Great Andamanese languages

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Great Andamanese
Ethnicity: Great Andamanese people
Great Andaman Island
Linguistic classification: One of the world's primary language families[1]
ISO 639-3: gac (Great Andamanese, Mixed)
Glottolog: grea1241[2]
Ethnolinguistic map of the precolonial Andaman Islands. The languages with prefixes (which mean "language") are Great Andamanese.

The Great Andamanese languages are an extinct language family once spoken by the Great Andamanese peoples of the Andaman Islands (India), in the Indian Ocean. The last fluent speaker, of what may have been a creole based on Aka-Jeru, died in 2009.[3]


By the late 18th century, when the British first settled on the Andaman islands, there were an estimated 5,000 Great Andamanese living on Great Andaman and surrounding islands, comprising 10 distinct tribes with distinct but closely related languages. 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 greatly reduced their numbers, to a low of 19 individuals in 1961.[4]

Since then their numbers have rebounded somewhat, reaching 52 by 2010.[5] However, by 1994 seven of the ten tribes were already extinct,[6] and divisions among the surviving tribes (Jeru, Bo and Cari) had effectively ceased to exist[7] due to intermarriage and resettlement to a much smaller territory on Strait Island. Some of them also intermarried with Karen (Burmese) and Indian settlers. Hindi increasingly serves as their primary language, and is the only language for around half of them.[8][9] The last known speaker of the Bo language died in 2010 at age 85.[5]

About half of the population now speak what may be considered a new language (a kind of mixed or koine language) of the Great Andamanese family, based mainly on Aka-Jeru.[10] This modified version has been called "Present Great Andamanese" by some scholars,[11][12] but also may be referred to simply as "Jero" or "Great Andamanese".


The Great Andamanese languages are agglutinative languages, with an extensive prefix and suffix system.[11][13] They have a distinctive 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).[12] Thus, for instance, the *aka- at the beginning of the language names is a prefix for objects related to the tongue.[13] An adjectival example can be given by the various forms of yop, "pliable, soft", in Aka-Bea:[13]

  • 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-bēri-ŋa "clever" (hand-good).
  • ig-bēri-ŋa "sharp-sighted" (eye-good).
  • aka-bēri-ŋa "good at languages" (tongue-good.)
  • ot-bēri-ŋa "virtuous" (head/heart-good)

The prefixes are,

Bea Balawa? Bajigyâs? Juwoi Kol
head/heart ot- ôt- ote- ôto- ôto-
hand/foot ong- ong- ong- ôn- ôn-
mouth/tongue âkà- aka- o- ókô- o-
torso (shoulder to shins) ab- ab- ab- a- o-
eye/face/arm/breast i-, ig- id- ir- re- er-
back/leg/butt ar- ar- ar- ra- a-
waist ôto-

Body parts 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".[12]

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, my d- we, our m-
thou, thy ŋ- you, your ŋ-
he, his, she, her, it, its a they, their l-

'This' and 'that' are distinguished as k- and t-.

Judging from the available sources, the Andamanese languages have only two cardinal numbersone and two — and their entire numerical lexicon is one, two, one more, some more, and all.[13]


The languages spoken in the Andaman islands 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,[14] and Abbi (2008)[10] considers the surviving Great Andamanese language to be an isolate. The Great Andaman languages are:[15]

Joseph Greenberg proposed that Great Andamanese is related to western Papuan languages as members of a larger phylum he called Indo-Pacific,[14] 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.[16]

Names and spellings, with populations, from the 1901 and 1994 censuses were as follows:[17]

1901 census
Aka-Cari: 39
Aka-Cora: 96
Aka-Bo: 48
Aka-Jeru: 218
Aka-Kede: 59
Aka-Koi: 11
Oka-Juwoi: 48
Aka-Pucikwar: 50
Aka-Bale: 19
Aka-Bea: 37
1994 census
Aka-Jeru: 19
Aka-Bo: 15
Aka-Kari: 2
('local': 4)


The following poem in Aka-Bea was written by a chief, Jambu, after he was freed from a six-month jail term for manslaughter.[18]

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. Blevins, Juliette (2007), "A Long Lost Sister of Proto-Austronesian? Proto-Ongan, Mother of Jarawa and Onge of the Andaman Islands" (PDF), Oceanic Linguistics, 46 (1): 154–198, doi:10.1353/ol.2007.0015<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Great Andamanese". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Mixed Great Andamanese at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  4. Jayanta Sarkar (1990), The Jarawa, Anthropological Survey of India, ISBN 81-7046-080-8, ... The Great Andamanese population was large till 1858 when it started declining ... In 1901, their number was reduced to only 600 and in 1961 to a mere 19 ...<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 (2011) Lives Remembered. The Daily Telegraph, London, 10 February 2010. Accessed on 2010-02-22. Also [ on
  6. A. N. Sharma (2003), Tribal Development in the Andaman Islands, page 75. Sarup & Sons, New Delhi.
  7. Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1922). The Andaman Islanders: A study in social anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  8. Anosh Malekar, "The case for a linguisitic survey," Infochange Media, August 1, 2011.
  9. 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.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Abbi, Anvita (2008). "Is Great Andamanese genealogically and typologically distinct from Onge and Jarawa?" Language Sciences, doi:10.1016/j.langsci.2008.02.002
  11. 11.0 11.1 Abbi, Anvita (2006). Endangered Languages of the Andaman Islands. Germany: Lincom GmbH.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Burenhult, Niclas (1996). "Deep linguistic prehistory with particular reference to Andamanese." Working Papers 45, 5-24. Lund University: Department of Linguistics
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 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.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Greenberg, Joseph (1971). "The Indo-Pacific hypothesis." Current trends in linguistics vol. 8, ed. by Thomas A. Sebeok, 807.71. The Hague: Mouton.
  15. Manoharan, S. (1983). "Subgrouping Andamanese group of languages." International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics XII(1): 82-95.
  16. 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.
  17. A. N. Sharma (2003), Tribal Development in the Andaman Islands, page 62. Sarup & Sons, New Delhi.
  18. 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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