On April 4, Licho, one of the four last speakers of the Great Andamanese language family, died of tuberculosis and heart disease in Port Blair on South Andaman Island in the Bay of Bengal. I received the news with a profound sense of loss. I had worked with Licho for two decades to document the Sare language, which died with her: she was the very last speaker. A vibrant and articulate woman, she had opposed the construction of a road through the territory of the Jarawa, another endangered tribe living on the Andaman Islands. “The Jarawa will be decimated, just like us,” she feared.

COVID-19 has already reached the remote Andaman Islands, where 12 individuals from mainstream society tested positive as of April 17. Although 11 are reportedly free of the virus, the possibility of community transmission indicates that its indigenous peoples are in grave danger. So are the exceedingly rare languages they speak. In particular, the Great Andamanese language family, now spoken by only three individuals—all of whom are more than 50 years old and suffer from a variety of ailments—is at imminent risk of extinction.

The archipelago is also home to roughly 670 Onge and Jarawa; in 2003, I grouped their languages into an “isolate” called Ang. (An isolate has no known relationship with any other language family and might with further research be classified as a family.) Yet another tribe of perhaps 50 members, which lives on North Sentinel Island—and which briefly achieved infamy in 2018 by slaying an American missionary—probably speaks an Ang language.

Population geneticists believe that that the Andaman Islanders descend from one of the founder populations of modern humans, which migrated out of Africa some 60,000 years ago to populate South Asia, Southeast Asia, New Guinea and Australia. For tens of millennia, they protected themselves from the diseases and other harms that outsiders could inflict by killing anyone who landed on their shores.

Licho, last speaker of the Sare language. She passed away on April 4, 2020. Credit: Anvita Abbi

Roughly 8,000 Great Andamanese people were thriving on the Andaman archipelago with virtually no contact with the outside world until 1858, when British officials forcibly established a penal colony in Port Blair. The colonizers brought with them a variety of pathogens, to which the formerly isolated hunter-gatherers had no immunity. By the 1960s, when Licho was born, syphilis and other diseases had reduced the numbers of the Great Andamanese to a mere 19, who spoke a blend of Bo, Khora, Sare and Jeru. The three surviving Great Andamanese elders speak Jeru; the youngsters prefer the Hindi of the mainstream Indian population.

The structure of Great Andamanese languages is unlike that of any other language family and is based on an anthropocentric view of the world. The human body is the primary model for expressing concepts of spatial orientation, categories and relations between objects and actions and events. The body is divided into seven zones, each designated by an abstract symbol that is attached to nouns, verbs, adjectives and other grammatical categories to create different meanings. So, for instance, the prefix er- denotes an external body part, whereas e- denotes an internal one.

Thus er- when attached to the word bungoi, for “beautiful,” leads to erbungoi, meaning external beauty; whereas ebungoi means internal beauty. These bodily markers percolate through all categories of Great Andamanese grammar—a unique feature of the language family. The system appears to have arisen in a prehistoric era when human beings conceptualized their world through their bodies and may shed light on the early stages of language evolution.

Great Andamanese is India’s sixth language family, alongside Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman, Austroasiatic and Tai-Kadai. According to a 2011 UNESCO report, the nation is home to 197 endangered languages Of those, 156 are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people and 42 are critically endangered—meaning that only elders speak them, and only partially and infrequently. Most of the critically endangered languages will die when the elders do.

Such loss of language diversity is one of the most serious issues facing humankind today. Since lexicons and grammar represent cultural and ecological knowledge and worldviews, the death of a language means the extinction of tens of thousands of years of accumulated experience and values. These vital resources would otherwise be available for the rest of humankind as we face an uncertain future brought on by unsustainable development, of which COVID-19 is but a symptom.

Indigenous communities all over the world have been shrinking in numbers because of contact with outsiders, and the virus could accelerate this trend. A lack of information about health in their native languages and a paucity of basic health services in the remote regions where they live render them especially vulnerable. A Yanomami adolescent and an 87-year-old woman of the Borari tribe, both from the Amazon basin, have already died of the virus, underscoring the threat it poses to the survival of indigenous peoples worldwide. Several Amazon tribes are retreating deeper into the forest to avoid the pandemic, and welfare workers are advising the Jarawa as well to stay away from outsiders. Many of the Great Andamanese live and work in Port Blair, however, and could find social distancing unfeasible for the long term.

“They don’t understand me. What can I do?” another Great Andamanese woman, Boa, had once lamented, speaking of the tribe’s children. When Boa died in 2010, at the age of 85, so did her language, Bo. “If they don’t speak to me now, what will they do once I’ve passed away?” she had worried. “Don’t forget our language, grab hold of it! Our language, don’t ever let it go!” Her plea is even more urgent at this juncture—when humankind desperately needs the wisdom of cultures that thrived for tens of millennia on resources as limited as those on these small islands.