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Review

Voices from the Lost Horizon

A Book review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Voices from the Lost Horizon: Stories and Songs of the Great Andamanese

Author: Anvita Abbi

Publisher: Niyogi Books, 2021

Professor Anvita Abbi is a distinguished researcher on minority languages and perhaps the only one in the Indian subcontinent who has done first-hand field study on all the six language families from the Himalayas to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. She taught linguistics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University for 38 years, was the President of the Linguistic Society of India, and has been invited as a visiting professor and researcher at prestigious institutions in the USA, Europe, Canada, and Australia. She served long as an expert from the UNESCO on issues concerning languages.

During her studies in 2003–2004, she identified a new language family of India—the Great Andamanese, which was corroborated in 2005 by population geneticists. Her pioneering work was recognized by the Government of India and she was awarded the Padma Shri in 2013. In 2015, she received the Kenneth Hale Award, most prestigious in the field of linguistics, for her outstanding contribution to the documentation and description of Indian languages, from the Linguistic Society of America, where she was also elected as an honorary member. She has 22 books to her credit, including the Dictionary of the Great Andamanese Language. English-Great Andamanese-Hindi (2011) and A Grammar of the Great Andamanese Language: An Ethnolinguistic Study (2013).

A 2018 analysis of a census says that more than 19,500 languages or dialects are spoken in India as mother tongues whilst only 122 of them are major languages. After the 1971 census, Indian Government decided that any language spoken by less than 10,000 people in India need not be included in the official list of languages. According to UNESCO, any language that is spoken by less than 10,000 people is potentially endangered. When a language dies, it’s not only the history, beliefs, customs of people that wither but also a distinct worldview that vanishes forever; a view, that could possibly have added to a greater understanding of ways of living of a people. Disappearance of a language may come for many different reasons like migration, urbanization, threat from external sources or language domination and when that happens, unique livelihood patterns, knowledge and skills may also disappear. 

In the preface, Anvita Abbi writes that when she visited Andaman Islands in 2005, there were only eight surviving speakers of Great Andamanese, a moribund language of the only surviving pre-Neolithic tribe which had migrated out of Africa 70,000 years ago. The language was already on the brink of extinction. And none of the speakers were proficient enough to tell any tales, either in Great Andamanese or Andamanese Hindi. The fact that she still compiled 10 stories and 46 songs that make this unique collection is a testament of her will, hard work and dedication to the cause of retaining some remnants of a dying language and thereby preserving and contributing to the rich heritage of the Islands.

The Andaman Islands i.e. the Great Andaman, Little Andaman and North Sentinel Islands have been home to mainly four tribes – the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa and Sentinelese whose languages are also named the same. The author tells us that the Great Andamanese is a generic term representing 10 languages, once spoken by ten tribes living in north, south and middle of Great Andaman Islands. And Present Day Great Andamanese (PGA), however, is a mixture of four northern varieties of Great Andamanese languages i.e. Jeru, Khora, Bo and Sare and the grammar of the language is based on Jeru.

While the task of collecting stories and songs in the language was difficult, Abbi was helped by two speakers of Great Andamanese. One was Boa Sr. whose ancestral language was Bo. She had not conversed with anyone in her language for 30-40 years prior to that. The other speaker, Nao Jr. was a male member of the society and the only one to remember the Great Andamanese language and names of various natural objects, birds and fishes. Of the 10 stories in the book, one is narrated by Boa Sr. while the rest are narrated by Nao Jr. and while four stories were narrated in bilingual mode i.e. Great Andamanese and Andamanese Hindi, six were narrated in Adamanese Hindi only. The original versions of the stories in Great Andamanese language with line-by-line translation in English is given in the Appendix of the book. What makes this book really unusual is that the readers can have an audio-visual experience at the end of each narrative. Each story carries with it a song towards the end in the form of a QR code which can be scanned for an audio-visual recording of the song, The songs are mostly sung by Boa Sr. from Bo tribe.

It is interesting to note that all 46 songs are only of one line or a phrase which is sung again and again. Their documentation in the book is done in all the three languages i.e. first in original (in Roman script), second in Devanagri Script (which was given to the language) and third an English translation.

The book also carries pictures of Great Andamanese birds, considered to be the ancestors of Andamaneses, along with their names. It is quite interesting to note that their names have some inherent meaning as the story Maya Jiro Mithe, a kind of creation myth, informs us of the evolution of birds and their distinct and varied names.

The folk tales and songs included in this book open the reader to the world of Great Andamanese tribes, their beliefs, ways of life, knowledge, culture and their relation with nature. The diligence with which Prof. Anvita Abbi has pursued the project of compiling stories and songs of a disappearing language is evident through her exceptional work. A reader can possibly only imagine how difficult it might have been for the author to document a language and its grammar, when she could only understand it through the eyes and words of its native speakers. She has done an outstanding job towards the revival of a vanishing language, towards preserving the voices which might have otherwise been lost to the rest of the world and with it a culture woven with their intrinsic knowledge of survival and living with nature.

Click here to read Anvita Abbi’s interview.

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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