000 years ago. Now there are just a handful left in many of them. The present day Great Andamanese language that Abbi documented is a mixture of 3-4 languages once spoken on the island.

The tribes might have survived the tsunami but the languages are doomed says Abbi. Bo is already gone. Boa Senior died in 2010. And when each language goes it will take with it a cognitive aspect of perceiving the world. Abbi says the uniqueness of the Great Andamanese language is their grammar, which has no counterpart in aboriginal Australian languages or African languages or Indian ones.

“They perceive the whole world through their bodies,” she says. “So they divide the body into seven divisions and each division is represented by a mono-syllable. And they prefix these elements to every grammatical category. For example, they will say er-nose or er-eyes or er-muffler.”

That uniqueness has little value in the world outside their tribe. The last speakers are anxious to save the language, or at least document it. Abbi says the government would often deny her permission to go to islands like Strait Islands. So she would send letters there via ship and then the tribals would come to Port Blair on their own and sit for hours to give her the data, the names of trees and birds, to record songs.

She knows that some of it will only be a fragmentary documentation of a knowledge base, with no hope of saving the language. At the time she was documenting their language, there were only 55 Great Andamanese left. “Onge is another language that will die, not now but in 30-40 years. Onge should be documented next,” she says.

The tsunami showed us the resiliency of these tribals whose languages reflected their understanding of nature in a way most of modern civilization has long forgotten. But it also demonstrated the fragility of those languages and cultures, hanging on by a thread in these little dots on the map. Many were afraid the tsunami would wipe them out not realizing the far greater threat to them comes from the modern world outside.


Published Date: Dec 26, 2014 02:40 pm | Updated Date: Dec 26, 2014 02:42 pm

Also See