Foundation for Endangered Languages

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3. Endangered Languages in the News

Effects of the Tsunami: the Fate of the Languages of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

There has been considerable chatter about the effect of the tsunami of 26 December on the tiny communities of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands - each with their own distinct language. The islands are very close to the epicentre of the quake, and there were rumours that whole languages might have been wiped out.

Luckily, as we report below, the effects, both of earthquake and tsunami, appear to have been remarkably slight, at least among these people. There is even suggestion that the largely isolated (and in some cases uncontacted) people may have some special earth awareness that the modern world could learn from.

Nevertheless, the fact that the issue has been raised in linguistic terms shows how the issue of language endangerment has been rising in popular (and media) awareness.


The Jarawa, Onge, Sentinelese and Great Andamanese are thought to have travelled to the Andaman Islands from Africa up to 60,000 years ago. They are said to be racially of Negrito stock. The fact that the languages of the four tribes are mutually unintelligible indicate that they lived isolated lives on reaching the islands. However, their ways of life are similar - all are nomadic hunter-gatherers living from the forest and by fishing in the coastal waters. They have suffered terribly since the islands were colonized, first by the British, and later by India.

(The Nicobarese, racially Mongoloid, are believed to have immigrated from the opposite direction, much more recently but still anciently. Their languages are classified within the Mon-Khmer group of the Austro-asiatic language family.)

SIL Ethnologue has recognized 10 distinct Great Andamanese languages (6 central and 4 northern) of which all but A-Puchikwar, a central language) are extinct.) These were all distinct from Jarawa, Ínge and Sentinelese They also recognize 5 distinct Nicobarese languages as well as Shompeng.

Bibliographies on the languages, and some general information, can also be found at:

A basic statement of the issues and the outcome was provided by Survival International on 2 January 2005

First Confirmed News on Isolated Tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India

The first authoritative reports are now coming in on the fate of the five isolated tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, hit hard by the Asian quake disaster. All appear to have survived. The more numerous Nicobarese tribe, however, has suffered huge loss of life.

* The 270 Jarawa, who lived in complete isolation until recently, appear to have escaped unharmed. They almost certainly were living in the forest when the tsunami struck

* Most of the Onge, who live in two government-built settlements, fled to high ground as the sea level fell, and so survived. They are currently being supported by a neighbouring community in a school house. Their awareness of the ocean and its movements has been accumulated over 60,000 years of inhabiting the islands. The Onge had already suffered a disastrous fall in their population, from 672 in 1901 to barely 100 today.

* Reports from overflights of Sentinel Island, home of the most isolated of all the tribes, the Sentinelese, indicate that many have been seen on the beaches. The Sentinelese fired arrows at the helicopter overhead. However, confident assertions by the authorities that all the Sentinelese have been accounted for are premature, as no-one has any idea of their population (estimates range from 50 - 250), and landing on the island is impossible.

* No reliable reports have yet been received on the fate of the 41 Great Andamanese, but early indications are that they have survived more or less intact.

* Similarly, there has been no reliable information on the fate of the 380-strong Shompen, an isolated tribe of Great Nicobar Island. It is hoped that, like the Jarawa, the fact that this hunter-gatherer people live primarily in the forests rather that on the coast will have helped them survive

The sixth tribe of the islands, the 30,000-strong Nicobarese, have suffered much more. All 12 villages on one island, Car Nicobar, have been washed away, and many are feared dead. Unlike the other tribes, the Nicobarese are not hunter-gatherers but horticulturalists. They have largely converted to Christianity, and are much more assimilated than the other Andaman and Nicobar tribes.

The Foundation has a current project in support of Bidisha Som's work with the Great Andamanese, and he has written to us as follows, to some extent complementing thereport from Survival International.

As you might know that the deadly tsunami waves hit India as well along with other South Asian countries. One of the worst hit areas in India is the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Initially, there was a panic that the endangered tribal population there might have perished in the recent natural calamity.

At first I could not establish any contact with the island as the communication setup was totally disrupted.Now the contact has been restored and I am glad to inform you that the indigenous tribes in general, and the Great Andamanese, in perticular, are safe.

However,my plans for a second field-trip to the Andamans in last December had to be postponed for the time being, seeing the present conditions.

Regards, Bidisha Som

There is also some suggestion from other quarters that the tsunami may have a positive effect on indigenous communities - especially the Nicobarese - , and hence their languages, in giving an opprtunity to discourage continued settlement from continental India:

Endangered Language Coverage in the Economist

The Economist magazine (dated 1st-7th January 2005) carried a largely sympathetic 3-page Special Report (pp 58-60 or 62-64, depending on edition) on endangered languages, giving some historical background as well as contrast with the first eleven of most dominant languages.

FEL members David Crystal, Daniel Nettle, Suzanne Romaine, Akira Yamamoto Mark Abley and Nicholas Ostler are all cited. To quote three paragraphs, particularly relevant to FEL's activities:

"Audio and video recordings can help, but the main need is for basic grammars and dictionaries, which are expensive to produce. {David] Crystal calculates that, assuming an average cost f $192,000 per language over three years, the cost of recording 3,000 endangered languages might run to $575m. But that is one guess among many."

"Clearly, there is no point in trying to save a language unless the speakers wish it, but most seem to be increasingly interested. In recent decades sevral moribund languages including Hawaiian, Maori and Welsh have been successfully revived. Nicholas Ostler, of the British-based Foundation for Endangered Languages, draws a parallel with fine art: though people do not need their ancient mother tongue for physical survival, it makes life far richer."

"The demise of any language is a loss for all mankind, but most of all a loss for its speakers. As one Navajo elder, quoted by [Akira] Yamamoto, told his grandson:

If you don't breathe, there is no air. If you don't walk, there is no earth. If you don't speak, there is no world."

Oh What a Tangled Web We Weave- by David Crystal

reprinted with permission from the November-December, 2004 issue of Science & Spirit magazine. For more information, visit

The Internet has proven itself to be the next leg of a linguistic revolution that began with the slow, steady spread of English and the death of other languages.

Linguistics used to be a much simpler affair: There was American English and there was the Queen's English. There was speech and there was writing. There were thousands of languages, none of them global in stature. There were certainly no smileys.

Those days are gone. Now, with a sequence of characters on the computer keyboard, we can tack happy little faces onto the end of our sentences (a colon represents the eyes, a dash the nose, and the right parenthesis the mouth:-). We can cut and paste by taking words from one place in an e-mail and adding them somewhere else. Web pages change in front of our eyes: Words appear and disappear in varying colors, sentences slide onto the screen and off again, letters dance around.

It's revolutionary, the Internet. Any linguists worth their salt cant help but be impressed. If nothing else, the Internet deserves great credit for granting us a mode of communication more dynamic than traditional writing and more permanent than traditional speech. In fact, electronic communication is neither writing nor speech per se. Rather, it allows us to take features from each medium and adapt them to suit a new form of expression. The way we use language is changing at breakneck speed. It has often been said that the Internet is a social revolution. Indeed it is, but it is a linguistic revolution as well. Consider traditional writing, which has always been permanent; you open a book at page six, close the book, then open it at page six again, and you expect to see the same thing. You would be more than a little surprised if the books page had changed in the interim. But on Web pages, this kind of impermanence is perfectly normal.

Then there are the hypertext links, the basic functional unit of the Web. These are the links you click on in order to go from one part of a page to another, from one page to another, or from one site to another. The nearest thing we have in writingthe footnote or the cross-referenceis always an optional extra, and there is nothing like this in speech. Real-time Internet discussion groups, or chat rooms, allow a user to see messages coming in from all over the world. If there are thirty people in the chat room, its possible to see thirty different messages, all making various contributions to a theme. In a unique way, you can listen to thirty people at once, or have a conversation with them all at the same time; you can monitor what each one of those people is saying, and respond to as many of them as your mental powers and typing speed permit. This too is a revolutionary state of affairs, as far as speech is concerned.

What so many people now understand is that there are very specific ways in which the Internet is changing our linguistic experience. There are symbolic ways as well. The Internet is part of a larger revolution, with two other major trends working in tandem. For one, English has emerged as a global language. For another, we are in the midst of a creeping crisis: Thousands of languages are dying out.

When the World Wide Web came along, it offered a home to all languagesas soon as their communities had functioning computer technology, of course. While the Internet started out as a totally English medium, its increasingly multilingual character has been its most notable change.

To get a sense of just how radical this change has been, consider the fact that in the mid-1990s, it was widely quoted that eighty percent of Internet pages were in English. By 1998, however, the number of newly created Web sites not in English was greater than the total number of newly created sites that were in English. Since then, estimates for how much information on the Web is in English have fallen steadily. Already, some have put the amount at less than fifty percent.

On the other hand, the presence of other languages has steadily increased. Its estimated that about one-quarter of the worlds languages have some sort of cyber existence now, and as communications infrastructure expands in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, the Internet as a whole will soon be significantly non-English.

The Internet has turned out to be the ideal medium for minority languages. If you are a speaker or supporter of an endangered languagean aboriginal language, say, or one of the Celtic languagesyoure keen to give the language some publicity, to draw the worlds attention to its plight. Previously, this was very difficult to do. It was hard to attract a newspaper article on the subject, and the cost of a newspaper advertisement was prohibitive. It was virtually impossible to get a radio or television program devoted to it. Surely, by the time someone wrote a book about one of these languages, got it published, and everyone read it, the language might well be uttering its last words.

But now, with Web pages and e-mail, you can get your message out in next to no time, in your own languagewith a translation as well, if you want. Chat rooms are a boon to speakers of minority languages who live in isolation from each other, as they can now belong to a virtual speech community. The Web offers a World Wide Welcome for global linguistic diversity. And in an era when so many languages of the world are dying, such optimism is truly revolutionary.

It is a real art to be able to make sense of a revolution as its happening, to not leave it up to the historians to later analyze its impact and effects. Revolutions are fast and dynamic by nature, radical shifts that take place in a short period of time. We are now at a transformative step in the evolution of human language.

The linguistic originality and novelty of the Internet should make our hearts beat faster. It is offering us a future of communication radically different from that of the past. It is presenting us with styles of expression that are fundamentally unlike anything we have seen before. It is revising our cherished concepts of the way we think about the life of a language. Electronic communication has brought us to the brink of the biggest language revolution ever, and it is exciting to be in at its beginning.