The word ‘boa’, meaning ‘land’, may never be spoken again. Boa Senior, the last speaker of a language called Bo, died on January 26 in Port Blair. She was aged around 85. With her death, the language she spoke has become extinct.
There used to be 10 Great Andamanese languages, according to linguist Prof Anvita Abbi of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who has worked among them since 2002 and knew Boa Sr. “Since she was the only Bo speaker, she was lonely as she had no one to converse with,” Prof Abbi said.
However, she could communicate with others as she also spoke the modern Great Andamanese language, a combination of Bo and languages called Jeru, Sare and Khora. She also spoke a pidgin Hindi called Andamanese Hindi. She survived the 2004 tsunami by running up a hill — no mean feat for a woman in her late 70s.
“With her death and extinction of the Bo language, a unique part of human society is now just a memory,” said Stephen Corry, director of the NGO Survival International, which works in the area of tribal rights.
“Boa’s loss is a reminder that we must not allow this to happen to other tribes of the Andamans,” Corry added.
The Bo people are thought to have been among the first to move out of Africa into Southeast Asia and India. They lived on the Andaman Islands for 65,000 years but began to die out after modern civilization in the form of British colonialism arrived in 1858.
Only 52 members of the Great Andamanese tribe, who live on a 2-km-by-2-km island called Strait Island, 98 km from Port Blair, are now left. None of them speak Bo.
“They are unique because they are the only representatives of that first human migration,” said P.B. Padmanabhan, superintending anthropologist with the Anthropological Survey of India (ANSI). Officials of ANSI in the organisation’s Kolkata headquarters and at Port Blair were unaware of Boa’s existence or demise.
Prof Abbi said one of the reasons the tribes’ demise is because of the quality of work done by the ANSI.