À la recherche du temps perdu

Languages, as most of us will readily testify, are living entities that adapt and evolve with the times. And become extinct, unless nurtured by population, culture or literature.

And sometimes not even then... As the Andamanese tribes become extinct, so does their tongue, and the efforts of my colleague, the linguist Anvita Abbi at JNU to preserve whatever is left is a fight against time... Her book Endangered Languages of the Andaman Islands is "on the languages of one of the world’s most endangered and ancient linguistic groups- the Andamanese. Andamanese, a language isolate, is considered the fifth language family of India. Based on fieldwork conducted in the impregnable jungles of the Andaman Islands, the author brings out a comparative linguistic sketch of Great Andamanese, Jarawa, and Onge. The book provides the first detailed description of phonology, word formation processes, morphophonemic processes, lexicon containing words from various semantic fields, and syntax of the three languages.

Similarities and differences between Great Andamanese, Jarawa and Onge are discussed to suggest possible genealogical affiliations and language contact. Considered to be the remnants of the first migration out of Africa 70,000 years before present, Andamanese communities and their language are highly endangered."

Indeed, speakers of these languages number 8 for Great Andamanese who don't even speak the language among themselves, 250 for Jarawa, and 94 for Onge... They are the last survivors of the pre-Neolithic population of the Southeast Asia. The book comes with a CD that contains songs rendered by the tribes, sound and video files, which help to provide more detailed phonetic and prosodic information as well as phonetic variation among the speakers of the dying and ‘mixed’ language such as Great Andamanese. The unique linguistic structures and the comparative typology will be of interest not only to linguists but also anthropologists, historians, South Asian and Southeast Asian scholars... Indeed to all of us.

But this is not just about language... So much more goes into making a people, and this is also in danger of becoming a distant memory of our species. In this context, the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, a voluntary organisation based in Vadodara, Gujarat, gives voice to and establishes spaces of equality for tribal and nomadic groups. Bhasha documentation and conservation of oral traditions, languages and cultural practices, socio-economic empowerment and human rights of tribal and nomadic communities. Bhasha has established the Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh for development of Tribal Studies as a serious philosophical and social thought. The Academy houses a Museum a Documentation and Media Unit and a Resource Centre. The Academy has instituted research and training courses for tribal empowerment and its extension work is spread in over 400 villages of Gujarat. Bhasha's community development work includes micro credit, food grain banks, water collectives, agriculture, non formal education and healthcare.

Bhasha was founded by Ganesh Devy, "an uncommon man who is fighting to preserve the vanishing cultures of rapidly vanishing tribes in the subcontinent", who was Professor of English at the M. S. University, Vadodara, and Director of the Tribal Training Academy, Tejgadh. Devy is one of the strongest champions of - and a strong voice for- Adivasis.

The day after this post, The Hindu reports: With 196 of its languages listed as endangered, India tops the UNESCO’s list of countries having the maximum number of dialects on the verge of extinction.