The last speaker of the Andamanese Sare language has died

An obituary by Anvita Abbi

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Licho was the last speaker of the Great Andamanese Language of Sare © Anvita Abbi

Most of the languages I know have a word for someone who has lost a spouse (widow/widower) or their parents (orphan), but I have never come across another language that has a word like raupuch; a person who has lost his or her siblings.

This unique word comes from the Sare language of the Andaman Islands. The last speaker of this language, Licho, who I knew and worked with for the last twenty years, died on 4th April 2020 at her residence at Shadipur, Port Blair.

I met Licho when I first came to the Andaman Islands in 2001. She was the first child of King Jirake and carried the legacy of one of Earth’s oldest civilizations and its languages. She was hesitant in the beginning to work with me on the grammar and dictionary of the Great Andamanese language but it became our joint project.

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Licho helped Anvita understand the nuances of what words mean and how to correctly construct sentences in Great Andamanese languages © Anvita Abbi

When I was working on the grammar of the language, I would visit her at Adi Basera — the Tribal Home for the Great Andamanese tribes in Port Blair. She would leave whatever work she was involved with and sit with me for hours without showing any signs of boredom or tiredness. Her judgment about the grammar of sentences helped me understand the rules of the language.

She would identify the etymology of words, whether they came from Sare or Khora or Jeru. Licho taught me a lot about the flora and fauna of the island. She would take me to the shores or the swamps of Strait Island to show me the plants, trees and creepers and tell me the characteristics of each. It was she who brought to my attention that there were more than eight kinds of crabs, or that a language has 8–10 different words for ‘cut’, or the medicinal properties of native plants. Her teachings helped me later to prepare the encyclopedic dictionary of the language.

Licho often lamented that her community now mainly spoke Andamanese Hindi and had forgotten their own languages. She was proud of her heritage and her ancestry — those who were known for valour, courage and fearlessness, and she told me she was taught hunting in the jungle by her father and grandfather.

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Licho, far left, with others from the Great Andamanese tribes in Port Blair Hospital in 2001. The woman in the blue top is Boa Sr, the last speaker of the Aka-Bo language, who died in 2010 © Anvita Abbi

She was one of the smartest women in the tribe and worked with the Education department of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. As well as Sare, Licho spoke Jeru, Pujukkar, Andamanese Hindi and was one of the few who knew the present Great Andamanese language, a mixture of four languages spoken by the Great Andamanese peoples, who are thought to be descended from the first humans who migrated out of Africa 70,000 years ago, and who were decimated by colonialism.

Licho was a bold, forthright, activist and ready to fight the administration for the rights of tribal people. She opposed the building of the Andaman Trunk Road, warning that “the Jarawa people would be decimated just like us.” She was willing to talk to journalists on this issue and feared no-one.

Licho had a soft side too. When I reached Strait Island in March 2008, I found the so-called ‘government guest house’ did not even have basic facilities like clean sheets or mosquito nets. On seeing this dismal situation, Licho took no time in rushing back to her basti and brought back clean sheets, a cover, a pillow and a new mosquito net for me. It was an eerie night; raining hard with strong winds lapping against the windows and the room was dark because the island had no electricity. Licho sensed my fear and immediately offered to keep me company; I was touched. She ran home again in the rain to fetch bedding for herself. We stayed up talking past midnight.

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Anvita with Licho and her family. © Anvita Abbi

She was the only friend I had in Port Blair and I never failed to visit her whenever I went to the Andamans. I shared her happiness on many joyful occasions: the birth of her youngest son, Berebe, and the marriages of her children, as well as the sorrows of losing her father and her daughter.

Licho died of multiple health problems. She had chronic tuberculosis and had been suffering from heart ailments. Her lungs had collapsed, and she had been on a ventilator for months. She died at home on the morning of 4th April 2020. She bravely fought for many years and never gave up hope. She leaves a family of children, grandchildren and her husband. Licho’s death is not only a personal loss to them, and to me, but to all humanity. With her died the last knowledge of a unique language, and the wisdom of an entire people contained within it.

Professor Anvita Abbi is an internationally-renowned linguist who has studied many tribal languages. She spent two decades working with members of the Great Andamanese tribes in India’s Andaman Islands to document their languages.

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Survival International is the global movement for tribal peoples. We help them defend their lives, protect their lands and determine their own futures.

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