Andaman Islands, India
Linguistic classificationTwo independent language families
Schematic Map of Andamanese Languages & Tribes.png
Ethnolinguistic map of the precolonial Andaman Islands

The Andamanese languages are a pair of language families spoken by the Andamanese peoples of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. The two language families are Great Andamanese and Ongan, while the Sentinelese language is spoken by an uncontacted people and therefore at present unclassifiable.[1][2]


The indigenous Andamanese people have lived on the islands for thousands of years. Although the existence of the islands and their inhabitants was long known to maritime powers and traders of the South– and Southeast–Asia region, contact with these peoples was highly sporadic and very often hostile; as a result, almost nothing is recorded of them or their languages until the mid-18th century. By the late 18th century, when the British first established a colonial presence on the Andaman islands, there were an estimated 5,000 Great Andamanese living on Great Andaman and surrounding islands, comprising 10 distinct tribes with distinct but closely related languages. From the 1860s onwards, the British established a penal colony on the islands, which led to the subsequent arrival of mainland settlers and indentured labourers, mainly from the Indian subcontinent. This coincided with the massive population reduction of the Andamanese due to outside diseases, to a low of 19 individuals in 1961.

One of the first accounts in English of the languages was by the early phonetician Alexander John Ellis, who presented to the Philological Society on the South Andamanese languages on his retirement. This presentation was later adapted into a Report of Researches into the Language of the South Andaman Island.[3]

By the beginning of the 20th century most of these populations were greatly reduced in numbers, and the various linguistic and tribal divisions among the Great Andamanese effectively ceased to exist, despite a census of the time still classifying the groups as separate.[4] Their linguistic diversity also suffered as the surviving populations intermingled with one another, and some also intermarried with Karen (Burmese) and Indian settlers.

By the latter part of the 20th century the majority of Great Andamanese languages had become extinct.

At the start of the 21st century only about 50 or so individuals of Great Andamanese descent remained, resettled to a single small island (Strait I.); about half of these speak what may be considered a modified version (or creole) of Great Andamanese, based mainly on Aka-Jeru.[1] This modified version has been called "Present Great Andamanese" by some scholars,[5][6] but also may be referred to simply as "Jero" or "Great Andamanese". Hindi increasingly serves as their primary language, and is the only language for around half of them.[7]

The Ongan languages survive mainly because of the greater isolation of the peoples who speak them. This isolation has been reinforced by an outright hostility towards outsiders and extreme reluctance to engage in contact with them by South Andamanese tribes, particularly the Sentinelese and Jarawa. The Sentinelese have been so resistant that their language remains entirely unknown to outsiders.


The Andamanese languages are agglutinative languages, with an extensive prefix and suffix system.[5][8] They have a distinctive noun class system based largely on body parts, in which every noun and adjective may take a prefix according to which body part it is associated with (on the basis of shape, or functional association).[6] Thus, for instance, the "aka-" at the beginning of the Great Andamanese languages' names is a prefix for objects related to the tongue.[8] (See Great Andamanese languages for examples.) Terms for body parts are inalienably possessed, requiring a possessive adjective prefix to complete them, so one cannot say "head" alone, but only "my, or his, or your, etc. head".[6]

The basic pronouns are almost identical throughout the Great Andamanese languages; Aka-Bea will serve as a representative example (pronouns given in their basic prefixal forms):

I, my d- we, our m-
thou, thy ŋ- you, your ŋ-
he, his, she, her, it, its a they, their l-

The Ongan pronouns are rather different; Önge is cited here:

I, my m- we, our et-, m-
thou, thy ŋ- you, your n-
he, his, she, her, it, its g- they, their ekw-, n-

Judging from the available sources, the Andamanese languages have only two cardinal numbers: one and two and their entire numerical lexicon is one, two, one more, some more, and all.[8][better source needed]


Abbi (2009)[9] lists the following lexical items for Onge, Jarawa, and Great Andamanese, showing that Ongan and Great Andamanese are distinct language families sharing few lexical similarities.

English Onge Jarawa Great Andamanese
boat ɖaŋɛ cɨ (cagiya paɖa)-taŋ/daŋ rowa
bow ɪja aːw ko
child ɨcɨʐɨ ɨcɨʐə ʈʰire
crocodile ʈɔjəgɨ torogijəi sare-ka-teo
crows wawa-le waːraw pʰaʈka
dog wəːme, uame wɔm caːw
goat ʈikʷabuli tʰikʰwa-gopejajo
laugh ɨɲja əniaː kʰole
water ɨɲe iːɲ ino
1SG (I) mi mi ʈʰu
2SG (you) ɲi ɲi ɲ
forehead -ejale -ejea -beŋ
eye -ejebo -ejebo -ulu
ear -ekʷagɨ -ikʰəwə -boa
elbow -ito-ge -itʰo-ha -bala-tara ɖole
wrist -moɲa-ge -eɲia -ʈʰo
palm -obanaŋ-ge -obaŋna -koro
thumb -oboʈa-ge -obotʰa -kənap
thigh -ibo -ibə -buco
knee -ola-ge -olak ~ -ola -curok
sole -ubtəga-me -ugɖaga -moʈora-ɖole
neck -aŋgiʈo -agiʈʰo -loŋɔ

Below are Proto-Ongan reconstructions from Blevins (2007)[2] compared with Great Andamanese lexical items from Abbi (2011).[10]

gloss Proto-Ongan Great Andamanese
head *-otab ɛr-co
hair (of head) *-ode ot-bec
eye *-ecebo < *eca-ipo er-ulu
ear *-ikwag er-buo
nose *-iɲjan-ipo er-kɔʈʰo
tooth *-akwed er-pʰile, ɸile
tongue *-adalaŋ ɑ-tɑt
mouth *-alaŋ er-pʰoŋ
hand *-ome er-ʈoŋ
foot *uge u-mɔʈo
breast *-akak er-me-tɛi
meat, flesh e-tʰomo
blood *-aceŋ e-tei
bone *daŋ e-tɔe, o-ʈɔy
person *eŋ, *əŋ (< *en)
name *-atiba liu
dog *wem(e) cɑo
fish *napo ʈɑjeo
louse *kuhi kɔemo
tree *taŋ 'tree, log' ɛʈ-ʈole 'wood'
leaf *bebe tec
flower *okw ʈɔl, ʈɔlo
water *iŋ ino
fire *tuke ɑʈ; luro
stone *uli meo
earth *bela buɑ
salt sɑre
road, path *icala ɲɔrtɔ
eat *-ita ɲɑ; iji
die *peca-me em-pʰil

The languages and their classification

Precontact and current distribution of Anamanese languages

The Andaman languages fall into two clear families,[11]

In addition, there is the unattested language

These have frequently been assumed to be related. However, the similarities between Great Andamanese and Ongan are so far mainly of a typological morphological nature, with little demonstrated common vocabulary. As a result, even long-range researchers such as Joseph Greenberg have expressed doubts as to the validity of Andamanese as a family.[12][13]

Blevins (2007) summarizes,

a relationship between Jarawa and Onge and languages of the Great Andaman group is not widely accepted. Radcliffe-Brown (1914:40) found only seven potential cognates between Onge and Bea/Jeru, and noted that the difference between Onge and the Great Andaman languages "is such that it would not be possible from consideration of the vocabulary alone to prove that they belonged to the same language stock." [...] Abbi (2006:93) is agnostic, stating that "current linguistic analysis does not, with any certainty, indicate any genetic relationship between Great Andamanese and the other two languages." The only positive evidence offered in support of this relationship is a listing of 17 word pairs as proposed cognates in Manoharan (1989:166–67). There are several problems with Manoharan's proposal [such as semantic mismatches and failing to identify loans. ...] Given evidence that shows these languages have been in contact, and the scarcity of data available at present on Great Andaman languages, there remains no persuasive evidence of a family relationship between Jarawa-Onge and the Great Andaman languages. [...] Greenberg (1971:810) is unconvinced of the relation between Great Andaman and Onge-Jarawa, agreeing with Radcliffe-Brown (1914) that "…there are very few vocabulary resemblances between this language [Onge] and those of Great Andaman and the only real point of contact is typological. … A few citations from Onge have been included in the general Indo-Pacific vocabulary, but both its special relationship to the languages of the rest of the Andamans and its assignment to Indo-Pacific must be considered highly provisional."

As alluded to in this quotation, Greenberg proposed that the Great Andamanese are related to western Papuan languages as members of a phylum he called Indo-Pacific,[12] but this is not generally accepted by other linguists. Stephen Wurm states that the lexical similarities between Great Andamanese and the West Papuan and certain languages of Timor "are quite striking and amount to virtual formal identity […] in a number of instances", but considers this to be due to a linguistic substratum rather than a direct relationship.[14] Blevins (2007) proposes that the Ongan languages are related to Austronesian in an Austronesian–Ongan family, for which she has attempted to establish regular sound correspondences.[15] The proposed connection between Austronesian and Ongan has not been supported by Austronesianists, and Robert Blust (2014) finds that Blevins' conclusions are not supported by her data: Of her first 25 reconstructions, none are reproducible using the comparative method, and Blust concludes that the grammatical comparison does not hold up. Blust, in addition, cites non-linguistic (such as cultural, archaeological, and biological) evidence against Blevins' hypothesis.[16]

See also


  1. ^ a b Abbi, Anvita (2008). "Is Great Andamanese genealogically and typologically distinct from Onge and Jarawa?" Language Sciences, doi:10.1016/j.langsci.2008.02.002
  2. ^ a b Blevins, Juliette (2007), "A Long Lost Sister of Proto-Austronesian? Proto-Ongan, Mother of Jarawa and Onge of the Andaman Islands" (PDF), Oceanic Linguistics, 46 (1): 154–198, doi:10.1353/ol.2007.0015, S2CID 143141296, archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-01-11
  3. ^ Appendix in Man, Edward Horace (1885). On the aboriginal inhabitants of the Andaman Islands. London: Royal Anthropological Institute.
  4. ^ Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1922). The Andaman Islanders: A study in social anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. ^ a b Abbi, Anvita (2006). Endangered Languages of the Andaman Islands. Germany: Lincom GmbH.
  6. ^ a b c "Burenhult, Niclas (1996). "Deep linguistic prehistory with particular reference to Andamanese." Working Papers 45, 5–24. Lund University: Department of Linguistics" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2005-04-25. Retrieved 2006-04-07.
  7. ^ Abbi, Anvita, Bidisha Som, and Alok Das (2007). "Where Have All The Speakers Gone? A Sociolinguistic Study of The Great Andamanese", Indian Linguistics 68.3–4:325–343. Archived 2021-07-19 at the Wayback Machine.
  8. ^ a b c Temple, Richard C. (1902). A Grammar of the Andamanese Languages, being Chapter IV of Part I of the Census Report on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Superintendent's Printing Press: Port Blair.
  9. ^ Abbi, Anvita (2008). Is Great Andamanese genealogically and typologically distinct from Onge and Jarawa? Language Sciences 31(6):791-812. doi:10.1016/j.langsci.2008.02.002
  10. ^ Abbi, Anvita. 2011. Dictionary of the Great Andamanese language. Port Blair: Ratna Sagar.
  11. ^ Manoharan, S. (1983). "Subgrouping Andamanese group of languages." International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics XII(1): 82–95.
  12. ^ a b Greenberg, Joseph (1971). "The Indo-Pacific hypothesis." Current trends in linguistics vol. 8, ed. by Thomas A. Sebeok, 807.71. The Hague: Mouton.
  13. ^ Andrew Pawley, 2008. An assessment of Greenberg’s Indo-Pacific hypothesis (draft)
  14. ^ Wurm, S.A. (1977: 929). New Guinea Area Languages and Language Study, Volume 1: Papuan Languages and the New Guinea Linguistic Scene. Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, Canberra.
  15. ^ Blevins, Juliette (2007), "A Long Lost Sister of Proto-Austronesian? Proto-Ongan, Mother of Jarawa and Onge of the Andaman Islands" (PDF), Oceanic Linguistics, 46 (1): 154–198, doi:10.1353/ol.2007.0015, S2CID 143141296
  16. ^ Robert Blust (2014) "Some Recent Proposals Concerning the Classification of the Austronesian Languages", Oceanic Linguistics 53:2:300–391.