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Great Andamanese languages

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Great Andamanese
South Asia
either Andamanese or an independent language family
 Great Andamanese

Ethnolinguistic map of the precolonial Andaman Islands.

The Great Andamanese languages are a nearly extinct language family spoken by the Great Andamanese peoples of the Andaman Islands, a union territory of India.



From the 1860s onwards, the setting up of a permanent British penal colony and the subsequent arrival of immigrant settlers and indentured labourers, mainly from the Indian subcontinent, had a sustained destructive impact upon Great Andamanese society. By the turn of the 20th century the populations were greatly reduced in numbers, and the various linguistic and tribal divisions among the Great Andamanese effectively ceased to exist, despite a census of the time still classifying the groups as separate.[1] Their linguistic diversity also suffered as the surviving populations intermingled, and some of them intermarried with Karen (Burmese) and Indian settlers.

By the latter part of the 20th century the majority of Great Andamanese languages had become extinct, as the multi-lingual knowledge of the older generations was not replaced in succeeding ones. At the start of the 21st century only about 50 or so individuals of Great Andamanese descent remained, resettled to a single small island (Strait I.); about half of these speak what may be considered a modified version (or creole) of Great Andamanese, based mainly on Aka-Jeru.[2] This modified version has been called "Present Great Andamanese" by some scholars[3][4], but also may be referred to simply as "Jero" or "Great Andamanese". Hindi increasingly serves as their primary language, and is the only language for around half of them.[5]


The Great Andamanese languages are agglutinative languages, with an extensive prefix and suffix system.[3][6] Possibly their most distinctive characteristic is a noun class system based largely on body parts, in which every noun and adjective may take a prefix according to which body part it is associated with (on the basis of shape, or functional association).[4] Thus, for instance, the *aka- at the beginning of the language names is a prefix for objects related to the tongue.[6] An adjectival example can be given by the various forms of yop, "pliable, soft", in Aka-Bea:[6]

  • A cushion or sponge is ot-yop "round-soft", from the prefix attached to words relating to the head or heart.
  • A cane is ôto-yop, "pliable", from a prefix for long things.
  • A stick or pencil is aka-yop, "pointed", from the tongue prefix.
  • A fallen tree is ar-yop, "rotten", from the prefix for limbs or upright things.

Similarly, beri-nga "good" yields:

  • Un-beri-nga "clever" (hand-good).
  • Ig-beri-nga "sharp-sighted" (eye-good).
  • Aka-beri-nga "quick language learner" (tongue-good.)

Another peculiarity of terms for body parts is that they are inalienably possessed, requiring a possessive adjective prefix to complete them, so one cannot say "head" alone, but only "my, or his, or your, etc. head".[4]

The basic pronouns are almost identical throughout the Great Andamanese languages; Aka-Bea will serve as a representative example (pronouns given in their basic prefixal forms):

I, myd-we, ourm-
thou, thyŋ-you, yourŋ-
he, his, she, her, it, itsathey, theirl-

Judging from the available sources, the Andamanese languages have only two cardinal numbers: one and two and their entire numerical lexicon is one, two, one more, some more, and all.[6]

The languages and their classification

The Andaman languages fall into two clear families, Great Andamanese and Ongan, plus one unattested language, Sentinelese. These are generally seen as related. However, the similarities between Great Andamanese and Ongan are so far mainly of a typological morphological nature, with little demonstrated common vocabulary. As a result, even long-range researchers such as Joseph Greenberg have expressed doubts as to the validity of Andamanese as a family,[7]The Great Andaman languages are:[8] and Abbi (2008) considers the surviving Great Andamanese language to be an isolate.

Joseph Greenberg proposed that Great Andamanese is related to western Papuan languages as members of a larger phylum he called Indo-Pacific[7], but this is not generally accepted by other linguists. Stephen Wurm states that the lexical similarities between Great Andamanese and the West Papuan and certain languages of Timor "are quite striking and amount to virtual formal identity […] in a number of instances", but considers this to be due to a linguistic substratum rather than a direct relationship.[9]


The following poem in Aka-Bea was written by a chief, Jambu, after he was freed from a six-month jail term for manslaughter.[10]

ngô:do kûk l'àrtâ:lagî:ka,
mō:ro el:ma kâ igbâ:dàla
mō:ro el:mo lê aden:yarà
pō:-tōt läh.
Chorus: aden:yarà pō:-tōt läh.


thou heart-sad art,
sky-surface to there looking while,
sky-surface of ripple to looking while,
bamboo spear on lean-dost.


Thou art sad at heart,
gazing there at the sky's surface,
gazing at the ripple on the sky's surface,
leaning on the bamboo spear.

Note, however, that, as seems to be typical of Andamanese poetry, the words and sentence structure have been somewhat abbreviated or inverted in order to obtain the desired rhythmical effect.

As another example, we give part of a creation myth in Oko-Juwoi, reminiscent of Prometheus:

Kuro-t'on-mik-a Mom Mirit-la, Bilik l'ôkô-ema-t, peakar at-lo top - chike at laiche Lech-lin a, kotik a ôko-kodak-chine at-lo Karat-tatak-emi-in.


"Kuro-t'on-mik-in Mr. Pigeon, God _-slep-t, wood fire-with stealing - was fire the+late Lech-to he, then he _-fire-make-did fire-with Karat-tatak-emi-at."

Translated (by Portman):

Mr. Pigeon stole a firebrand at Kuro-t'on-mika, while God was sleeping. He gave the brand to the late Lech, who then made fires at Karat-tatak-emi.


  1. ^ Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1922). The Andaman Islanders: A study in social anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ Abbi, Anvita (2008). “Is Great Andamanese genealogically and typologically distinct from Onge and Jarawa?” Language Sciences, doi:10.1016/j.langsci.2008.02.002
  3. ^ a b Abbi, Anvita (2006). Endangered Languages of the Andaman Islands. Germany: Lincom GmbH.
  4. ^ a b c Burenhult, Niclas (1996). "Deep linguistic prehistory with particular reference to Andamanese." Working Papers 45, 5-24. Lund University: Department of Linguistics
  5. ^ Abbi, Anvita, Bidisha Som and Alok Das. 2007. “Where Have All The Speakers Gone? A Sociolinguistic Study of the Great Andamanese.” Indian Linguistics, 68.3-4: 325-343.
  6. ^ a b c d Temple, Richard C. (1902). A Grammar of the Andamanese Languages, being Chapter IV of Part I of the Census Report on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Superintendent's Printing Press: Port Blair.
  7. ^ a b Greenberg, Joseph (1971). "The Indo-Pacific hypothesis." Current trends in linguistics vol. 8, ed. by Thomas A. Sebeok, 807.71. The Hague: Mouton.
  8. ^ Manoharan, S. (1983). "Subgrouping Andamanese group oflanguages." International Journal of Dravidian LinguisticsXII(1): 82-95.
  9. ^ Wurm, S.A. (1977). New Guinea Area Languages and Language Study, Volume 1: Papuan Languages and the New Guinea Linguistic Scene. Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, Canberra.
  10. ^ Man, E.H. (1923). Dictionary of the South Andaman Language. British India Press: Bombay


  • Yadav, Yogendra. 1985. "Great Andamanese: a preliminary study." Pacific Linguistics, Series A, No. 67: 185-214. Canberra: The Australian National University.

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