In the Andaman Islands, the secrets of a language from the dawn of time

Delhi (India)

From our correspondent

The first man was called Phertajido, born of a bamboo. Alone, he spent his days hunting with his bow. Five arrows led him towards water, earth, fire, space and sky. From these spoils, he fashioned Kaut, a human sculpture which he created according to his sense of perfection. One day, returning from the hunt, he discovered that his sculpture had come to life. He cried with happiness and rushed into Kaut’s arms. Both became husband and wife and had many children. When they had done their time on earth, Phertajido and Kaut said goodbye to their children. They climbed a rope and disappeared above the clouds, being careful to cut the rope behind them.

When Professor Anvita Abbi, a linguist specializing in Indian tribal languages, hears this ancient myth, she knows it is priceless. She will retrace it in her 24e work, Voices from the lost horizon (“Voice of the Lost Horizon”), published last month. On the borders of the Andaman-and-Nicobar archipelago, it was Nao, one of the last members of the tribe of the Great Andamanese, who told him, in 2006, the tale of his childhood. He then thinks of satisfying in one evening the stubborn curiosity of this Indian woman dressed in pretty saris who, since 2001, comes regularly by boat to her island, Strait Island. The 54 members of her tribe are all impressed by the will of this luminous woman who, armed with an assistant, a recorder, notebooks, food and cleaning products, settles for a few weeks in their 4 km island2 comprising eight houses.

One evening, Nao agrees to join Anvita Abbi in the official “guesthouse” of the island, an unsanitary hut, vainly cleaned by the eminent linguist. He is one of the few to have shown a vague interest in his project to catalog the tales of the Great Andamanians. He looks for his words, mixes languages ​​and hesitates. But, suddenly, the story pops up in snatches from the depths of his memory. And Nao will come back many evenings to complete the narration. As the sessions progress, he is overwhelmed by the pleasure he feels in telling stories. Each time, he wants to start the story all over again. “Why do you like this story so much?” “, ends up asking the linguist. Because it’s the most beautiful love story! “, Nao answers him. Anvita Abbi understands that he sees in it the ideal of women, the sublimated creation of man.

This myth may be one of the oldest in mankind, as are the words of Nao, who also helped Anvita Abbi write a dictionary of the Great Andamanese. Tireless word hunter, relentless soldier of linguistics, this 72-year-old woman is the only scientist to have documented this language. After receiving a doctorate from Cornell University in 1975, this writer’s daughter became a pioneer in the field of tribal languages ​​in her country. In Delhi, the linguist marked the prestigious Jawaharlal-Nehru University (JNU) through her teaching and her work was consecrated by the Padma Shri, a high civil honor.

In 2000, Anvita Abbi decided to document the languages ​​of the pre-Neolithic tribes of the distant archipelago. Small in stature and black skin, the Great Andamanians, Onges, Jarawas and Sentinels came from Africa 70,000 years ago and remained without external contact until the 19th century.e century. In 1858, when the British colonists made these islands a penitentiary center, the Great Andamanese numbered more than 4,000 members scattered in ten clans. In 1970, the last survivors were gathered by the authorities on Strait Island, in order to protect them. Dependent on government aid to survive, often staying in the capital of Port-Blair which they prefer to their island, they abandoned their way of life and learned local Hindi.

When Anvita Abbi discovers Strait Island, only the elders know Bo, Khora, Sare and Jero, four of the ten languages ​​once spoken by their ten clans, all of which have merged to form a new dialect. The linguist then thinks that the great Andamanese belongs to the family of languages ​​of the other tribes of the “negroid” type of the archipelago. To my amazement, I discovered that it was distinct and had structures that we had never heard of. The scientist presented her first work in Germany, to the Max-Planck Institute, which decided to fund her research. Anvita Abbi will thus succeed in demonstrating the uniqueness of this language. “I wouldn’t be surprised if scientists one day find out that it is the oldest language in the world. Its structures bear witness to a community without possession and living in the jungle. Language is based on an anthropocentric perception of the world: the relationship to the world is established in relation to the body.

Over the course of her visits, Anvita Abbi forges links and becomes close to Boa, the last speaker of the Bo language, who died in 2010. The latter admits to her, laughing, that she was initially put off by ” ugliness of her fair skin. And whites are worse!, says Boa. They look like animals that have been butchered. “ Boa spends hours with her linguist friend. “You are the only person I can speak my language with“, she told him, saddened each time she left. Anvita Abbi also befriends Licho, who died last year carrying the Saree language she was the last to speak. Sensing the imminent end of the last speakers, Anvita Abbi redoubled her efforts for twenty years, sometimes paying for her trips to Strait Island during her holidays.

Very quickly, the Great Andamanians lend themselves to the game. If she does not accompany them in the morning fishing, they take care to bring back the fish to her before consuming them, so that she can document them. I, who was a vegetarian, knew nothing about the animal cycle! “ In the jungle, the natives refer to the names of trees, plants and birds. I discovered that these names have similarities to Greek and Latin, she explains. The names of birds can be analyzed morphologically. With the help of her assistants, she will identify 97 names of birds and 151 of fish.

“I was very marked by the spirit of tolerance of the Great Andamanians. There is never gratuitous violence. They are extremely open to others. “ The other side of the coin is that they are caught up in civilization. Many of them sink into alcohol, like Nao, who died of it. Until the coronavirus, which affected a dozen Greater Andamanians, forcing the authorities to prohibit them from leaving their island.

It is sad to be the silent witness of the gradual extinction of a language and, through it, of a door to an exceptional knowledge ”, underlines Anvita Abbi, who keeps her friend Boa’s request with testamentary accents as her mission: Don’t let the tongue escape forever. Hold it back. “


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