Saturday, February 6, 2010

Death of a Language

The media have been reporting a sad cultural and linguistic event: the death of Boa Sr. (the Sr. stands for Senior). See photo. She was the last fluent native speaker of Bo, a tribal language of the Andaman Islands off the east coast of India, and a link to a culture some 65,000 years old, one of the world’s oldest. During the last years of her life, she was unable to find anybody to converse with in her native tongue, but she also spoke Hindi and another local language.

Boa Sr. leaves behind a legacy of songs and stories and her culturally revealing account of the 2004 tsunami:
…We were all there when the earthquake came. The eldest told us the Earth would part, don't run away or move…
Some of it is available in English on the Internet, thanks to the fieldwork of devoted anthropologists and linguists led by Prof. Anvita Abbi of the Jawaharlal National University in New Delhi, and to their translating. It’s a reminder of how much we owe to anthropologists and anthropological linguists for their contributions to translation, which thereby provides us with access to an important part of human heritage. They are professionals in their own field, not Professional Translators, but they have to be Experts who understand the problems of translation - something that was emphasized by one of the most famous of them, Bronislaw Malinowski.

Malinowski tried to find a bridge between a free, reader-oriented translation that would be intelligible but would have to jettison valuable information about the culture of the source language; and on the other hand a more literal translation that would preserve all the traces of the original culture but be unintelligible to target-language readers (which reminds me of Wittgenstein‘s famous saying that even if a lion could speak, we wouldn‘t understand what it was saying.)

Boa Sr. Long narrative on tsunami. Recorded, transcribed and freely translated by Alok K. Das.

Jonathan Watts. Ancient tribal language becomes extinct as last speaker dies. Guardian Unlimited, February 4, 2010.

Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamese (VOGA) website,

Bronislaw Malinowski. The problem of meaning in primitive languages. In C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning, 1923. Reprinted in Janet Maybin, Language and Literacy in Social Practice, which is available free online at Google Books.

There’s a Wikipedia article and there are many websites on “endangered languages”.

Photo: Alok Das


  1. That's so sad... Extinct languages make me sad.

  2. I think of the loneliness of the last speaker.

  3. Very very sad. That's surely what is gradually going to happen to the 2000 or so native, endogenic, African languages if no better strategy is devised to save them. UNESCO needs to come up with a more radical action plan to save endangered languages (clearly the bulk of the estimated 6000 or so languages of the world) from extinction. There needs be something like a UNESCO Fund for Endangered Languages (UNFEL). Let's all support this idea.

  4. Great Post! People are increasingly turning to Certified Translation Services in these times.