The mystery of a lost language

My maternal grandmother died when I was an unseeing teenager. I could not understand then that her passing was much more than the loss of a beloved matriarch. Having lived far away from her for many years, I had never got to hear any stories from her about our family’s history.

She came to say goodbye to us at the railway station when I was a baby and my immediate family was moving. As they took me from her arms I am told, I began to bawl and would not stop crying for hours after the train had steamed away from her. I am left today with fading memories of her small stature, her warmth, a pickle crock of crystallised sea salt unhurriedly liquefying in the humidity of her sooty kitchen. Her memory now resides in singular scents that waft around me from time to time.

Her image comes flooding back whenever I twist open a bottle of ayurvedic body-ache oil. When wood smoke floats in through my window I am reminded of the fire she kept lit in her outhouse bathroom for our summer baths, where the hot water was as much benison as the wood-scented smoke. With her died a whole lore, a way of life and a culture I have no access to today. With her vanished the primer to a very personal history.

In 2010, Boa Senior aged 85 died on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Although I had only read about her in the news stories from that time, I felt an awful sense of loss. An obituary, I found online written by retired Professor of Linguistics Anvita Abbi, describes how the old woman had become a celebrity almost overnight after her death, but no one knew of her while she was still alive.

Boa Senior was the last known speaker of Aka-Bo, the language of the Bo tribe of the Great Andamanese people from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. To communicate, members of the tribe now speak a pidgin dialect of Hindi and other endangered languages from the island. In this country, we have the fiercest debates about the primacy of everyone’s language. These arguments sometimes turn violent.

Why do language debates become so strident? The fear of a language disappearing is tied to loss of identity. Our identity is our passport to the world. It anchors us and lets us navigate uncharted waters with certainty and confidence. When we lose this, we lose our point of reference. There are ways to get around this dearth of identity in a modern, globalised world, but for many who do not possess easy admission into this new world, this kind of loss is just too much. And they will fight tooth and nail to hang on to their sense of self.

The written word is a code we learn very early in life to break if we are privileged. In the English language we employ every day, the symbol for each alphabet, with its own intriguing history, denotes a sound made by joining end/tip of tongue to different areas inside the mouth. Now imagine, five thousand years from now, we are at the beginning of a new age and all previous known recorded history has been erased. The people have lost the key to the code of a language their ancients used. They do not know how to interpret, for instance, this page full of what are mysterious markings with the finder wondering what it all means, if all these symbols even represent a written language?

The Rosetta stone was a translation primer that helped to unlock the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians. The lost civilisation buried under the thick mud of the Indus valley and tracts of northern, western and even central India have yielded seals and potsherds bearing symbols that no one has yet been able to interpret to anyone’s satisfaction. There are numerous theories, but we can’t be sure whether some of these are hopelessly tied to ideology of one sort or another.

Among the numerous symbols appearing on the Indus seals are the recurring fish signs. Several script experts felt these fish signs were meant to represent stars. In the old Tamil language the word for star (also its derivatives like shine or flash) and fish were homonyms—different words that shared the same pronunciation. But why would the ancients not use universally simple asterisk signs to represent stars?

I asked myself this question for the longest time. Looking up into a rare clear night sky one day, I noticed the planets were up and glinting away. I stared at bright Jupiter and it struck me that when it twinkled brightly it looked like a little silvery fish with fins. Is this what the ancient poets saw up there? Sacred fish that swam the dark seas of the night sky.

Experts today are hard at work trying to break the cipher of the lost Indus script. Because it is in the nature of a script to evolve over time, writing customs will change upon encounters with other writing systems. Rebus or pictorial writing styles may turn into alphabetic systems. People in parts of my country could even be speaking much-altered versions of the old Indus language today, but with completely divergent scripts.

Ms Abbi the linguist said this in a article recalling the life of Boa Senior. “She had forgotten many of the tales of her long-deceased elders. She forgot these stories because she had no one to tell them to.” How many such moments have come and gone in history, with no one to record the loneliness of being the last member of a community or tribe.

With the extinction of the Bo language, a portal closed to our own pre-history. How long had those words travelled down through the generations telling stories of all the places, and plants encountered, of all the ancestors that had ever walked along the planet’s coastlines? Every word was a clue, every word had an etymology with an interesting story to unearth, if anyone was curious and patient enough.

Here, for instance, is the etymology of ‘word’:
(From Collins English Dictionary, sixth edition 2003)
Old English word; related to Old High German wort, Old Norse orth, Gothic waurd, Latin verbum, Sanskrit vrata command.
You can see migratory patterns above, how the word ‘word’ travelled between tribes exchanging sounds, transforming through ever-so-slight alterations in meaning and nuance as it journeyed. And it is still travelling and changing today. Tomorrow’s dictionary will have more additions in this section. If you lose a whole language, it is a death, you will lose forever the stories of thousands of words. You are losing access to a vast treasure trove of culture and knowledge. Like I did, when my grandmother died.

A golden record flies through the inter-stellar medium right at this very minute on a little starship probe called Voyager 1 carrying the etchings and recordings of our very human civilisation. As we struggle with our lost scripts today, imagine what it will be like for that sentient non-human who finds this record and its message puzzle.



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