Language Structure

The Unique Structure of the Present Great Andamanese: An Overview of the Grammar

Great Andamanese belongs to the sixth language family of India (Abbi 2003, 2006, 2009). Present-day Great Andamanese (PGA), a koinèized version of the North Great Andamanese languages is a head-marking polysynthetic and agglutinative language with an SOV pattern, and has a very elaborate system for marking inalienability (Abbi 2006, 2010) nested in seven possessive markers designating different body-divisions. These markers are further grammaticalized in the language and appear as proclitics which classify a large number of lexical items as dependent categories. The author proposes that the Great Andamanese conceptualize their world through these interdependencies and hence the grammar of the language encodes this important phenomenon in every grammatical category expressing referential, attributive and predicative meaning. These are very unusual features never reported earlier in grammars of languages of the world and thus, indicate very old and unique structures in the chain of language evolution.


The Andaman Islands are comprised of a cluster of approximately 550 islands, rocks and rocky outcrop running from north to south and located southeast of the Indian subcontinent in the Bay of Bengal. They are separated from the Malay Peninsula by the Andaman Sea, an extension of the Bay of Bengal, and are part of the Union Territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands belonging to India (Map 1). Geographically, the Andaman Islands are closer to Myanmar and Indonesia than to mainland India. However, contact between the Andamanese and the populations of the neighbouring countries has not been established in the recent past. The capital city of the Andaman Islands is Port Blair, situated in the south of the Islands at a distance of 1255 km from Kolkata and 1190 km from Chennai.

   There are ten languages in the Great Andamanese family, which can be grouped into three varieties: southern, central and northern. These are: Aka-Bea, Aka-Bale, the southern variety; Aka-Pucikwar [known as Pujjukar in the currently spoken language], Aka-Kol, Aka-Kede, Aka-Jowoi, as the central variety; and Aka-Jeru, Aka-Bo, Aka-Kora [known as Khora by the present speakers] and Aka-Cari [known as Sare by the present speakers] a northern variety. Except for Jeru all Great Andamanese languages are now extinct. Not all languages were mutually intelligible with each other as the languages of the Great Andamanese tribes formed a ‘‘dialect continuum”, so that each language was closely related to its neighbour on each side but those at the extreme ends of the geographic continuum were mutually unintelligible. Hence, Aka-Cari (Map 2), a North Great Andamanese language, was mutually unintelligible with Aka Bea, the southern variety. The present-day Great Andamanese language is a mixture of four northern varieties 3 with sporadic interferences from the central variety such as Aka Pucikwar. 

Though the PGA is characterized by a mixture of the linguistic features of four to five varieties of Great Andamanese languages, what we notice in today’s Great Andamanese speech is a kind of levelling of different linguistic systems. Perhaps several grammatical inputs have contributed to generate the present language. The linguistic system of present Great Andamanese appears to be close to koineization (Manoharan 1989). As the language is critically endangered, with just four terminal speakers4 , it is very difficult to say how far it is mixed and what elements are mixed. There were 6-7 fluent speakers when we began our research on the island. Special mention must be made of Jirake, the chief of the Great Andamanese tribe and Nao Jr. his younger brother, and Boa Sr who came from the Bo tribe. More than 50% of the current population of the Great Andamanese tribe consists of children below 14 years of age (See Abbi et al 2007) However, the belief of Siegel (1985:363) that koineization results in the reduction and simplification of grammar is attested to by some areas in the grammar of Great Andamanese; though the verb morphology and the possession constructions are rather complex and elaborate.

The research reported here is based on the first-hand field data elicited during the period of 2001-2002 and 2005-2009. Several visits were made to the Strait Island and Port Blair where the speakers of the language reside.

The research by Abbi in 2003 and 2006 shows that Great Andamanese constitutes the sixth language family of India. Linguistic research on the surviving languages of the Andaman Islands reveals little commonality between Great Andamanese and the languages of the Jarawa-Onge group. (Abbi, 2003, 2006, 2009). The geneticists (Thangaraj et al 2005) corroborated this research by identifying two separate haplogroups in the region. The Jarawa-Onge group has been associated with the Austronesian language family (Blevins 2007), however, has been refuted by Austronesian linguists. Out of the ten varieties that once existed in the Great Andamanese family, we found traces of only four languages, i.e. Sare, Khora, Bo and Jero in today’s speech. The recent deaths of the last speakers of Khora, Bo and Sare have left only Jero speakers who are not fully conversant with their respective languages but remember isolated words from their native tongues. They can be termed semi-speakers. The demographic scale of these islanders is inversely related to their degree of contact with mainlanders: the longer the contact, the smaller the population. 

Prof Anvita Abbi with the semi speakers at Port Blair hospital 2022

WHy is Great andamanese unique?

The following article introduces readers to its unique features and its status as a 6th language family of India. It also draws the linguistic structures of Jarawa and Onge to compare them with that of the Great Andamanese. This is the first ever comparative study of three languages based on first-hand field data.

Sixth language family-Dynamics_of_language_chap9 .pdf
This article was Published in Dynamics of Language. Plenary and Focus lectures from the 20th International Congress of Linguists. 2018. Edited by Rajend Mesthrie and David Bradley. International Congress of Linguists. Cape Town, South Africa. UCT Press. Chapter 9. 134-152.

Sample of spoken Great Andamanese