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The last speaker of the Bo language has died
February 5, 2010 9:41 AM   Subscribe

"The last speaker of an ancient language in India's Andaman Islands has died at the age of about 85." Boa Sr was the last person to speak the Bo language (or Aka-Bo), a part of the Great Andamanese language family, which is nearly extinct. For more on Andamanese languages here is Niclas Burenhult's paper Deep Linguistic Prehistory, with particular reference to Andamanese and Anvita Abbi's phenomenal Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese. Both Vanishing Voices and the BBC report have recordings of the Bo language.
posted by Kattullus (17 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
I saw this earlier in the week, very sad. It's worth listening to the BBC clip of her speaking.
posted by fire&wings at 9:51 AM on February 5, 2010


It's not clear to me what they mean by this being an "ancient" language. They say "Languages in the Andamans are thought to originate from Africa. Some may be 70,000 years old. "

What does that even mean? Surely the language that she spoke was basically as vastly different from the language spoken by inhabitants of the Andamans 70,000 years ago as is, say, English from proto-proto-proto-proto-proto-proto-proto-Indo-European.
posted by Flunkie at 9:59 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sure it's different from its original source, but it's also one extension of that long ancestry. Another can't take its place, because it didn't walk down that path.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:05 AM on February 5, 2010


I understand that, and I'm not disputing it. I'm asking what they could possibly mean when they say that some of these languages "may be 70,000 years old".
posted by Flunkie at 10:09 AM on February 5, 2010


I understand that, and I'm not disputing it. I'm asking what they could possibly mean when they say that some of these languages "may be 70,000 years old".

The most likely and potent meaning for that assertion is that, if you follow back the family tree of this language, the most recent time at which it merges with another living language is 70,000 years ago.
posted by 256 at 10:11 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


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posted by fourcheesemac at 11:01 AM on February 5, 2010


It may be that this language was extinct even before Boa Sr died. The linguist interviewed in the BBC article says elsewhere that Boa Sr didn't claim to actually be a native speaker of Bo, just the last person to remember any.

I'm not going to bring the Wikipedia Talk Page fight in here, though.
posted by mkb at 11:02 AM on February 5, 2010


> It's not clear to me what they mean by this being an "ancient" language.

It means "Hi, we're reporters, we don't know beans about language but we know that languages spoken by wizened native peoples are Ancient!" Don't get me started on the the nonsense that's written about click languages and the so-called language gene. It's a waste of time trying to parse language stories in the media, especially the BBC, which has spectacularly bad science reporting.

That said, for Bo and its last speaker:

.
posted by languagehat at 11:35 AM on February 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


Tragic [self link]
Also
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posted by tellurian at 2:13 PM on February 5, 2010


Wow! Upon investigating your links and clicking on the boat song link, I got a shock of recognition from the clip I had blogged.
posted by tellurian at 2:28 PM on February 5, 2010


this is what I love/hate about the blue. Take a subject you know little or nothing about add a coupla links, and two hours later...yowza!
posted by timsteil at 3:25 PM on February 5, 2010


Another heartbreak.

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posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:49 PM on February 5, 2010


The question that leaps to my mind is; how many unknown languages have vanished without ever being recorded or remembered?
posted by happyroach at 8:54 PM on February 5, 2010


Goodbye, Boa Sr.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:14 AM on February 6, 2010


Surely the language that she spoke was basically as vastly different from the language spoken by inhabitants of the Andamans 70,000 years ago as is, say, English from proto-proto-proto-proto-proto-proto-proto-Indo-European.

Why surely? Yes it seems unlikely that any language could remain static that long, as it is the nature of languages to change, but surely the degree of change among different languages is not constant: i.e. some change more over time than others, depending on many factors including especially how isolated the peoples who speak given language are. It seems at least possible that very isolated peoples might have had languages where the changes were relatively minimal compared to peoples who experienced a great deal of contact with other language-speakers. For instance, I seem to recall reading once about some isolated English-speakers in the New World who spoke an archaic kind of English long after more modern English had taken hold everywhere else.

It means "Hi, we're reporters, we don't know beans about language but we know that languages spoken by wizened native peoples are Ancient!" Don't get me started on the the nonsense that's written about click languages and the so-called language gene. It's a waste of time trying to parse language stories in the media, especially the BBC, which has spectacularly bad science reporting.

Your concerns about previous reporting on language notwithstanding, it was not just the BBC who picked up this story. Also, most of the articles on this have quoted from academics. I have no idea if the academics quoted are reliable or being quoted out of context, but how ancient the language spoken was is not even central to the story: what's central is that this particular tribal culture itself (independent from the language) was ancient, and that it is now, upon this person's death, extinct. For this story, it seems to me that the linguistic question of the lineage of the language is secondary to the anthropological question of the lineage of the culture; and no one can argue that the culture itself is now officially ended.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 8:45 PM on February 6, 2010


oops: no one can argue that the culture itself is not now officially ended.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 8:47 PM on February 6, 2010


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posted by vostok at 12:02 PM on February 11, 2010


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