In Dispatches,News and Views

Remembering Licho, the Last Speaker of the Sare Language

Folk tale creation myth released by Licho, last speaker of Sare

Licho (left) standing with Anvita Abbi and holding her book of Great Andamanese creation myths. Photo: Satish Abbi, 2013

Last month, there were just four people left on earth who could speak a language from the Great Andamanic family, which hails from the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. On April 4, one of those speakers—a woman named Licho—passed away from tuberculosis and heart disease. She was the last woman alive to speak Sare. For the past 20 years, Licho had worked to preserve the Great Andamanese language for future generations, collaborating with educational organizations and prominent linguists like Anvita Abbi, whom we’ve interviewed for this blog post. As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads to Indigenous communities like the Andaman Islands, Abbi worries for the Indigenous Peoples in remote areas, whose lives and languages are especially at risk. We interviewed Abbi by email.

Terralingua: We’re deeply sorry to hear of your loss, knowing that Licho was your dear friend as well as a colleague. Can you tell us a bit about her and the work you did together?

Anvita Abbi:
I knew and worked with Licho for the last 20 years. My very first introduction to her was when I reached the island in 2000–2001. She was a bold and forthright person and an activist who was ready to fight with the administration for the rights of tribals. She taught me the Present Great Andamanese (PGA) language, a koiné (mixture) of a kind where words are drawn from four North Andamanese languages (Bo, Khora, Sare, and Jero/Jeru), but the grammar is based on Jero. Licho hailed from the Sare background, as her foster grandmother who brought her up was a Sare speaker. With Licho’s death we have lost the last speaker of Sare.

As I wrote in Scientific American, Licho had also strongly opposed the construction of a road through the territory of the Jarawa, another endangered tribe living on the Andaman Islands. “The Jarawa will be decimated, just like us,” she feared. Licho worked with the Education Department of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and was one of the smartest women of the tribe. In 2013, I was honoured to have her launch the first book of Great Andamanese creation myths [see photo above].

Licho’s teachings also helped me prepare the encyclopedic dictionary of the language. When I was working on the grammar of the language, I would visit her at Adi Basera—the Tribal Home for the Great Andamanese tribes in Port Blair [the capital of the Andaman Islands]. She always left whatever work she was involved with and sat with me for hours without showing any sign of boredom or tiredness. Her judgement about the grammaticality of the sentences helped me in framing grammatical rules of the language. Often, she would identify the etymology of a word in the language and inform me as to whether it belonged to Sare, Khora, or Jeru.

Dictionary of the Great Andamanese Language, Anvita AbbiGrammar book for Great Andamanese Language, Anvita Abbi

Licho was a strong individual who struggled despite all odds for the betterment of her children. Nothing brought her spirits down. She carried the legacy of one of the oldest civilizations, and its language, on this earth. While others in the community were proud to forget their language, she remembered the heritage language and often lamented that the community at large had taken to Andamanese Hindi. Licho was proud of her ancestry—those who were known for valour, courage, and fearlessness. She told me that she was taught hunting in the jungle by her father and grandfather.

TL: In your moving Scientific American blog post, you mentioned that Andaman Islanders descended from one of the ancient “founder populations” of modern humans. Can you tell us briefly about these peoples and their history, both pre- and post-colonization? How many remain today?

AA: The genetic history of Andamanese tribes in general and the Great Andamanese, in particular, is of seminal importance for understanding the evolution of modern humans. As I wrote in the Scientific American post, population geneticists believe that the Andaman Islanders descend from one of the founder populations of modern humans, which migrated out of Africa tens of thousands years ago to populate South Asia, Southeast Asia, New Guinea, and Australia. For millennia, they fiercely defended their shores and successfully protected themselves from outsider diseases and other threats. Thus, Great Andamanese are our ancestors, as these Pre-Neolithic tribes are the first settlers of South and Southeast Asia. Other than the Great Andamanese—who now number just 60 in all—the archipelago is also home to roughly 120 Onge and 550 Jarawa, whose languages belong to what I described in 2003 as the Ang family. On North Sentinel Island, yet another tribe of 50 members or so probably speaks an Ang language; all four tribes belong to the Negrito ethnic race.

I was fortunate to work on the languages of all except the Sentinelese. My research indicates that we cannot rule out the possibility of multiple dispersions from Africa at different times, and from different locations within Africa. We may also consider positing not one but two separate migrations out of Africa into the Andamans; the first one by the Great Andamanese, and the second one by the Ang family. This view has not been refuted so far.

Endangered Languages of the Andaman Islands, Anvita Abbi

Anvita Abbi’s book on the endangered languages of the Andaman Islands.

The Andaman history of contact with colonial rule is marked by the genocide of their culture, language, and human existence. External contact decimated the tribes gradually as their vulnerable immune systems could not withstand even the common diseases of the outsiders. This is not only true of India, but is prevalent all over the world as Indigenous communities have been shrinking due to outsider contact. Lack of basic health services and information in their native languages also renders them vulnerable to multiple diseases. The latest example is from the Amazon forest, where a 20-year-old woman from the Kokama tribe tested positive for coronavirus.

TL: Yes, colonists have long brought illnesses to hunter-gather societies who have no immunity to these diseases. As coronavirus sweeps the globe, what are your concerns for the Andaman Islanders—and for other rural Indigenous communities? What are the implications for both lives and endangered languages?

AA: The Andaman islanders are in constant exposure to the locals [migrants who came from mainland India to make Andaman their homes in the early ’60s and ’70s] as some of the younger members of the Great Andamanese tribe are employed in the public sector. Others live in Port Blair and frequent the markets on daily basis. Jarawa are the ones who are very vulnerable, as the Andaman Trunk Road cuts through their forest and is frequented by human safaris of hundreds of people every day. It is a common sight to see Jarawa visiting roadside kiosks. Although Onges live far off in Little Andaman, almost 100 kms away from the city of Port Blair, they are equally vulnerable because their reserve houses several government officials and doctors. Low immunity to various city diseases and the lack of available literature in local languages on preventing the spread of COVID-19 make these three tribes vulnerable to succumbing to the virus. If that happens, there will be no way to save them, and we will lose one of the most ancient living civilizations and languages of the world. As of now, it appears that these tribes are sitting on the tip of a volcano of viruses that’s ready to erupt. They all saved themselves against the tsunami of 2004 because of their Indigenous knowledge, but the coronavirus is a new demon brought by the city dwellers.

Late Great Andamanese language speaker Licho with her newborn Berebe 2005 post tsunami camp

Late Great Andamanese language speaker Licho with her newborn, Berebe, in 2005, at a post-tsunami camp. Photo: Bishakha, 2005

TL: That is extremely concerning, yes. Let’s talk a bit about the history and structure of Great Andamanese languages. Can you tell our readers what’s so special about this language? 

AA: My research established that Great Andamanic is the sixth language family of India, which had ten languages in its fold—but most of them became extinct by 1935. Great Andamanic shares no features with other Andamanese languages (such as Jarawa and Onge), nor with languages spoken in mainland India. The structure of Great Andamanic languages is distinct among language families in that it is based on an anthropocentric viewpoint. As I wrote in the Scientific American article,

The human body is the primary model for expressing concepts of spatial orientation, categories and relations between objects and actions and events. The body is divided into seven zones, each designated by an abstract symbol that is attached to nouns, verbs, adjectives and other grammatical categories to create different meanings. So, for instance, the prefix er- denotes an external body part, whereas e- denotes an internal one… The system appears to have arisen in a prehistoric era when human beings conceptualized their world through their bodies and may shed light on the early stages of language evolution.

As an example of the prefixes: e-tei will refer to “someone’s blood or fever” and e-binge will mean “to think” because it is internalized activity. Words for flora and fauna are never preceded by any bodily markers, unless one is describing a part of the object. For instance, tech means “leaves,” but if one is describing the leaves of a tree (which are still on the tree), it will be rendered as er-tech. These bodily markers are found throughout all categories of Great Andamanese grammar—a unique feature which has not been attested in any other language of the world, to the best of my knowledge.

TL: Some might argue for the case of homogeneity, that fewer languages spoken by many worldwide is simpler. We have a different perspective here at Terralingua, of course! From your perspective, what is the value of maintaining the vitality of these endangered languages? What do they have to teach us?

AA: Who knows better than Terralingua about the merits of linguistic diversity? As a linguist I would like to draw the attention of your readers to the diverse linguistic structures that inform us about the various ways human being can perceive the universe and build their cognitive power. I believe that languages carry evidence of earlier environment, habitat, beliefs, and practices which are no longer in the memory of the community. Hence, the death of a language signifies the closure of the link with its ancient heritage. Linguistic diversity has given us the power of sustenance, tolerance, and acceptance of “the other.” Uniformity kills, while diversity helps us to adapt and accommodate, the two reasons why Homo Sapiens have survived so long. Our secret of sustenance on this earth lies in the mantra of diversity. If we lose this—whether it is biological, cultural, or linguistic—we are bound to be exterminated from this earth much faster than anticipated.

With the advent of literacy and education, diverse spoken languages eventually became marginalized. Single-language domination in a plurilingual society pushed many languages to a minority status, even though some of these had a larger number of speakers than those on the throne of dominance. Linguistic imperialism and linguistic marginalization are two points of the same spectrum. Thus, the apartheid situation is created by us through adopting an education policy that is not inclusive in nature. We have to remember that multilingualism brings in the acceptance of others and social cohesion.

When lexicons and grammar represent cultural and ecological knowledge as well as the specific worldview, the loss of a language is not merely a case of language death but rather the extinction of hundreds and thousands of years of accumulated experience and values. Language loss is often not voluntary; it frequently involves violations of human rights, with oppression or repression of speakers of minority languages.

TL: How do the younger generations of Andamanese feel about these languages? Are they interested in learning them in any capacity? Are there any other language champions in the community? What is being done to stimulate pride and interest?

AA: It is a pathetic situation that the youth are happy to forget their language, as they want to assimilate with the dominant crowd of Hindi speakers. Single-language domination and ignoring the Indigenous languages of the region in school education encourages an inferiority complex among younger generations of the Great Andamanese. Jarawa and Onge, on the contrary, retain their languages as they are away from the perils of modern civilization.

TL: As you remember Licho and the work you did together, what work will you carry forward?

I have developed a kind of reverence for the Great Andamanese language, primarily because of my association with Licho and Nao Jr. (who died in January 2009). This reverence has inspired me to write an encyclopedic talking dictionary; a grammar of the language; educational material on Indigenous knowledge; a book of alphabets; a book of names and classification of birds (Luisa Maffi, the Director of Terralingua, wrote the foreword for it); a CD of songs, and hundreds of images. Most of the materials are being archived with the ELDP program of SOAS (Endangered Languages Documentation Program at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, UK.

Birds of the Great Andamanese-Oxford University Press

Birds of the Great Andamanese, Oxford University Press.

My future plans are to bring out a book on the folklore of the language. When a language dies, the narrative power dies first; however, songs stay in the memory of the community. With the help of Nao Jr., I was able to elicit 10 remarkable and very unusual stories. Boa Sr.—the last speaker of the Bo language, who died in January 2010—sang several songs for me. All these are included in the forthcoming book, which is going to be published by Niyogi Books in New Delhi.

I will be incredibly happy if I am given the opportunity to introduce the language in the schools of Andaman. I will be equally happy to contribute in writing school material for Indian children, introducing them to the extensive Indigenous knowledge about flora and fauna and other ecological aspects of the archipelago of Andaman. A similar exercise was done a few years ago with Terralingua to introduce Canadian children to the world of Great Andamanese.

TL: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your memories of Licho, your insights on the Great Andamanese language, and these beautiful photos with us.

Author’s Note: In 2015, Anvita Abbi’s “Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese” project was one of the case studies featured in the book Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook by Luisa Maffi and Ellen Woodley. The book is a unique resource for anyone interested in the theory and practice of the field of biocultural diversity—a holistic approach to understanding the links between nature and culture and the interrelationships between humans and the environment at scales from the global to the local. Click here to order it now. For more information on Conserving Biocultural Diversity in general, please explore our “Biocultural Diversity Toolkit.”