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andamanese varnamaala


The project “Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese” was funded by the Hans Rausing Endangered Language Fund under the Major Documentation Project, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, U.K (2005-2009). The project highlighted the need for policy to assist in the revitalization of threatened languages and cultures. Its primary objective was to obtain first-hand knowledge of the linguistic situation of the aboriginal communities, as a basis for developing an interactive tri-lingual dictionary (Hindi-English-Great Andamanese). Another important reason for undertaking this project was to confirm the hypothesis that the Great Andamanese seemed to be a language distinct from the rest of the tribal languages of the islands, implying that this could have been the sixth language family of India (Abbi 2003, 2006). This has now been confirmed [Language Sciences 2009 Vol 31. Pp 791-812] and was corroborated by geneticists.

The project gathered oral histories, pictures of the local habitat, audio and video recordings of the surviving speakers, as well as sociolinguistic sketches Publications These sketches highlight local beliefs and behaviours, indigenous names of the islands and their different locations, as well as indigenous knowledge pertaining to the biodiversity that once existed in the islands, which is stored in the lexicon. Please view various relevant drop boxed given here. Recorded information includes the names of a large variety of endemic birds, crabs and fish, various words pertaining to different areas of sea shore and deep sea, uses of different kinds of leaves for hunting and gathering activities as well as for medicinal purposes, and local ecological knowledge of impending environmental disasters. A remarkable example in this regard is the perception that the Great Andamanese people had of the approaching tsunami that hit the region in 2004 and the means they employed to save themselves from devastation.

The trilingual and tri-scriptal dictionary in Great Andamanese-English-Hindi has now been completed and will soon be published by Ratna Sagar, Delhi. Sample pages can be found here on this website. Dictionary  The dictionary includes 4250 words, accompanied by 400 colour pictures and more than 900 sound files. It is rich in detailed ethnographic information and ecological knowledge that the Andamanese still possess. When a demonstration of the dictionary was made to the Great Andamanese tribes, there was a great sense of happiness and pride among them. Some of the elders were immensely thankful to the project leader for undertaking the work, something that could not have been accomplished without the help of the speakers themselves. The lexicon of the Great Andamanese language in English  as well as in IPA orthography can be accessed from this website under Dictionary.

Another major outcome of this project is a comprehensive grammarof the Great Andamanese language, which is still in the process of being completed. Samples can be viewed on Language Analysis.

Extensive video and audio recordings of narrations, songs, tales, and dialogues in the natural surroundings of the tribes are documented. Songs

Some significant research papers include

[1] Where Have all the Speakers Gone? A Sociolinguistic Study of the Great Andamanese (Abbi, Som and Das, 2007. Indian Linguistics, 68, 3-4, 32-343);
[2] Language Documentation in Andamans: Highs and Lows. Abhishek Avtans and Anvita Abbi 2006. The Proceedings of the Tenth Foundation of Endangered Languages Conference, Vital Voices: Endangered languages and Multilingualism, Ed- R Elangaiyan, R.Mckenna Brown, Nicholas D.M. Ostler and Mahendra K Verma  73-76. CIIL, Mysore.
[3] The Last Word. A Multilingual Interactive Dictionary of the Great Andamanese language. Hindi. January-March 2009. Vardha. 228-235.
[4]  Where have all the Speakers gone? A case of Depleting Populations, Depleting languages and loss of Biocultural diversity in the Andaman Islands. In Endangered languages in India. Edited by Kamalini Sengupta. New Delhi, INTACH 2010;
[5]  Vanishing Languages. G&Y Geography and You. Vol. 10. Issue 59 April 2010.

A book on “Endangered Languages of the Andaman Islands(Abbi, 2006) with an accompanying CD-Rom that presents, for the first time, the sounds and pictures of the tribes in their natural surroundings, serving as a rare audiovisual account was published by Lincom Europa, Munich.

Recently Anvita Abbi and a noted ornithologist Dr. Satish Pande compiled a book on the   Ethno-Linguistic Perspective of Names of Birds in the Great Andamanese Language. The book is being brought out by the Ela Foundation, Pune, by the name  Birds of Andaman in the Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese

A small picture book of photographs of the tribes in their local environments recording birth, death, cultural ceremonies, and life in both rural and urban areas has also been prepared.

A first-ever CD of Folk Songsof Great Andamanese was launched in March 2008 in Port Blair and a copy of it was distributed to every household of the tribe in a function held in the school where most of the Andamanese children study. The viewers of this website can hear the songs sung primarily by Boa Sr. in the drop box Songs

No one in the community had heard any folk tale or story in the last fifty years, as when a language dies the art of storytelling and the indigenous folk tales die along with it. However, with great difficulty (consult my field diary), ten short stories were recorded in multiple sessions from the elders of the society. A collection of these folk tales is being published by the National Book Trust, Delhi, India. Individual stories in the form of individual books for children are in press. Each book will be colourfully illustrated and translated into eighteen official languages of India. These stories will reach a large number of people to share knowledge of one of the most ancient civilization of the world. The readers can access to one of the creation myths on this site ‘Phertajido’

To impart literacy among the young tribal children, the first Book of Letters by the name of Varnamaala ( a string of pearls) was written in the Devanagari script, the script that is officially accepted in the state of Andaman and Nicobar. The book contains multicoloured pictures and was distributed to every child in the community. The local administration has acknowledged that the project has brought desired results. The teaching of the language has been introduced to small children studying in the Nursery School of the Strait Island.

Three of the research team members wrote their dissertations leading to Ph.D. and M.Phil. degrees on the Great Andamanese language. These are mentioned below.

  1. A Lexico-Semantic Study of the Great Andamanese: A Thematic Approach, Ph.D. dissertation by Bidisha Som (awarded November 2006).
  2.  Deictic Categories in Great Andamanese, M.Phil. dissertation by Abhishek   Avtans (awarded 2007).
  3. Developing a Computational Framework for the Verb-Morphology of Great Andamanese, M.Phil. dissertation by Narayan Choudhary (awarded 2007).
  4. Comparative lexicon of Old Lexicon and Present Great Andamanese. M.Phil. dissertation by Mayank (submitted 2010)

Acoustic study of problematic sounds such as labialized lateral and alveolar laterals has been made and archived. Study of various vowels was also undertaken to see the formant structure of these sounds.   

There were significant challenges in the task of documenting this language. First, there was a lack of will on the part of the community and the Government of India, who did not come forward to facilitate the project. A host of bureaucratic hurdles had to be overcome to achieve the project’s goals. Some of the local officials who were to issue passes to travel to Strait Island would not oblige despite permits from the Ministry of Tribal Welfare and the Ministry of Human Resource and Development. Once the work started and the community members understood the motive and realized the importance of the work, they were ready to assist.

Another challenge was the lifestyle of the male members of the community. Alcoholism has had a negative impact on the society, and most often male members were unavailable for interviews because of excessive drinking. This is one of the main reasons for short life span of the male members of the society.

There are mixed opinions on the project in the Great Andamanese community: the elders are sad to see that the heritage language is virtually dead, since their children do not understand it. They are also concerned that the youth no longer know how to make a boat or hunt in the sea or in the forest. However, most of the members see no problem with losing their language, as they do not think that their language is of any importance to the modern world. They consider language only as one of the identity markers, others being their physiological features and way of living.

Despite the hurdles, it can be said that the project has been very successful. It achieved much more beyond the initial goal of language documentation.

The main reason for success was two exceptionally helpful consultants, who were more than willing to assist with data elicitation. One of the male research assistants thinks that if more male members were available, more could have been accomplished. The consultants involved in the project felt that the Government should take the initiative to hire them to teach the basic Great Andamanese in schools and introduce a course in the school on Andamanese culture. Nao Jr., a Great Andamanese speaker, commented: ‘Our own children do not understand us. We should tell them what we are and what we speak.’

Prof. Anvita Abbi
May 27, 2010
We had the opportunity of engaging following members as the team members from time-to-time.

  1. Dr. Alok Das: Post Doc. Fellow
  2. Mr. Narayan Choudhury : Research Assistant
  3. Mr. Abhishek Avatans: Research Assistant
  4. Dr. Bidisha Som: Research Assistant and later as the Post Doc Fellow
  5. Mr. Mayank Jain: Technical Assistant
  6. Ms Karen Buseman: The Technical Consultant [she is the pillar of our dictionary making]


Boa Sr.


Noa Jr.